MADISON — Two weeks ago, the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team reached the midway point of the Big Ten Conference regular season four games behind co-leaders Michigan and Michigan State.
The Badgers may not have been out of the title picture, but a magnifying glass was required to spot them.
Now, the outlook isn’t nearly as blurry for UW (21-5, 8-5 Big Ten), thanks to a four-game winning streak and some help from others around the conference.
The Badgers, who moved up five spots to No. 16 in the Associated Press poll on Monday, have cut their deficit to two games with five to play.
What once was considered a two-team race has tightened up considerably, and considering how unpredictable the Big Ten has been during the first seven weeks, good luck trying to figure out how the final three weeks will play out.
“I’ve never seen it like this,” said Bo Ryan, who’s in his 13th season as UW’s coach and spent eight seasons as a Badgers assistant. “So, I’m saying, who knows?”
The Badgers likely would need to win out to have a chance at the title. They’re the hottest team in the conference right now, but they’ve already found out this season how quickly momentum can disappear.
The most difficult game on UW’s schedule — at least on paper — is at No. 15 Iowa on Saturday. The Badgers also have games at Penn State and Nebraska — the Cornhuskers are 11-1 at home this season — and home games against Indiana and Purdue.
UW also needs some help — namely, Michigan (18-6, 10-3) and Michigan State (21-5, 10-3) losing two more games apiece.
The Wolverines and Spartans play on Sunday in Ann Arbor, Mich. Michigan State’s remaining schedule includes games at Purdue and Ohio State and home dates against Illinois and Iowa, while Michigan has to play at Purdue and Illinois and at home against Minnesota and Indiana.
Don’t forget the Hawkeyes (19-6, 8-5), who have less ground to make up than the Badgers. Iowa plays at Indiana tonight before hosting UW on Saturday. The Hawkeyes’ remaining schedule includes home games against Purdue and Illinois and road games at Minnesota and Michigan State.
Even if they fail to win the title, the Badgers still have plenty on the line over the final three weeks. UW still has work to do to secure the 13th consecutive season of finishing in fourth place or better in the Big Ten under Ryan. More importantly, the Badgers need to secure one of the top four seeds to avoid a first-round game in the Big Ten tournament.
Speaking of which, Michigan coach John Beilein said that event “could be a real doozy” this season because of all the parity in the league.
Road teams have won 47 percent of their games since the start of Big Ten play and 55 percent since Jan. 25. Home teams went 0-3 on Sunday, starting with UW’s 75-62 victory at Michigan and continuing a few hours later with Nebraska wrapping up a 60-51 victory at Michigan State to leave the title race up for grabs.
“It’s a great league this year,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. “Anybody can beat anybody on any given night. It’s funny because usually (it’s about) matchups and that sort of thing, but there doesn’t seem to be a matchup in this league that is dominant for whatever reason.”
Kaminsky, Hayes honored
A day after finishing with 25 points and 11 rebounds in UW’s victory over Michigan, junior center Frank Kaminsky was named the Big Ten’s co-Player of the week.
Kaminsky, who shared the honor with Nebraska sophomore guard Terran Petteway, had 17 points and six rebounds in a 78-70 victory over Minnesota earlier in the week.
Meanwhile, UW forward Nigel Hayes was named Freshman of the Week for the fourth time. Hayes, a back-to-back recipient of the award, averaged 9.5 points in two games last week. In Big Ten play, he ranks second among all players with a 56.3 field goal percentage and is second among freshmen at 10.4 points per game.