Saddle Up: The Big Ten opens up

Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action. It is really selfishly glad SimCity isn't working. Less temptation this way.

No. 22 Wisconsin at No. 10 Michigan State, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN

On Sunday, Wisconsin lost at home to Purdue. In the past two weeks, Michigan State has lost its past three games, all difficult but nonetheless disappointing defeats to Indiana, Ohio State and Michigan. And both of these teams still have a very real chance at winning the Big Ten title. How crazy is that?

Beyond the seeding concerns for the Hoosiers, and a massive win not only for Ohio State's perception but its eventual bracket position, that was the short-term upshot of Ohio State's win at Indiana on Tuesday night: The race to grab a share of the 2013 Big Ten title is officially wide open. The stakes seem complicated at first glance, but they're actually relatively simple. Both Wisconsin and Michigan State need to win their last two league games, and need Michigan to topple Indiana in Ann Arbor on Sunday, to clinch a share of the Big Ten title. Ohio State needs the same. Michigan held to beat Purdue on Wednesday night, which means its share of the Big Ten title rests in its own hands Sunday.

In other words, both Michigan State and Wisconsin can't eventually share the Big Ten title. They might not in any case; Indiana could always bounce back from Wednesday's loss with a huge win at Michigan on Sunday. But the stakes tonight are even simpler: If Michigan State wins, it has a chance to capture a piece of the title. If Wisconsin wins, the same. The loser is out of contention -- nice season, thanks for playing, see you in Chicago next week.

If this raucous finish to one of the best Big Ten seasons I can remember doesn't do much for you, even on its own merits this is a great game. I'm probably most interested in seeing how Michigan State guard Keith Appling bounces back. Appling has been in a major slump in the Spartans' past three games; Indiana and Ohio State were two of the worst statistical games of his career, and though he was better at Michigan, he still wasn't great, and his late turnover to Trey Burke gave the Wolverines the advantage. The Spartans have every piece you need for a deep tournament run: size, rebounding, athleticism, talent in the backcourt (freshman Gary Harris has been great for months now), Tom Izzo. The only thing missing is the once-commanding presence of Appling, who has taken more off the table than he's put on it in the past three games. That has to change in the next two weeks, and tonight would be an awfully good time to start.

No. 19 Oregon at Colorado, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN2

In the past few seasons, I've tended to get caught up with the bubble -- it's sort of what I do at this time of year -- and have, even if indirectly, tended to overlook the tail end of conference title races. I'm not the only one. Because of the hegemony of March, we've gotten to a point in college basketball where we probably don't spend enough time thinking or writing about, or at the very least praising, teams who manage to take home conference titles. In a weird way, it's the most impressive accomplishment in the sport, one born of a longer and more meaningful sample size than any of the postseason tournaments.

So I've resolved to talk a little bit more about conference championships wherever possible, and that's precisely why tonight's Oregon-Colorado fixture is so interesting. The Ducks are 12-4 in advance of Thursday night. On Wednesday, their most obvious competition for the Pac-12 crown -- UCLA and Cal -- both lost, falling to 12-5 and 12-6 in league play, respectively. The Ducks have a real chance to capture the conference crown if they can survive in Boulder, which under Buffs coach Tad Boyle is a task far easier stated than accomplished.

That Oregon is even at this point is its own accomplishment. Since January, freshman point guard Dominic Artis -- one of the Ducks' key additions this season -- has lingered in uncertain injury status, and made his return only last Thursday, in a 10-point win against Oregon State. The Ducks were a turnover-prone team even with Artis, and when they lost three in a row in late January and early February, it looked as though Artis' injury was going to derail a previously promising season. But it didn't. Instead, Dana Altman got good starters' minutes out of point guard Johnathan Loyd, the Ducks adapted and figured it out, and they have won five of their past six heading into Thursday night's game.

Miami coach Jim Larranaga has vacuumed up most of the coach of the year attention, and probably rightfully so -- he has done a mostly masterful job in Miami. But it is folly to overlook the job Altman has done in Eugene, where the Ducks are pushing to finish an unlikely Pac-12 title run.