Tom Dienhart, Senior Writer, January 23, 2017

The Big Ten race is gaining a sharper focus, with Maryland Wisconsin moving out ahead of the pack. But keep an eye on Purdue and Northwestern-yes, Northwestern, which looks primed to earn its first NCAA bid. And Indiana looks like it?s finding its stride, too.


Here is a look at Week 5 of Big Ten play.

Game of the week: Purdue at Michigan State, Tuesday. The Boilermakers can look like the best team in the Big Ten on occasion. And, they certainly did last week in smashing Illinois and Penn State in Mackey Arena. But to be a Big Ten champ, you have to win some tough road games. So far, Purdue hasn?t. A win in East Lansing would do wonders for Purdue?s championship dreams and confidence. But the Boilers will face a desperate Spartan team that has lost three of its last four. The roof should come off the Breslin Center for this game. Making the game even bigger: One-time Michigan State commit and early Big Ten Player of the Year candidate Caleb Swanigan is making his first visit to East Lansing.

Don?t overlook this game: Maryland at Minnesota, Saturday. There are few more difficult venues to play in the Big Ten than Williams Arena. Yes, Minnesota has lost three in a row, but the Golden Gophers have been one of the more pleasant surprises in the league, led by point man Nate Mason and star freshman Amir Coffey. They lost an overtime crusher to Wisconsin on Saturday the last time the Gophers played at home. The Terrapins have been a surprise, too, emerging as perhaps the best team in the Big Ten. Maryland is tied for first with Wisconsin with a 5-1 Big Ten mark as the week dawns. Credit guard Melo Trimble and a trio of top freshmen in Justin Jackson, Kevin Huerter and Anthony Cowan. Maryland enters the week having won four in succession and is 3-0 on the road in the Big Ten.

Must win: Minnesota at Ohio State, Wednesday. One could make the case this is a must-win for both teams, and it most certainly is. But it maybe even bigger for Minnesota, which has lost three in a row since it debuted in the AP poll for the first time since 2013. The Gophers are talented and have played with the Big Ten's elite (won at Purdue, lost in overtime vs. Wisconsin), but co-Big Ten leader Maryland comes calling Saturday, which means the skid could reach five games if they lose in Columbus.

Best individual matchup: It will be fun to watch Northwestern?s Scottie Lindsey and Nebraska?s Tai Webster on Thursday in Evanston. Both Lindsey and Webster are among the most improved and underrated players in the Big Ten. Lindsey paces NU with a 15.8-scoring average; last year, he averaged 6.4. Webster leads the Cornhuskers with an 18.1-scoring average; last year, he averaged 10.1. The Wildcats won earlier this season in Lincoln.

Upset alert: Penn State at Wisconsin, Tuesday. The Badgers are in first place and have won three in a row, but it needs to be careful here. This is a tough Nittany Lions team that has nothing to lose. And it?s also the most talented team that Pat Chambers has brought to the Kohl Center, led by a trio of good freshmen from Philadelphia in Lamar Stevens, Mike Watkins and Tony Carr. The Lions have lost two in a row, so they will have a sense of urgency.

Big week: Purdue. This may be the week that makes or breaks the Big Ten title hopes for the Boilermakers, who are coming off impressive home victories vs. Illinois and Penn State. The Boilermakers are at Michigan State on Tuesday and at Nebraska on Sunday. Each Purdue foe will be hungry and angry, as the Spartans have lost three of four and the Cornhuskers have dropped four in a row. Purdue probably will need a split of those two junkets to remain a serious Big Ten contender. A home overtime loss to Minnesota and defeat at Iowa have put the pressure on the Boilermakers and reduced their wiggle room.

This week?s games

Rutgers at Maryland
Penn State at Wisconsin
Purdue at Michigan State

Minnesota at Ohio State
Iowa at Illinois

Nebraska at Northwestern
Indiana at Michigan

Wisconsin at Rutgers
Illinois at Penn State
Maryland at Minnesota
Ohio State at Iowa

Michigan at Michigan State
Indiana at Northwestern
Purdue at Nebraska


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