In a season characterized by uncertainty, it has been refreshing to have at least one thing to count on. The Big Ten was supposed to be the best conference in the country, and it has lived up to that billing and then some. After Thursday night's games, the top half of the league is crammed together and we have a lot of drama to look forward to in the weeks to come. Here's where we stand at present:
1. Indiana. It was difficult not to react -- or overreact -- to Indiana's loss at Illinois last week. The way the Hoosiers lost that game was disconcerting, to say the least. When you give up a late second-half lead and lose on a buzzer-beating wide-open baseline inbounds layup, and you have a history of letting teams sneak back into games in the second half, you're bound to come in for some level of criticism. Deservedly so.
Then, on Sunday, IU shut everybody up.
The Hoosiers' bossy performance at Ohio State was without question their best of the season. It also was the most promising. Victor Oladipo was his customarily brilliant self, flying around and impacting nearly every possession, but Cody Zeller also had his best, most assertive and most versatile performance of the season. Zeller secured post position early and often (and quickly enough to get it before IU, which thrives on hot-potato ball movement, reversed the ball to the weak side) and when he got it he mixed in more turnaround jumpers and hook shots into his already devastating arsenal. As the hyper-efficient Oladipo continues to demand huge defensive attention, things will only open up for Zeller. Remember: He was the preseason player of the year for a reason.
2. Michigan State. This is the first time anyone has cracked Michigan and Indiana's stranglehold on the top of these rankings, and for good reason: After Tuesday's utter demolition of the Wolverines in East Lansing, Michigan State is tied with the Hoosiers, both 10-2, atop the Big Ten standings. A Big Ten title is very much within the Spartans' grasp.
In the meantime, MSU forward Derrick Nix -- one of my favorite players to watch for admittedly quirky reasons -- believes he and his teammates remain overlooked. On Thursday, he told MLive.com exactly how he felt (long blockquote warning, but trust me, it's worth it):
"I just watch a lot of basketball, and a lot of guys get credit that … I think there are a lot of overrated players out there," […]
"If Michigan would have won, Trey Burke would have been God, Tim Hardaway would have been God, Glenn Robinson would have been God … we won, and they didn't even show our highlights, it's pitiful."
"(Indiana's Victor) Oladipo, he's no different from (Branden) Dawson, Dawson's not on the draft board, Oladipo is in the top 15," Nix said. "Payne is 6-10 and he can do everything (Indiana's Cody) Zeller can do. He's not on the draft board, Zeller's in the top five.
"I can do everything Reggie Johnson can do from Miami, he's on draft boards, I'm not," Nix said. "Keith (Appling) can do everything Trey Burke can do, Trey Burke's in the top five, Keith's not. Gary (Harris) can do everything that (Shabazz) Muhammad from UCLA can do.
"Michigan State is always the underdog."
I agree with maybe 15 percent of what Nix said -- Dawson vs. Oladipo, be real dude -- but I can't question what that siege mentality means to a hard-nosed team with its sights set as high as this game goes. Hey, whatever works.
3. Michigan. The Wolverines aren't a great defensive team. We've known this for at least a month now, but it didn't really matter: Their incredible offense was always enough to carry them through. Only lately, it hasn't been. Michigan is the sixth-ranked defense in the Big Ten on a per-possession basis, and we've seen that vulnerability take its toll during the Wolverines' toughest stretch of schedule, particularly in that blowout at Michigan State.
Even so, panicking would be downright dumb. Michigan just completed a four-game stretch in which it traveled to Indiana, hosted Ohio State (and barely survived in OT), went to Wisconsin (where the Wolverines lost in OT after an utterly ridiculous half-court buzzer-beater sent the game beyond regulation) and went to East Lansing (which could be analyzed generously given that stretch of four games in 12 days). The rest of the schedule is much more favorable. The only road games are at Purdue and Penn State, and the Spartans and Hoosiers still have to go back to Ann Arbor. Don't fret yet.
4. Wisconsin. Here's a fun stat: Eleven of Wisconsin's 12 Big Ten games have been decided by fewer than nine points. The only real Badgers blowout came against Illinois back on Jan. 12. Other than that, it has been one grinder after another, regardless of opponent, from a 47-41 win at Nebraska to a 49-47 loss to Michigan State to a 45-44 win over Minnesota to a 74-70 double-OT victory over Iowa to the aforementioned and oft-replayed Ben Brust buzzer-beater Saturday afternoon. On Thursday night, it was no different. The Gophers took Minnesota to overtime in the Barn before losing 58-53. The Badgers are the team everyone thinks they can beat, but nobody really wants to play. They are something.
5. Ohio State. Nervy moments for the Buckeyes Thursday night, when the injury-decimated Northwestern Wildcats pushed Thad Matta's team to the brink. OSU was ugly (understatement alert) and Northwestern trailed by only two points with 2:29 left to play. Ohio State pulled the game out at the end -- Sam Thompson sealed it with a spinning, two-handed dunk that would have been a lot cooler had it not been the late icing on a win over Northwestern -- avoiding at least a mini-meltdown in Columbus. With Ohio State, you never know what you're going to get. And guess who's on the schedule next? Yep, Wisconsin.
6. Minnesota. Speaking of meltdowns, that would have been applicable had the Gophers lost at home to Wisconsin Thursday night. That would have been a seventh loss in nine games stretching all the way back to Jan. 12 at Indiana. Restless Gophers fans would have been ... well, let's just say they would have been restless. Instead, Minnesota pulled one out, moved to 6-6 in league play, and added another nice win for a tournament profile that would honestly have to suffer much more damage before it could be considered at risk of missing out on the Big Dance.
7. Illinois. Last week, we discussed how Illinois' outside shooting revival has helped explain its early Big Ten woes and get the team out of a rut that threatened to torpedo its season in a fashion that got the Illini's last coach, Bruce Weber, fired. Instead, Illinois has won three in a row (over Indiana, Minnesota and Purdue) and travels to Northwestern Sunday and gets Penn State at home Thursday. You never know with these guys -- nothing is given -- but there's a very good chance John Groce's team will take a five-game winning streak to Ann Arbor Feb. 24.
8. Iowa. Not much new to report on the Iowa front. Sure, the Hawkeyes struggled at Penn State Thursday night, but they won, which at least kept their still-mostly-theoretical tournament hopes alive. Sunday's game might be their biggest of the season. With a home win over RPI-favorite Minnesota, Iowa could get at least some sort of RPI boost, something to put them in reasonable Bubble Watch territory.
9. Northwestern. We should give the Wildcats a lot of credit. It isn't easy to play without your best player all season (Drew Crawford), but it's even tougher to lose senior forward Jared Swopshire to a season-ending injury just as he began playing his best and most assertive hoops of the season. Considering all that, the fact that Bill Carmody's team nearly dropped Ohio State Thursday night is a major moral victory. Yes, they exist. Yes, that qualifies.
10. Purdue. I have to admit, I was fully expecting Purdue to keep getting better and better, and tougher and tougher to beat, down the stretch. Instead they're going in the opposite direction. Since that 97-60 home shellacking to Indiana Jan. 30, Purdue has lost by 15 at Northwestern, by 13 at home to Michigan State and by 20 on the road at Illinois. (They won at Penn State, but I award no points for this accomplishment.) This team will be greatly improved next season, but right now it's having a brutal go.
11. Nebraska. Nebraska had to take its medicine at Indiana Wednesday night, but that was hardly the most notable thing to happen to Nebraska basketball this week. That was the "Harlem Shake." (Aside: I posted that video three days ago, when I still really liked the Harlem Shake; I'm already starting to get sick of it. These Internets move fast.)
12. Penn State. Poor Penn State. Honestly. At 0-11 in the Big Ten, Penn State hadn't played an opponent to a single-digit loss since Nebraska came to town Jan. 19, and on Thursday the Nittany Lions had Iowa on the ropes. They were so close! And they lost 74-72. Just ... man. Brutal.