For a conference that is having a “down year,” we’re in for a pretty exciting finish in the Big Ten. After the Badgers’ hard-to-watch-because-there-were-48-fouls-called victory over Maryland this past Sunday (There was a combined SIXTY free throws shot, very worthy of a Monday Night Football “C’mon Man!”), Purdue is up a half game in conference via an OT win over Penn State Tuesday night. It may not be the most exciting year in the conference, but it’s the Big Ten–something wild is bound to go down as the regular season comes to a close. After that, we’ve arrived at the most wonderful time of the sporting year. Let’s take a look at some of the biggest storylines down the stretch.

Michigan State: Eron Harris’s Knee

The Spartans have had nothing short of an absolutely brutal year. From their out-of-conference schedule to Gavin Schilling’s injury, it looked improbable that this team would find itself in the dance. Now while the odds still are not great, Bracketologist Joe Lunardi currently has them as a #10 seed, and they are sitting tied for fifth in the Big Ten. The tiny green arrow may have been pointing up, until this team visited West Lafayette on Saturday. The loss of Eron Harris’s senior leadership and 10.7 PPG will be too much for the Spartans to overcome, and though not for certain, there’s a good chance that Michigan State will miss their first NCAA tournament since 1997.

Northwestern: The Year of the Wildcat

It looks as though, barring a major collapse, that the Northwestern Wildcats will be headed to their first NCAA tournament in the history of the program. And although they beat did the Badgers, congratulations is in order to a great team. However, they must be weary that there are still three games left in the regular season, and they’ve now lost four out of their last six. Last night’s loss to Illinois – their second of the year – was especially ugly. Lunardi has them safely in at the eight spot right now, but a continued losing streak could move them closer and closer to the bubble. Depending on the matchup, I’d be happy to pick the Wildcats as one of my upsets–led by Scottie Lindsey and Bryant McIntosh, this team will go into March ready to represent their school proudly in its first dance.

Purdue and Wisconsin: Biggie vs. Happ

The race for Big Ten Player of the Year is likely down to Ethan Happ of Wisconsin and Caleb Swanigan of Purdue, and it’s a doozy. Two players, clearly the leaders of their teams, tied atop the standings–could you ask for anything better? And the best part about it is that both players bring an argument to the table for why they should be crowned the Big Ten’s best player. Swanigan has 23 double-doubles, which leads the nation, and is the most by a Big Ten player in the last 20 years. Considering they’ve only played 27 games, it’s safe to call this man a walking double-double. On the other side of the equation, Happ leads the Badgers in every major category–points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks–he literally does everything for this team. With Koenig dealing with his leg injury and Hayes struggling to find his groove (hopefully the game against Maryland was just what Hayes needed to spark his game back to regular form), Happ has been the heart, mind, and soul of Wisconsin. As of right now, the edge goes to Swanigan, but if Happ continues to carry this team down the stretch, it wouldn’t be shocking if he snatched the award from Biggie.

Biggest games remaining

Purdue at Michigan – February 25th, 3 p.m. CT, ESPN2

This is a game Purdue should win–they are simply the much better all-around team. But the Wolverines will be fighting for their tournament lives, and with only three home losses on the season, look for the crowd to crank up the volume when the Wolverines visit Ann Arbor.

Wisconsin at Michigan State – February 26th, 3 p.m. CT, CBS

These two teams have battled back and forth in the Big Ten for years, and while this game doesn’t have the implications of past years, don’t count out the Green and White when the Badgers come to town. The Breslin Center will be rockin’, and even without Harris and Schilling, the Spartans have the capability of taking down a Wisconsin team that has lost four of its five games away from the Kohl Center.

Minnesota at Wisconsin – March 5th, 5 p.m., BTN

The Gophers were dead in the water not five games ago. They had lost 5 games in a row, and were sitting at an abysmal 3-6 in the Big Ten standings. But the beauty of basketball is it’s a game of runs–you can win five just as easily as you can lose five, and find yourself right back in fifth place. The Gophers won’t have great chances in Madison, especially on Senior Day, but if Minnesota is fighting for its tournament life, watch out, Grateful Red.