By JOHN BOHNENKAMP
The Big Ten men’s basketball standings are a fascinating mess.
Purdue, at 11-2, has a 2 ½-game lead on Rutgers (8-4) at the top of the standings. Then behind those two is a six-pack of 7-5ers, including Iowa. Michigan State, at 6-6, is just behind that group.
And it’s likely to stay that way. KenPom.com projects Purdue to win the league at 16-4. Rutgers is projected to finish second at 13-7, Maryland and Illinois tied for fourth at 12-8, and Iowa in a three-way tie with Michigan and Indiana at 11-9.
Iowa, with a three-game winning streak of home games last week, is the second-hottest team of that group that is tied for third — Maryland has won its last four — but the Hawkeyes think they have the most momentum.
Iowa started conference play 0-3, but has won seven of its last nine.
“Seven out of nine is pretty good, especially in a league like this,” forward Kris Murray said after the Hawkeyes’ 81-79 win over Illinois at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Saturday.
The 20-game Big Ten schedule can become like a NASCAR superspeedway race. Stay in the draft, and you’ll stay close to the front. Stumble and get out of line, and you’ll get shuffled to the back.
That’s what made last week so important for the Hawkeyes. There was a Sunday home game against Rutgers, followed by a Tuesday game against Northwestern, and then the Saturday game against Illinois.
There was no room to stumble.
“We knew that this three-game stretch was really important for our season,” Murray said. “To be able to go 3-0 during the stretch helped us a lot, especially with the games we’ve got coming up in February.”
“I think it says a lot about the character of the guys in that locker room, no question,” coach Fran McCaffery said. “We always say we want to protect the home floor. That’s three home games against three great teams.”
Iowa has been able to pick its way through the conference after that ugly start. The Hawkeyes started slow last season — they were 4-6 at the halfway mark and ended up winning eight of their last 10.
Murray said the Hawkeyes can make a similar run.
“Some people might put their heads down, and that never happened with our team,” he said. “The chemistry never wavered. We just kept picking up each other, kind of like last year. We got it going in February last year, and we’re trying to do it this year too.”
Saturday’s game was a perfect example of the kind of game the Hawkeyes have seen, and will continue to see, in the conference. There were nine lead changes and nine ties, but Iowa won by making 26-of-30 free throws and only committing seven turnovers.
The little things, McCaffery said, can loom large.
“It’s so critical in this league, because every game is like this one,” he said. “You’re on the winning end or the losing end (of a close game). There aren’t a lot of blowouts. I don’t care who’s playing who. So you want to manage the game in a way that you can get the free-throw line and you can take care of the ball and get the right guys enough shots.”
Positioning is also critical for the conference tournament. The top four teams get a double-bye, which means only three games in three days to win a championship. Iowa had to win four games in four days last season to win the tournament in Indianapolis, but looked sluggish the following Thursday in the loss to Richmond in the NCAA tournament.
There is also the matter of still building an NCAA tournament resumé. Iowa is 33rd in the NCAA’s NET, with 7 Quadrant 1 wins and 10 wins in Quad 1 and 2 games.
“It’s important, because you want to make the (NCAA) tournament,” guard Tony Perkins said of the recent run. “So every win is important. You want a good seed for the (Big Ten) tournament, and let people know that we’re the best team, so of course these games are important.”
Iowa gets four of its next five games on the road, starting with Thursday’s game at Purdue.
“Now we’ve got to go on the road. And that’s a lot harder,” McCaffery said.
“They’re the No. 1 (team),” Perkins said. “We’re coming in with great confidence. So we’re just going to keep doing what we’ve been doing and hopefully knock them off.”
There are a lot of laps left in this Big Ten race. The Hawkeyes hope to stay in the lead draft.
“We’ve just got to bring our best stuff every single day,” Murray said.
Photo: Iowa’s Payton Sandfort (20) and his teammates celebrate after Saturday’s win over Illinois. (Stephen Mally/hawkeyesports.com)