Latest look at the week ahead in men's basketball

Another week, another slate of big games in the Big Ten, which has five Top 25 teams this week: No. 2 Michigan; No. 7 Indiana; No. 12 Minnesota; No. 13 Michigan State; No. 14 Ohio State. Illinois dropped out, while Wisconsin looked poised to join the ranks of the ranked after winning at Indiana on Tuesday but then lost at Iowa on Saturday.

This week’s menu isn’t loaded with huge games, but several schools have a shot to impress, led by Michigan State and Wisconsin. Let’s draw up the week ahead on my Big Ten Whiteboard.

Game of the week: Michigan State at Indiana, Sunday. Each team already has a Big Ten loss, but the Hoosiers’ came at home to Wisconsin while the Spartans lost at Minnesota. That makes it critical for Indiana to find a way to protect its home turf, as it likely can’t afford another stumble in Assembly Hall if it wants to win the Big Ten.

[RELATED: Send Tom Dienhart your Big Ten football and basketball questions. ]

The Spartans will try to get physical, always rebounding with ferocity and playing rugged defense. Indiana will need big games from Christian Watford and Victor Oladipo. But in the end, this tilt may be decided by the point guards: Keith Appling/Travis Trice vs. Jordy Hulls/Yogi Ferrell. Keep an eye on the Hoosiers’ bench. In the past three games, it has scored a combined 11 points.

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Don’t overlook this game: Minnesota at Wisconsin, Saturday. The Golden Gophers need to get back on track after a tough week, when they lost at Indiana and at home to Michigan. Slow starts were issues in each defeat. Getting a win at the Kohl Center will be difficult, especially when Wisconsin is shooting well and controlling the pace. (The Badgers are 86-9 at home under Bo Ryan.) Minnesota must excel in transition, getting as many easy points as it can before the Badgers can set up their suffocating half-court defense.

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Indiana Stats
Player G MIN RPG APG PPG
C. Zeller 18 518 8.2 1.2 17.2
V. Oladipo 18 483 5.9 2.3 13.2
C. Watford 18 472 6.6 0.9 12.8
J. Hulls 18 511 2.7 3.5 11.4
W. Sheehey 18 396 3.9 1.1 10.4

Individual matchup to watch: Can’t wait to watch Indiana big man Cody Zeller bang with Michigan State twin towers Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix on Sunday in Bloomington. These are three of the top big men not just in the Big Ten—but in the nation.

Zeller and Payne are athletic anomalies who can run the floor with aplomb, shoot and finish at the rim. Payne has been on fire, averaging 14.5 points in the last four games. The 270-pound Nix is a physical force in the paint who is a matchup nightmare for most any pivot man. Zeller is gonna need some help. Are you listening, Christian Watford?

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Must win: An Illinois loss at Nebraska on Tuesday would be devastating. (It was the scene of an 80-57 Illini loss last year that epitomized the team’s season-ending flop.) And, this is an improving and confident Huskers team coming off its first Big Ten triumph, a win at Penn State on Saturday. Still, Nebraska struggles more than any other Big Ten to score. If the leaky Illinois defense can’t contain this offense … Illinois is slumbering.

[ENTER TO WIN: The Buffalo Wild Wings Trip to the Tournament Sweepstakes. ]

After a 12-0 start, the Fighting Illini have gone 2-5 and lost three in succession. The team is in free fell as it struggles to play defense. Shot selection, an overreliance on the three-pointer and lack on interior scoring all have been issues during the Illini’s decline. Illinois was shooting 40.7 percent on three-pointers through its first 10 games; it’s hitting 24.5 percent over its past nine tilts. Now, despite quality wins over the likes of Gonzaga and Butler, Illinois seems to be squarely on the NCAA bubble—and sliding.

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Big week: Michigan State and Wisconsin each have big weeks that will go a long way in determining if they will be Big Ten contenders. The week begins for each with a game between them on Tuesday in Madison. Last year’s meeting at Wisconsin was a wild one, with the Spartans escaping with an overtime win after a game-tying shot by the Badgers was waved off. Over the weekend, Minnesota plays at Wisconsin on Saturday, while the Spartans play at Indiana on Sunday.

Check out this tidbit about Michigan State: In the last three minutes of Big Ten games, the Spartans are shooting 54.2 percent (13-of-24) from the field and 88.9 percent (24-of-27) on free throws. That’s clutch and could prove to be huge for Michigan State during its big week.

About Tom Dienhart BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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Ben24 on 1/22/2013 @ 1:53pm EST Said:

Indianas loss came from Wisconsin. Just sayin.

    BTN.com staff on 1/22/2013 @ 2:23pm EST Said:

    Our editors missed this. We’ve made a correction to the story above. Indiana’s only loss to date was against Wisconsin. Our apologies for the error.