We've seen plenty of the Big Ten lately, coming off its annual 12-game battle with the ACC. What have we picked up on? Here is my initial ranking of the conference...
1. Indiana. The Big Ten is good this season. On this we can all agree. There are some really good teams in this league. Which is why it's kind of amazing, and a testament to the Hoosiers themselves, that I didn't even second-guess for a second about the No. 1 team in the first edition of these rankings. I mean, it's obviously Indiana. The Hoosiers started the season ranked No. 1. They have the best offense in the country, hands down, and are still (despite the Duke Blue Devils' impressive work in November) the clear No. 1 in Ken Pomeroy's early-season Pythagorean efficiency rankings (which would not be notable if the gap between Nos. 1 and 2 were not so noticeable). Oh, and if you're not into the whole math thing, please review the tape of Tuesday's utter destruction of North Carolina.
Wait a second. Did I just waste 100 words making a case that didn't need to be made? Yep, I think I did. Let's just move on.
2. Michigan. This was a close call between the Buckeyes and the Wolverines, even with Ohio State's perfectly respectable loss Wednesday night, but a loss is a loss, and besides it's not as though Michigan doesn't deserve it. The Wolverines are playing some truly gorgeous offensive basketball, thanks in large part to Tim Hardaway Jr., as well as freshman sharpshooter Nik Stauskas and judicious point guard Trey Burke. Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary look great. This is a bigger and more athletic and more 2-point-oriented team than John Beilein has ever had, and any doubts I may have had about that stylistic transition are gone now. They're legit.
3. Ohio State. I probably don't need to say this, but there is absolutely zero shame in losing to Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium by five points in a game you led for the first 34 minutes. That was a great win by the Blue Devils after that great Battle 4 Atlantis trip and sometimes you just have to tip your cap. OK, so there's no such thing as a good loss for Thad Matta's program at this point, but the Deshaun Thomas- and Aaron Craft-led Buckeyes proved something of their own in the loss, which is that they are to be taken very seriously as a conference and national title contender in the post-Sully era.
4. Minnesota. No kidding? No kidding. After an offseason that featured yet another cavalcade of bizarre Trevor Mbakwe legal issues, not to mention his own son's DUI arrest, it was worth wondering whether Tubby Smith's time at Minnesota had been somehow cursed. Transfers, injuries, Royce White -- you name it. But Mbakwe is back, Rodney Williams Jr. is playing great, Andre Hollins dropped 41 on 16 shots against Memphis in the Bahamas, Minnesota won at Florida State on the way back (speaking of gutty wins), and all of a sudden this team looks like yet another Big Ten contender, and certainly an NCAA tournament squad.
5. Michigan State. Tom Izzo doesn't like what he's seeing from his club. He has good reason. The Spartans looked solid in their Nov. 13 Champions Classic win over Kansas, but after a couple of too-close-for-comfort home wins, Keith Appling & Co. were basically handled by the same Miami team that lost to Florida Gulf Coast just two weeks ago. It's not a horrible loss -- it was on the road, Miami played well, etc., but it already has caused Izzo to tell reporters his "experiment with two bigs is about over." He'll get it figured out. Branden Dawson at the 4 sounds about right but for the Spartans are clearly staggered.
6. Illinois. There are currently three undefeated teams in the Big Ten: The Indiana Hoosiers, the Michigan Wolverines and, you guessed it, the Illinois Fighting Illini. Who knew? John Groce has Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and the unheralded leftovers from Bruce Weber's sad trombone sound of a 2012 season playing open, up-tempo, carefree basketball. They're spreading the floor, having fun and lo and behold making shots. It should be noted that 44.5 percent of the Illini's shots are 3s, and they are making 42.2 percent; that is probably not a sustainable shooting pace. But right now, you better believe Illini fans are loving it.
7. Wisconsin. OK, so, let's make it clear right off the bat that I don't really expect Wisconsin to languish in this low, un-Wisconsin-like tier of the power rankings for all that long this season. Things will even out, Illinois will occasionally miss a few shots, and Wisconsin will climb upward. But right now, it's hard to put them anywhere else. Virginia fully deserved that win in the Kohl Center Wednesday night, and the Badgers have not held serve against equal or better competition (Florida, Creighton) to date.
8. Purdue. They're just young. We could probably spend a lot of time dissecting how a team could lose to Bucknell (a good team) at home, and Villanova and Oregon State (both apparently mediocre) on neutral courts, then turn around and blitz a solid Clemson team on the road two weeks later, but maybe it's just the inconsistent march of youth. Of course, D.J. Byrd morphing into a 3-point marksman helps, too.
9. Northwestern. The Wildcats have a better win than anything Iowa owns. That neutral-court win over Illinois State will be huge come bubble time, but they were the victims of a 20-point beating administered on their own very purple floor by Maryland Tuesday night. Jared Swopshire is a huge addition, but there is much work to be done.
10. Iowa. All thing considered, Iowa is basically even with No. 10 Northwestern at this point. The Hawkeyes won their first five games and looked good doing so, but didn't really play anybody. When they did, Wichita State handled them on a neutral floor, and Virginia Tech put up 95 points (1.28 per possession) during Day 1 of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Fran McCaffery's team has some nice talent, and good young players, but they have to defend better than this.
11. Nebraska. In the annals of "Is X team this good or Y team that bad?" noodling, Nebraska's 79-63 win over Wake Forest is a head-scratcher for the ages. For now, I'm going to assume, because it is a safe assumption these days, that Wake Forest is just that bad. But Tim Miles' team did take down Valpo at home, so maybe this isn't a total avert-your-eyes proposition.
12. Penn State. Oh, dear, it could be a long season for Penn State. Before Tim Frazier's injury, the Nittany Lions were as sound a pick to creep near the top half of the league as they were to finish at the bottom. But as we saw when Boston College, by no means a world-beater, defeated Penn State 73-61 in Happy Valley Wednesday night, the arrival of D.J. Newbill looks unlikely to assuage the hurt caused by Frazier's departure.