Wisconsin's 67-59 victory over Iowa on Wednesday continued the trend toward unpredictability in the Big Ten this season. In some ways the Badgers winning will help Maryland down the stretch. In others, it keeps a different part of the race tight. Allow for some explanation.
The most obvious way it helps is simply wins and losses on a resume. Iowa losing to Wisconsin does not greatly change how the nation views the Hawkeyes, but Wisconsin beating Iowa gives a real indication that the Badgers are coming together under interim head coach Greg Gard and are worthy of an NCAA tournament berth.
Maryland's road win over Wisconsin now looks better and its home loss to Wisconsin does not look quite as bad. The value of the Terrapins' win over Iowa is largely unchanged. How else does it help?
Just about a week ago, it appeared Iowa had the most favorable path to a Big Ten regular-season title. Now after back-to-back losses to Penn State on the road and Wisconsin at home, the conference is still mainly a three-team race.
Iowa, following those losses, stands at 11-4 in the Big Ten with Ohio State and Michigan remaining on the road and Indiana at home. Indiana is 12-3 with Illinois and Iowa on the road and Maryland at home remaining. Maryland is 11-4 with Purdue and Indiana remaining on the road and Illinois at home.
Maryland could win out and finish with a 14-4 record. If that were to happen then that could put Indiana -- at best -- at 14-4 as well because Maryland winning out would have to include a Hoosier loss. Iowa has the opportunity just like Indiana or Maryland to win out and finish 14-4 and that would require beating the Hoosiers.
But there is another way to look at this where Wisconsin's win over Iowa actually does Maryland no favors.
Of course the aim is to win a share of the conference title, but another pressing goal for Maryland is to finish among the conference's top four teams and secure a double bye in the conference tournament. Yes, winning out takes care of that. But if Maryland were to drop another game or especially two, Wisconsin being on the upswing makes this race tougher.
Why is it so key to get a Top 4 seed in the Big Ten tournament?
The Terrapins face Indiana to finish the regular season on March 6. A double bye would mean not having to play until March 11, as opposed to the previous round on March 10. But more than that, a double bye eliminates the need to play another game and beyond that eliminates the possibility of taking a bad loss to a pesky team like Northwestern or Penn State -- teams hovering around the 12-seed in the Big Ten that a, say, No. 5 seed could face.
It should be clear by now that almost anyone can beat anyone else in this conference on a given night. Maryland has already found that out the hard way.
In that pursuit of a double bye, now entering the conversation are the surging Badgers (10-5) and Tom Izzo's Michigan State Spartans (10-5) to add to the three above-mentioned teams who are already vying for a conference title. That's before mentioning six-loss Michigan, Ohio State, and Purdue.
Had the Badgers lost to Iowa, it would have opened up some breathing room in the Top 4 conversation for Maryland (11-4). The more teams in the mix, the more your own losses make you sweat. A Hawkeye win would have put the Badgers at six conference losses and another step back in the race.
Instead, Maryland gets the aforementioned benefits of a Wisconsin win but now has to know that winning its final three games is the surest path forward in the crowded race for a Top 4 seed.