Tipoff: Indiana at Minnesota, 7 p.m. Tuesday
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The Indiana Hoosiers have the Big Ten basketball race in a headlock. They have, in essence, a two-game lead and contenders on the verge of submission.
Or do they?
If you know anything about college basketball in general, the Big Ten in particular, today’s strong position becomes tomorrow’s vulnerability.
Still, IU is on the cusp of its first conference title since 2002, its 19th overall, and even in this era of NCAA tourney obsession, that matters.
The Hoosiers are 12-2 in Big Ten play, 24-3 overall. They are the nation’s No. 1 team and, if the season ended today, the No. 1 of all the No. 1 NCAA tourney seeds.
There are three main conference contenders -- Michigan State (11-4), Wisconsin (10-4) and Michigan (10-4). Ohio State (10-5) has a chance only if the others collapse.
Yes, life is good for the Cream ‘n Crimson faithful, unless you’re prone to worry about disasters that could happen -- like a sprained Victor Oladipo ankle, or other injuries to key players or a return to the inexplicable form of the Illinois loss or that February’s peak becomes March’s swoon.
Well, take a deep breath and focus on these facts.
IU plays at struggling Minnesota (18-9, 6-8) on Tuesday. It hosts Iowa (17-10, 6-8) on Saturday and Ohio State (20-7) on March 5. It ends the regular season at Michigan (23-4) on March 10.
The Hoosiers figure to win their home games, so a split on the road clinches a Big Ten title and the No. 1 seed in the conference tourney in Chicago. If that happens, and they at least reach the semifinals of the Big Ten tourney, they’re a lock for a No. 1 NCAA tourney seed and opening round action at either Dayton or Lexington.
Ohio State beat Michigan State on Sunday and the Spartans, in a first-place tie with IU a week ago, are in a two-game fade.
Michigan is newest old threat if you don’t count Wisconsin, which has the tiebreaker edge on the Hoosiers if they stumble down the stretch.
The Wolverines beat Illinois on Sunday for a two-game winning streak that made up for their previous two game losing skid.
Wisconsin, meanwhile, does what it always does under coach Bo Ryan -- it finds a way to contend no matter its flaws. The Badgers also have won two straight and are poised to win at least three of their final four games, perhaps even all four if they can win at Michigan State
In terms of closing schedules, Michigan State must play at Michigan, then host Wisconsin and Northwestern.
Michigan hosts Michigan State and Indiana, plays at Penn State and at Purdue.
Wisconsin hosts Nebraska and Purdue, plays at Michigan State and at Penn State.
Ohio State hosts Northwestern and Illinois, plays at Indiana.
Those are the facts. Here is the perspective.
The Hoosiers have been dominant since blowing the Illinois game a couple of weeks ago. They manhandled Ohio State in Columbus, and then Nebraska and Purdue at Assembly Hall, before showing tough-minded resiliency in winning at Michigan State.
That’s why coach Tom Crean has said, “We have a tough, aggressive team that has a strong mindset.”
IU has been steeled by Crean’s brutal first three sanction-marred years, and this season’s losses to Butler, Wisconsin and Illinois that all called into question, in some form or another, by some at least, the worthiness of Crean and the Hoosiers despite evidence to the contrary.
But that questioning had a silver lining. Motivation, after all, is a wonderful thing, and if you’ve seen IU play lately, you know how motivated it is.
So here’s the bottom line -- if Indiana beats Minnesota, it wins the Big Ten.
Yes, it’s that simple.