The Big Ten can chew up and spit out teams that enter conference play with gaudy records. Wisconsin and Ohio State entered a combined 26-0, but have since suffered five losses apiece. Losses to Michigan and Michigan State don't reveal a team's weaknesses, but rather the fact that the Big Ten is a tough-as-nails conference. Even a trip to Bloomington to play a rebuilding Indiana team can be tough, as Wisconsin's 75-72 loss in Assembly Hall on Jan. 14 can show you.
After starting 3-5 in conference play, Ohio State is poised for a resurgence. With consecutive road wins against Wisconsin and Iowa, the Buckeyes are starting to look like the team that was ranked third in the nation not too long ago. Enter the cream puff schedule.
With two games against Iowa behind them, Ohio State's only ranked opponents on their remaining schedule are Michigan and Michigan State. Northwestern, Minnesota and Purdue all have to come to Columbus and battle against a tough Buckeye defense. In two weeks, Thad Matta's team could be back in the Top 15.
Wisconsin, however, doesn't have it as easy. After the Badgers appeared to have a dynamic duo in Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky to carry the offense, it was their defense that failed them. Giving up 75 points to Indiana and 81 to Minnesota is uncharacteristic for Bo Ryan teams, which are known for their defense and ball control.
Wisconsin still has some challenging games ahead, with Michigan, Michigan State and Iowa as three of their next four opponents. It gets better after that, but the Badgers may have dug themselves into too deep of a hole to be considered for a high seed come March.
The Wolverines and Spartans -- clearly the class of the conference -- will be getting the national attention in the six weeks leading up to Selection Sunday. But the second-tier teams -- Iowa, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Minnesota -- can build NCAA Tournament resumes by simply finishing above .500 in Big Ten play. The conference is that good.
Rodger Sherman from Sippin' on Purple
Is it too soon to write off Ohio State and Wisconsin?
It's been rather silly, hasn't it? I genuinely thought they were really really good. Clearly, they aren't really really good, but Ohio State still looks strangle-y on defense, and Wisconsin is still painfully smart with the ball. I think teams are allowed to falter, but Ohio State and Wisconsin made the mistake of losing all their games in a row so they look suddenly terrible.
Is Nik Stauskas the best player in the Big Ten? If not, who is?
It's kinda fascinating: so many solid teams, no true standout superstar. I think I'd take Stauskas, for managing to be this efficient for this good a team with this much responsibility on his shoulders. But it's tight. Glenn Robinson, Jr. isn't far behind him. And he's on Stauskas' team.
If I had to choose one player from the Big Ten for my basketball team, I'd take Adreian Payne, just because of the freaky amount of things he can do despite his size. But Michigan State's been exceptional with him out, because Gary Harris is incredible and Keith Appling is also incredible and basically my point is everybody's incredible.
I'd also like to take a moment to point out that Aaron Craft -- who, quite frankly, is probably the third-best player on Ohio State, if not fourth, was named to the midseason Naismith Award list, which is supposed to include the top 25 players in the country. As Dan Dakich will be glad to tell you, Craft's greatest skills are the ones that don't show up on the stat sheet. There are also a ton of Big Ten players -- about six of whom I've already named here -- who do things that do show up on the stat sheet, that didn't make that list.
Northwestern just won two huge road games over ranked teams and five of seven overall. What changed after the 0-3 start in Big Ten play?
Defense. We knew coming into the year that Northwestern's offense would look like Drew Crawford and some conglomeration of poop, but Chris Collins has rallied this team around stout defensive play, and it's responded. Opposing offenses have been befuddled -- and they've also been kind enough to miss a ton of open looks.
It's a real culture shock for a team that was offensively crisp but defensively hideous under Bill Carmody, but the Wildcats have the No. 10 defense in the nation and No. 314 offense. We'll take it, and we will use the bricks to build a road to the NCAA Tournament. Next year's. But still. An NCAA Tournament.
Three Big Games
Michigan at Iowa (Saturday): If Iowa wants to catch the Wolverines for the Big Ten regular-season title, the Hawkeyes must win in Iowa City on Saturday. Michigan has really turned it on in conference play, looking like a national title contender again. Nik Stauskas is making his case to be an All-American.
Purdue at Ohio State (Saturday): The Buckeyes should be favored on their home floor, but a win would go a long way towards re-vamping their season. It would be their third straight win after starting 3-5 in Big Ten play.
Michigan State at Wisconsin (Sunday): The Spartans are looking to keep pace with Michigan, who leads the Big Ten. They just got Adreian Payne back but are struggling to stay healthy. Wisconsin needs a win, having hit a serious roadblock in conference play. A loss would all but kill their chances of competing for the regular-season title.