As a conference season nears the finish line, the number of storylines involved mounts exponentially. This is especially the case in a crowded Big Ten, where the losers are gaining as much publicity as the winners.
Northwestern, still the only power-conference team without a single NCAA Tournament appearance, fell short at Indiana on Wednesday in a razor-close game, the very kind of game that has never broken the Wildcats' way in the late-February/early-March chase for a precious Big Dance invite. The Wildcats were powered by 29 points from star forward John Shurna, but Indiana turned back the 'Cats thanks to 23 points on 9-of-11 shooting from star post player Cody Zeller.
Staying with programs from the state of Illinois, the Illinois Fighting Illini are now in deeper trouble as they attempt to snag an NCAA berth. Correction - they're just about done and dusted. The Orange Crush fell at home to Purdue on Wednesday night, giving the Boilermakers a season sweep of the Illini and a very likely tournament ticket in their own right. After the game, embattled Illinois coach Bruce Weber, seeing the writing on the wall, made several very candid statements about his failures on the bench. His acknowledgments of his own shortcomings basically served as a resignation speech before the fact. Illinois will have a new head coach in the offseason; that's a guarantee, not just a mere likelihood. When Illinois then got crushed by Nebraska on Saturday, the Illini's fate was all but sealed. They'll be going to the NIT this season.
Minnesota lost ground in its chase for an NCAA bid by getting drilled at home by Ohio State and then losing at Northwestern. While transfers Royce White (Iowa State) and Devoe Joseph (Oregon) flourish at other programs and forward Trevor Mbakwe sits out the year with an injury, Minnesota head coach Tubby Smith is left to wonder when he'll ever keep his best players in the program and on the floor in good health. The run of bad luck Smith has encountered in Minneapolis is nothing short of astounding.
Meanwhile, what about the winners? Michigan State whacked Wisconsin on Thursday to affirm its place at the top of the Big Ten, flashing the kind of defense that has made the Spartans an annual Final Four threat. Then, on Saturday night in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the homestanding Wolverines came up huge, upsetting the Ohio State Buckeyes to move within one game of Michigan State in the league standings. Michigan's 1-3-1 zone defense confounded the Buckeyes' guard and prevented OSU from getting the ball movement it needed. Michigan is now in a three-team race for the Big Ten title, but Michigan State is the team that holds the cards at the moment.