Now that the Super Bowl has come and gone, its time to turn our eyes to the beautiful game of college basketball. I’m doing my part to get familiar with this season of college hoops by writing a series of blog posts. I started yesterday with my piece on a few under the radar stars.
My second installment is on some teams that started off the conference season slowly, but are poised to finish strong. I’ll also touch on some teams who might fade in the second half of conference play.
On The Upswing?:
Indiana (18-6, 6-6)
vs North Carolina Central
vs Michigan State
First off, congrats to Tom Crean, who won his first Big Ten road game against a team other than Penn State this weekend by defeating in-state rival Purdue. It only took three and half years.
Kidding aside, Indiana has a pretty favorable schedule down the stretch. They’re done with Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin, and five of their final seven games are at home, where they have knocked off two top five teams (Kentucky and Ohio State) this season.
The Hoosiers did lose to Minnesota at home earlier this season, so their trip up to the Twin Cities will not be a cake walk. The Hoosiers are 2-5 in Big Ten road games this season, so their game against the Hawkeyes in Iowa City won’t be a gimme either. As a Badger fan who happened to be at the Kohl Center this past New Year’s Eve, I can tell you that the Hawkeyes do have some talent.
Indiana should be able to win at least five of their seven remaining games, and they have a decent chance of winning six.
Alabama (15-7, 4-4)
vs Mississippi State
After just missing out on the NCAA Tournament last season, Alabama came into this season ranked and poised for a break-out year. However, the Crimson Tide got off a slow start in conference, dropping four of their first six SEC games.
Bama has won their last two conference games to get back to .500 in SEC play, and their schedule the rest of the way is very manageable. Ken Pomeroy has the Tide (24th in his rankings) favored to win in each of their remaining eight games. They’re done with Kentucky and Vanderbilt, and only play Florida and Mississippi State at home. Their toughest road tests will be at Arkansas and Ole Miss.
Michigan (17-7, 7-4)
vs Ohio State
at Penn State
Michigan dropped four of their first five Big Ten road games, with their only win coming against Purdue (who also dropped home games to Wisconsin and Indiana). While the Wolverines still have four Big Ten road games left on their schedule, they’re all definitely winnable. Illinois will be the toughest road test, as the Illini have beaten Ohio State and Michigan State in Champaign this season. However, the Illini are a mess right now, and I’m not sure they’ll figure things out anytime soon (More on that later on). I think the Wolverines should win at least three of their final four Big Ten road games.
Michigan is undefeated at home this season, but their toughest test will come in two weeks when the rival Buckeyes come to Ann Arbor. Michigan played Ohio State tough in Columbus, and I think they’ll pull off the upset at the Crisler Center. Michigan has a good chance of entering the Big Ten Tournament having won six of their final seven games.
Pittsburgh (15-9, 4-7)
at South Florida
at Seton Hall
vs West Virginia
vs South Florida
vs St. John’s
If there’s one thing we should have learned over the last decade, it’s that you should never count out a team coached by Bo Ryan or Jamie Dixon.
After suffering through an eight game losing streak, Pitt has started to recover and may now have a chance of making the NCAA Tournament. The Panthers are on a four game win streak (including wins over Georgetown and West Virginia), and their remaining schedule is not too rough.
They’re done with Syracuse, Georgetown, Marquette, Notre Dame and Cincinnati. I could see the Panthers entering their game in Louisville on an eight game winning streak, and it’s not unreasonable to think Pitt could end the regular season by winning 11 of their final 12 games. If they do, the Panthers should be dancing once again in March.
Teams That Could Fade Down The Stretch:
Wisconsin (18-6, 7-4)
at Michigan State
vs Penn State
at Ohio State
The Badgers recovered nicely from their 1-3 start in Big Ten play by winning six straight games. If they had beaten Ohio State this weekend, they would have moved into first place in the Big Ten. Alas, they lost to the Buckeyes at the Kohl Center for the first time in the Bo Ryan era.
Things won’t get any easier for the Badgers. Four of their next five games are on the road, including tough trips to Michigan State and Ohio State. The road games against Minnesota and Iowa will not be easy either. Tubby Smith has done pretty well against the Badgers, and Iowa beat Wisconsin in Madison earlier this season.
The Badgers have already lost four times at the Kohl Center this season, so the home games against Illinois and Minnesota (two possible bubble teams) will not be gimmes.
The Badgers could easily go 2-5 or 3-4 down the stretch. But, Bo Ryan is still the head coach of Wisconsin, so he’ll probably work his magic to avoid that.
Florida (19-4, 7-1)
After losing to Tennessee in their conference opener, the Gators have racked up seven straight SEC wins. However, their seven game win streak is pretty hollow. Five of those seven wins have come in Gainesville, and just three have come against teams ranked in the top 100 of the KenPom ratings.
Florida will be tested in the coming weeks. The Gators will travel to Kentucky, Alabama, Arkansas and Vanderbilt. They also host Kentucky on the final weekend of the regular season. Five of their final eight games will be on the road. The Gators are 2-4 on the road this season, including losses to two sub-100 teams, Rutgers and Tennessee.
Illinois (16-7, 5-5)
at Ohio State
Once again, Illinois has turned a promising season into a mess. The Illini moved into first place in the Big Ten after they upset Ohio State at home on Jan. 10. Since then, Bruce Weber’s crew has lost four of five games, including losses to Penn State on the road and Northwestern at home.
The Illini will play four of their next five and five of their final eight games on the road. Illinois has currently defeated just one Big Ten team (Northwestern) on the road. Illinois still has to play four nationally ranked teams on the road (Indiana, Michigan, Ohio State and Wisconsin).
One has to believe Weber is coaching for his job right now. If Illinois misses the tournament, Weber will be squarely on the hot seat. Yes, Weber led Illinois to the National Championship game. But it was seven years ago, and it was with Bill Self’s players.
Weber has not shown an ability to recruit elite talent (in a state full of it), and he also has not shown the ability to develop talent. Many of his players (Demetri McCamey, Mike Davis, Shaun Pruitt included) have regressed over their time in Champaign.
When Weber took over the program, Illinois was one of the top teams in the country year after year. Now, the Illini are muddled in mediocrity.
Minnesota (17-7, 5-6)
vs Ohio State
vs Michigan State
First, the good news: Five of Minnesota’s final seven games will be at home. The bad news: Four of those five games will be played against nationally ranked teams (Wisconsin, Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan), and Trever Mbakwe is still out for the year due to injury.
If the Gophers are to make the NCAA Tournament, they’ll probably need to beat Nebraska at home, Northwestern on the road and win two of their four tough home games (most likely against Wisconsin and Michigan). If they do that, they’ll finish the regular season 21-10 overall and 9-9 in conference. They might be able to sneak in at 20-11 and 8-10.