January 18, 2013

Borton's Blog: Out on the limb

Michigan's huge road win over Minnesota answered every question the Wolverines generated in their first-half meltdown in Columbus. Furthermore, it launched John Beilein's team on the road to solid contention for a Big Ten title.

Not that they couldn't have been there even with a loss at Williams Arena, AKA The Barn. But the statement game U-M put together - with an emphasis on a strong beginning, toughness and tenacity throughout, and the ability to finish - pours more rocket fuel into both the confidence level and the projections.

Start with the mindset of being 10 down, rather than even? Check.

Have your best players perform at an extremely high level? Check.

Stay strong against an athletic, physical foe? Check.

Get temporarily shut-down shooters back in the ball game? Check.

Prove that you can finish in a raucous, loud, referee-influencing environment? Check.

So the win simply can't be downplayed. Now, with a full week between games, it's a decent time for a quick Big Ten review, especially pertaining to scheduling.

At this point, there are six contenders that have a shot to at least share the Big Ten championship (Purdue and Illinois fans, don't write or call. Your chances are as illusory as a dead-but-not-really girlfriend).

It's Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, Minnesota, Ohio State and Michigan State, quite possibly in that order. That outlook is built in part on how the teams have performed to this point, the early Big Ten records, who they've played and certainly who they are going to play.

We're breaking it down like this: possible losses the rest of the way, and likely losses. Now, folks will jump up with the indignation of Jack Swarbrick defending non-ghost stories to insist any Big Ten game is a possible loss. They're right, of course. Look at Nebraska almost winning at Michigan State, and Penn State hanging in against the Spartans while two of Tom Izzo's fierce fighters sat in timeout.

But it's safe to say most games against the Cornhuskers and Nittany Lions, and home battles against other bottom feeders, are fairly safe bets.

The "likely losses" category requires a higher standard of probability. Those generally involve a road contest in a traditionally tough venue against an opponent performing at a high level this season. That sort of thinking, admittedly, gets thrown into disarray when Wisconsin wins at Indiana, furthering the notion of unpredictability.

Anyway, here's the breakdown…

Michigan (4-1) -- Possible losses: eight. Likely losses: two.

The Wolverines should be able to hold serve on their home court, although last year's Purdue game showed there are no guarantees. Also, some will raise an eyebrow over games at Illinois and Michigan State not being categorized as likely losses - but they shouldn't be, because we said so.

Likely losses: At Indiana, at Wisconsin.

Wisconsin (4-0) -- Possible losses: nine. Likely losses: three.

The Badgers shocked everyone by taking down the Hoosiers and 18,000 self-appointed officials at Assembly Hall. Just a good reminder that Bo Ryan knows how to make it happen even in a year when folks think he won't. At the same time, this team is more likely to slip up a time or two in a "possible" loss, simply because it lacks the talent of some contenders.

Likely losses: At Ohio State, at Minnesota, at Michigan State.

Indiana (3-1) -- Possible losses: eight. Likely losses: four.

The Hoosiers are still reeling from the Bo backhand at home, but they still have more than enough firepower to take it down to the final weekend in Crisler Center. They don't have an easy road, though, in terms of schedule.

Likely losses: At Ohio State, at Michigan State, at Minnesota, at Michigan.

Minnesota (3-2) -- Possible losses: nine. Likely losses: three.

There's no shame in losing at Indiana. But dropping one at home early reveals some cracks in the armor, and don't forget, the Gophers almost lost to Michigan State in their own building. Tubby Smith's team deserves some of the respect it's getting, but talk of being the Big Ten's best was premature.

Likely losses: At Wisconsin, at Michigan State, at Ohio State.

Ohio State (3-1) -- Possible losses: 10. Likely losses: four.

The Buckeyes play extremely strong defense at home, where the hordes are ready to descend when assault isn't allowed. But watch closely to see if they're allowed to play as much clutch and grab on the road.

Likely losses: At Michigan State, at Michigan, at Wisconsin, at Indiana.

Michigan State (4-1) -- Possible losses: 12. Likely losses: four.

This isn't a vintage Izzo team in terms of talent and well-rounded performance. That doesn't mean it can't compete, but it has demonstrated so far that it has a longer road to travel than the rest of the contenders in getting to where it wants to go.

Likely losses: At Wisconsin, at Indiana, at Ohio State, at Michigan.

To sum up, if the likely losses and no-other-slipups scenario played out (and that's as likely as a genuine feel-good story coming out of South Bend), the final Big Ten standings for the 2012-13 "haves" would look like this:

Michigan 15-3
Wisconsin 15-3
Indiana 13-5
Minnesota 13-5
Ohio State 13-5
Michigan State 13-5

Clip and save, for future derisive commentary.

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