- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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Are you taking the time to breathe deeply and enjoy this Big Ten season? Are you soaking it all in? Are you finding your center and homing in on just what makes it all great? Are you living in the moment? Start. Because I've seen a lot of Big Ten seasons, and I don't remember one quite as good -- or as fun -- as this.
1. Indiana. You don't need me to explain why the Hoosiers are ranked No. 1. You don't need me to explain why they're good. We've discussed all of these things on a weekly basis, and they were on full display Tuesday night in Indiana's most impressive Big Ten victory in at least a decade (not to mention its first in East Lansing since 1991).
But one thing did strike me watching Indiana take the Izzone's best shot Tuesday night: The Hoosiers have it all. They have balance; Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller both became 1,000-point scorers Tuesday, joining seniors Christian Watford and Jordan Hulls to form the first team in IU history with four such players (which is insane). They have the best offense in the country. They have a defense that has evolved from a mid-60s efficiency unit to a top-20 outfit. They have senior leadership in Hulls and Watford, improving youth in Yogi Ferrell (and to some extent, Jeremy Hollowell) and energy off the bench in Will Sheehey.
But most important, they have stars. That's an NBA thing, I realize, but when you look around at the college hoops landscape, you won't find a team with two plausible national player of the year candidates in its starting five. Most teams don't have one. For all of Indiana's strengths, having the inside-out punch of Zeller and Oladipo -- surrounded by all that shooting and savvy -- makes Indiana the obvious national title favorite going forward.
The evolution is complete. All the pieces are in place. All IU has to do now is go out and win it. Easy, right?
2. Michigan State. Tom Izzo & Co. weren't devastated by Tuesday night's loss to Indiana; that's too strong a word. But they were something very close to it. (The fans who burned various inanimate objects in East Lansing -- despite it being horrendously cold, trust me -- agreed.) But beyond the Big Ten title implications, if I'm Michigan State, I'm feeling pretty good. The Spartans didn't play anywhere near their best game against the Hoosiers, and still had ample opportunity to win it in the final minutes. Keith Appling will play better. Some of those missed free throws will go down. Denzel Valentine -- or somebody, anybody! -- will put a body on Oladipo in the final minutes. If you began Tuesday night thinking Michigan State was a totally viable Final Four and national title contender, I don't know why your opinion would be any different now.
3. Michigan. It has been easy to forget about the Michigan Wolverines these past few weeks. Why? The schedule. It feel like every team in the Big Ten has had at least one brutal four- or five-game stretch, and in the first three weeks of February, Michigan had to play at Indiana, against Ohio State at home, at Wisconsin and at Michigan State all in a row. As I said: brutal. Admittedly, the Wolverines didn't look all that impressive Sunday against Penn State, and their defense has taken a few steps back during this stretch, which was poorly timed to say the least. All of which is why it will be interesting to see how UM comes out Sunday at home against Illinois.
4. Wisconsin. For most of the season, the Badgers have thrived on their pace (duh) and their defense, and that's still the case -- the Badgers' adjusted defensive efficiency ranks No. 3 in the country, per KenPom.com, and is clearly the best unit in the Big Ten. Offense has been less important, which is part of the reason the Badgers have played so many close, low-scoring games. But this week Wisconsin showed some serious signs on that side of the ball too, dropping 71 in 60 possessions and 69 on 55 at Northwestern. If they get anything near that kind of offensive production regularly, look out.
5. Ohio State. The last time the Buckeyes played Michigan State, it was on the road in East Lansing, Shannon Scott took one of the worst last-second shots you'll ever see, and the Spartans held on for a 59-56 win. More overlooked in that game (thanks largely to Scott) was the fact that Deshaun Thomas scored 28 points, and no other Buckeye scored -- wait for it -- more than six. The Spartans make the return trip Sunday afternoon; we'll see if OSU has anything new it can offer Tom Izzo's still-improving squad.
6. Illinois. Illinois had a bit of a scare at home against Penn State Thursday night, but they survived, 64-59. That marks five wins in a row for the Illini, who have come back from the dead to forge a basically unassailable at-large tournament profile. Next up? Sunday's trip to Ann Arbor. The Wolverines match up really well with Illinois -- the Illini don't have bigs to challenge Jordan Morgan & Co. in the interior -- but it will be interesting to see if Brandon Paul and his teammates can maintain their recent momentum in a tough road bout.
7. Minnesota. The Gophers are in trouble. When I say that, I don't mean their NCAA tournament berth is in particular trouble; seriously, look at their profile, including those stellar computer numbers (and relative lack of bad losses), and try to tell me they won't get in over, say, Villanova. Come on.
No, Minnesota will get in the tournament. I'm just talking about the real world, where Minnesota, despite the relative "quality" of the losses and the tough Big Ten slate, has lost eight of its past 11, most recently in blowouts at Iowa and Ohio State. Minnesota's per-possession offense (1.021 PPP) ranks sixth in the league; its defense (1.03 PPP allowed) ranks eighth; and yes, if case you noticed, Minnesota is yielding more points per trip than it is scoring in Big Ten play. Meanwhile, Tubby Smith, who is a profoundly strange 4-17 in February games during his tenure , is under fire from a fan base whose patience is officially, and understandably, wearing thin. Trouble.
8. Iowa. The Hawkeyes may have missed out on two huge, brutally close games at Minnesota and Wisconsin earlier this month, but they took full advantage of the struggling Gophers' return trip in a 72-51 win Sunday. Unfortunately, given the overall weakness of their nonconference profile, that's not enough to put the Hawks into the realistic bubble conversation. How do they get there? Win at Indiana! Or, more likely, make sure not to lose bad games down the stretch, such as Saturday at Nebraska, and see if they can't make a case in the Big Ten tournament.
9. Northwestern. The Wildcats were admirably tough on Valentine's Day, when, just days after losing senior forward Jared Swopshire to season-ending injury, they made a slumping Ohio State work for all 40 minutes in a narrow Columbus win. Since then, the Wildcats have played about as well as you'd expect this young and injury-decimated team to play. Which is to say: not well.
10. Purdue. One of the things I love most about the Internet, and the sports corner of the Internet in particular, is the glut of really well-written, fan-authored team sites. Hammer and Rails is an excellent example of the form. (I've referenced them before; it's hard to find a different way to write "Purdue's bad" each week.) Anyway, following a second blowout to the hated Hoosiers last Saturday, Hammer and Rails put together a long, detailed look at what each player needs to improve before next season. As a Cubs fan, I can relate.
11. Nebraska. If Nebraska coach Tim Miles thought his first January in the Big Ten was tough, February must feel like a nightmare. Last week, the Cornhuskers went to Indiana and were home for Michigan State; their next five games go like this: vs. Iowa, at Wisconsin, at Illinois, vs. Minnesota, at Iowa. Fun!
12. Penn State. Give the Nittany Lions credit: They are improving. After a blowout-filled conference season, in their past three games they nearly took down Iowa at home, pushed Michigan for nearly 40 minutes in Ann Arbor, and played Illinois to a five-point loss Thursday night. Unfortunately, that cliché about close and horseshoes exists for a reason. Penn State is still winless (0-14) in league play.
Are you taking the time to breathe deeply and enjoy this Big Ten season? Are you soaking it all in? Are you finding your center and homing in on just what makes it all great?