ANN ARBOR, Mich. - With about half of the Big Ten regular season schedule in the books, Michigan and Michigan State are still the clear front-runners to win the conference title.
For the first two months of the season, Michigan was the story, starting the season on a school record 17-game winning streak. Since Big Ten play resumed, though, Michigan State has been getting most of the national attention.
But as the debate between the two rages into February, one thing is clear: both teams appear ready to duke it out through the final six weeks of the regular season.
The two Michigan schools have created a bit of separation from the rest of the Big Ten, but there are three teams still alive for title contention.
Purdue is currently in third place and the only team with two conference losses. The Boilermakers have rebounded from a 6-5 start to the season to rip off eight wins in nine games. Unfortunately for Purdue, it went 1-2 combined in its games against Michigan and Michigan State, so it won't have any tiebreakers if it comes down to that.
A week ago, Maryland looked like the obvious No. 3 team in the conference after winning seven straight games and starting 6-1 in the Big Ten. The Terps took a nosedive last week, though, losing to Michigan State and Illinois -- the 13th-place team in the Big Ten.
Wisconsin also has a chance, sitting at 6-3 with a win over Michigan. It still has to make a return trip to Ann Arbor and then host Michigan State, so that back-to-back will determine whether the Badgers stay in the mix.
Beyond the top five, no Big Ten team has fewer than three losses. Minnesota has four losses, Iowa and Ohio State have five and the rest have at least six. All nine of those teams are basically out of contention for the regular-season conference title.
Where Michigan, MSU currently stand
Right now, Michigan State holds a half-game lead over Michigan in the Big Ten standings, but what's important is that both teams are tied in the loss column.
Michigan's only loss came Jan. 19 at Wisconsin. Michigan State lost Sunday at Purdue.
Both losses are entirely forgivable, especially since they came in the heart of a grueling Big Ten schedule. Michigan's loss came to the No. 11 team in Kenpom, while MSU's loss came to No. 7.
The Wolverines have played a much easier Big Ten schedule so far, with six of nine games coming against teams with at least six conference losses. Michigan State has played four such games, but one came at Nebraska, which is a difficult road test.
Michigan has played two games against the top five teams in the conference, beating Purdue and losing at Wisconsin. Michigan State split with Purdue and took care of Maryland at home.
The two teams won't meet on the court until Feb. 24 in Ann Arbor. The rematch will come two weekends later, on March 9 in East Lansing.
Michigan's remaining schedule
The final 11 games for Michigan begin with a tricky home test against rival Ohio State, which snapped a five-game losing streak over the weekend with a surprising win at Nebraska.
Michigan is in for a difficult final six weeks, playing five games against the top five teams in the conference, including two in a row on the road to finish the season. It also has a pair of difficult road games against Iowa and Minnesota.
The only two games remaining against non-NCAA Tournament teams will both come on the road, so Michigan doesn't have a single easy win left on its schedule.
In the final 13 days of the regular season, Michigan will play Michigan State twice, travel to Maryland and host Nebraska. No team has a tougher four-game stretch in Big Ten play.
Michigan State's remaining schedule
After a grueling January that saw Michigan State play Purdue twice and take road trips to Ohio State, Nebraska and Iowa, February will be much more manageable.
Other than a road game Feb. 12 at Wisconsin, the Spartans shouldn't have much trouble navigating the next six games. They get Indiana, Minnesota, Ohio State and Rutgers at home while taking a trip to Illinois. Those are five of the worst six teams in the Big Ten, according to Kenpom.
The final four games for Michigan State will be similar to Michigan's stretch. The Spartans will play two games against Michigan and host Nebraska, but the difference is a road game at Indiana instead of at Maryland.
Michigan State only has three truly difficult games remaining: the matchups with Michigan and the road test at Wisconsin. There are a few chances to slip up in between, but the MSU team that's been blowing out most of the conference shouldn't have much trouble.
The two teams might be tied in the loss column, but as of today, Michigan State appears to have the edge in the Big Ten title race.
MSU has risen to No. 3 in the Kenpom rankings, and there's a sizeable gap between it and No. 6 Michigan. The Spartans have the No. 7 offense and No. 6 defense in the country, according to adjusted efficiency, while Michigan is a bit more one-dimensional with the No. 2 defense and No. 26 offense.
The schedule also sets up nicely for Michigan State going forward. Most of its most difficult games, other than the matchups with Michigan, are in the rearview mirror. Michigan, on the other hand, plays six of its final 10 games on the road and nine of its last 11 against NCAA Tournament-caliber teams.
The head-to-head meetings will decide the Big Ten, but if the teams split those games, it will be the next four weeks that determine the conference crown.
It's looked like a Michigan vs. Michigan State battle since November, and two-third of the way through the regular season, that hasn't changed.
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