Boiler Up. Sparty cloudy. And lots of struggles in Big Ten.

``How’s it going?’’ may not be a completely loaded question in Big Ten basketball this season.

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But be prepared to duck.

Thanks in part to a combined record of 9-23 against the ACC (6-14), Big 12 (1-5) and SEC (2-4), the Big Ten is ranked sixth among the nation’s conferences.

Only four teams—Purdue, Michigan State, Ohio State and Michigan—are tracking for the NCAA tournament. In the super-sized 14-team Big Ten, that’s not what you’d call a Big Gulp.

That said, Purdue and Michigan State both have teams capable of reaching the Final Four without shocking anybody. Which would be a bit of irony after the Big Ten got shut out of the football Final Four.

And the Big Ten has lots of teams with excuses. Some of them are even good. . . excuses.

Purdue has a really solid all-around team. The Boilermakers are third in the nation in three-point shooting (43.2 percent) and they have, in 7-2 senior Isaac Haas, ``an aircraft carrier.’’

That Al McGuire phrase seems especially appropriate because the Boilermakers are hoping to make their first Final Four appearance since 1980, when McGuire was in his TV-commentator heyday after taking Marquette to the 1977 national championship.

That would remove a major monkey off of Boilermaker Pete’s back. Both Matt Painter and his mentor/predecessor, Gene Keady, have had their share of Final-Four-worthy teams, and never gotten there.

Keady is in the discussion for Ernie Banks of college basketball: The best who never made it to the biggest stage.

How long ago was 1980? Lee Rose, who apparently was sick of the physical Big Ten and Midwestern winters, left Purdue after that season to go to South Florida, where he was never to be heard from again.

How long ago was 1980? The Boilermakers beat Iowa at the Final Four—in the third-place game. Three years later, Iowa coach Lute Olson pulled a Lee Rose, leaving the tundra of Iowa for sunny Arizona. At least that worked out better for Lute.

For all the excitement about Putdue’s chance to end its Final Four, another streak appears unhappily on a collision course to end.

Barring a miracle, Wisconsin’s string of 19 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances will come to an end. And yes, for this team to win the Big Ten tournament, its only NCAA shot, would require a miracle.

As an alum who saw zero NCAA appearances by the Badgers in the first 40 years of his life, I have this season in perspective.[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]

Wisconsin graduated four major seniors, and has had so many brutal injuries this year that its best freshman, guard Brad Davison, is playing with his left shoulder in a sleeve. Mike Ditka did that one year with the Bears and caught a lot of passes—before he starting selling more products than Amazon.

But the shoulder thing is not good in college basketball. With other teams, they show highlights. With the Badgers, they show all the injured guys sitting on the bench in warmup suits.

At any rate, Wisconsin will be back. I remain solidly on the Greg Gard bandwagon. Just don’t ask him how it’s going this year.

Ohio State, which qualifies as the league’s most pleasant surprise, has been re-energized by former Butler coach Chris Holtmann, who replaced a worn-down Thad Matta, another former Butler guy.

With Keita Bates-Diop in the hunt for Big Ten player of the year and All-America honors, the Buckeyes have a genuine star. And the guys around him are doing their jobs.

I’d like to call him ``Red’’ Holtmann, an homage to Red Holzman, who famously coached the New York Knicks to a pair of NBA championships. But that’s just a little too long ago, even for me. And he probably needs to do a little more.

Michigan State is living up to its billing as a very serious national-championship contender. The problem is, while Purdue has a monkey on its back, the Spartans have an elephant in the room. The scandal troubles that have spread from the evil gymnastics doctor to allegations involving Michigan State football and men’s basketball leave us wondering if Tom Izzo and his players can deal with the noise and speculation, which seem certain to get louder.

Miles Bridges is an all-around star, also worthy of the highest honors at the Big Ten and national levels. But the Spartans, who already have needed to overcome double-digit deficits against Maryland and Penn State, and coach Izzo are under a lot of stress. And March is a stressful enough time without a potentially toxic distraction.

And then there’s Northwestern. With all but one rotation player back from their heart-warming first-ever NCAA bid, the Wildcats seemed poised for a second straight Big Dance.

That’s looking extremely remote now—as in, `win the Big Ten tournament’ remote.

What happened? Seems like the Cats were among the people who started making assumptions. It’s natural. Everyone, including NU’s unabashed national-media alums, was violating an Evanston ordinance by dancing in the streets.

Playing this season in Rosemont—even DePaul wanted out of there—while their home court, formerly known as McGaw Hall, is being gut-rehabbed into a purple palace hasn’t helped matters. Losing early to Creighton (at ``home’’), to Texas Tech (an utter blowout) and at Georgia Tech (a one-point heartbreaker) got them off to a bad start that put pressure on a team that was used to being Cinderella.

And yeah, they miss Sanjay Lumpkin. . . But do you really want to go there? I’m guessing that Bryant McIntosh, Vic Law, Scottie Lindsey, Gavin Skully and the rest of Chris Collins’ gang don’t.

No disrespect intended, but here's a strange indicator that the Big Ten is down: Nebraskaand Penn Stateare up.

Let's give the Cornhuskers a lot of credit for getting off to an 8-4 conference start, including a sweep of Wisconsin. But with the Badgers struggling, those wins aren't the RPI-builders they would have been in the previous 19 years. And Nebraska needs to stay very hot if it's going to sneak into the NCAA tournament.

And kudos to the young Nittany Lions for their respectable 6-6 league start. There seem to be a lot of ingredients in place in State College. But Penn State will need to prove it can overcome its hoops trend by finally delivering.

Quick now. Can you name the team that was ranked 12th in the nation in early December, only to plummet to 10th in its conference by early February?

If you said Minnesota, you said it all. Injuries (notably guard Amir Coffey, shoulder) and a suspension (center Reggie Lynch, sexual misconduct investigation) contributed to the lackluster play that saw the Gophers go from golden to tarnished. They lost seven of eight to fall into a tie for 10th place in the Big Ten.

On the bright side, the NFL brought the Super Bowl to the Twin Cities, so nobody’s really noticing Gophers basketball.

Injuries also have messed with the season of Maryland, which has endured some wrenching second-half collapses after putting itself in position to win. I still recommend tuning in the Terps, though, just to see Kevin Huerter shoot the ball—and do all the little things. The guy has a little Larry Bird in him.

What can you say about Illinois, Indiana and Iowa after you’ve said, `I-I-I?’

Brad Underwood has the Illini playing hard and has some promising young perimeter players—how about that Trent Frazier?—but needs more troops, especially tall ones. Illinois has done an excellent job of coming close this year. But when that keeps happening, it’s a pattern, not tough luck.

I believe Archie Miller will do well at Indiana, which still has the tradition to recruit on a very high level. But despite this year’s decline, the Big Ten remains a competitive league. Miller will need some time.

Led by three sophomores and a freshman, Iowa is young and will get older. . . and maybe even better.

As for Rutgers, I have nothing to say. When you get blown out at Illinois, you should be glad when people have nothing to say.[/membership]

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