By RUSTY MILLER
AP Sports Writer
Matt Painter is one of the lucky ones.
With No. 16 Purdue likely to get a spot in the NCAA tournament, the coach and his players don't have to agonize over these final three weeks, primping for the committee that selects the 65 teams.
But he remembers the anxiety he's felt before.
"Two years ago when we were in that position, we knew we had to win our opening game of the Big Ten tournament. We didn't talk about it," Painter said Monday. "It's very similar to a guy having a no-hitter in the eighth inning and you don't talk to him in the dugout. You just keep your focus on your opponent and you really don't talk about being on the bubble."
With two weeks left in the regular season and then the conference tournament before NCAA bids come out on March 15, a lot of coaches don't want to jinx their chances.
No one disputes that three conference teams are expected to get NCAA tournament berths: No. 9 Michigan State (21-5, 11-3), Purdue (21-6, 10-4) and No. 20 Illinois (22-6, 10-5).
With Indiana facing a restart of its tradition-rich program in the wake of Kelvin Sampson's NCAA violations, and Northwestern and Iowa off the pace, that leaves five teams caught on the bubble.
"Every game is huge," said coach Ed DeChellis of Penn State (19-8, 8-6). "There's still a bunch in the middle. These last four games are crucial. The teams that play well late now can get another couple of wins and put them on their resume and separate themselves."
Strong cases can be made -- and some powerful negatives can also be mentioned -- for the Nittany Lions, Wisconsin (17-10, 8-7), Ohio State (17-8, 7-7), Michigan (17-11, 7-8) and Minnesota (20-7, 8-7).
Ohio State lost its captain and most experienced player in December (David Lighty) soon after road wins over then-No. 21 Miami and then-No. 7 Notre Dame. The Buckeyes have gone on to win three more games against ranked opponents, without Lighty.
Now the Buckeyes, who have lost three games in a row by a combined 10 points, are holding their breath like so many others, hoping for late wins (or upsets in the mid-major conference tournaments) to help their way into the tournament.
"The NCAA tournament is just so powerful and so exciting, people are talking about it in January now," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. "The only thing that you can truly control is how you're playing. To have more anxiety or whatever ... well, I just want our guys to play better. I want us to play smarter. I want us to play harder."
What's made it more difficult to gauge is that what was once considered enough to get into the NCAAs -- 20 wins and a winning record in your conference -- doesn't always get it done any more.
"It used to be if you got to 20 wins you had a good chance of getting into the postseason," Minnesota coach Tubby Smith said. "But anymore, with the expansion of conferences and the addition of schools, it makes it a little bit tougher. Then you want to be at least above .500 in your conference play if you want to get to the NCAAs. But when you start setting goals like that, you have a tendency to put a little more pressure on the players."
The Big Ten has good top-to-bottom strength this season. Yet that's little consolation to those teams caught in the middle.
So wins are at a premium. There are no promises.
"I'd hate to go out there and say, 'You've got to have this number (of wins)' and then you're watching on selection Sunday and you don't get in," Michigan coach John Beilein said. "That would be tough for me to look my team in the eye."