If Northwestern is to catch Purdue in the Big Ten standings — and win at least a share of what would be one of the most unlikely conference titles ever — it will largely take place on the road.

That pursuit continues Thursday night, when the Wildcats play in Champaign against Illinois in the first of their back-to-back road games in 2 of the Big Ten’s more difficult environments. They’re at Maryland on Sunday. Northwestern, at 11-5 in the Big Ten, sits 1.5 games behind Purdue in the standings, needing to win out and see the Boilermakers lose 1 to catch up. (Or NU could go 3-1 and Purdue 1-2, which seems less likely. And even less so that NU would go 2-2 and Purdue 0-3, which would reopen the door for the slew of 7-loss teams.)

Very few outsiders, if any, thought Northwestern would be in this position. In a Columbus Dispatch poll of 28 media representatives in the preseason (2 beat writers for each of the league’s 14 programs), the Wildcats were picked to finish 13th, only ahead of Nebraska. It was easy to understand why: Northwestern has endured 5 straight losing seasons in the Big Ten since their first (and only) trip to the NCAA Tournament in 2017, a period in which Chris Collins had put together a league mark of 26-71.

Add that Northwestern lost 2 of its key front-court contributors in Pete Nance and Ryan Young to the transfer portal — to North Carolina and Duke, respectively — and the season had all the earmarks of an impending dumpster fire. But Collins rebuilt quickly around dynamic guards Boo Buie and Chase Audige, then elevated previous role players such as center Matthew Nicholson and reserve Brooks Barnhizer into starring characters.

Northwestern, which popped into the AP Poll Monday at No. 21, is 8-2 in its past 10 games, and its 11 Big Ten victories are the most by the program since the 1930-31 season.

“We felt we had a great core of guys who were really invested in the program,” Collins told Yahoo Sports. “When everyone picked us to finish at the bottom of the league, I did think we had a chance to be better than people thought.”

Now Purdue. It won’t be easy to catch the Boilermakers, not with a schedule that includes not only road games to Illinois and Maryland this week, but a home game vs. Penn State and a late road trip to Rutgers in the final days of the regular season. And the Boilermakers play 2 of their last 3 at home (vs. IU and Illinois) with a last road game at Wisconsin.

But Northwestern has already surprised. Perhaps it can at least one more time.

Shannon still day-to-day

Illinois star Terrence Shannon Jr. has missed the past 2 games in concussion protocol and might miss another Thursday night, when the Wildcats come to Champaign.

Shannon hasn’t played since suffering the injury in a loss at Penn State on Valentine’s Day, missing the Indiana game on Saturday, then the re-scheduled game vs. Minnesota on Monday night. Illinois barely missed out on an upset win vs. the Hoosiers, falling in the final minutes, before rebounding to pound the cellar-dwelling Golden Gophers. But Thursday is big. The Fighting Illini (9-7 in the Big Ten) are 1 of about 7 teams vying for the last 2 spots in the Big Ten Tournament’s double-bye (if Purdue and Northwestern get the 1st 2 seeds). And a Quad 1 victory against the Wildcats would pad the Illini’s NCAA Tournament résumé as they try to gain some late-season momentum.

It’s unlikely Illinois will say much about the status of Shannon, who is averaging 17 points and 5 rebounds per game, until Thursday.

Decision on Holtmann nears

Ohio State is reeling, and that might be an understatement. The Buckeyes have lost 8 straight games, including 3 in a row by embarrassingly wide margins: 21 points at home to Michigan State, 17 points at Iowa and 27 points at Purdue. And OSU has won only 1 of its past 14 games since a 10-3 start that had it ranked in the AP Top 25.

The question soon will be: Will Chris Holtmann be fired as a result of the collapse?

It’s not an easy question to answer. Holtmann has a multiyear contract that calls for a $20 million buyout — there seems to be some ambiguity about that total, but whether it’s $15 or $20 million, it is significant — and the 6th-year Ohio State coach has had a good track record, having taken teams (Butler and OSU) to 7 straight NCAA Tournaments. Holtmann guided the Buckeyes to 20 wins in each of his first 5 seasons, becoming only the 2nd coach (Thad Matta) to do so. But Holtmann hasn’t won a conference title, regular-season or tournament, and his teams have struggled in the NCAAs, having advanced beyond the 1st weekend only once.

Fans are upset, obviously. But that will only be a portion of what OSU athletic director Gene Smith weighs in his decision. What will it be? Only time will tell.