The greatest poets of my youth, Boyz II Men, said it best, usually during grade school dances: It's so hard to say goodbye ... to yesterday. Alas, my friends, that is what we must do in this edition of the Big Ten power rankings. We must say goodbye.
This is the final edition of these rankings, but fortunately we have not seen the last of this amazing conference just yet. Not only do we have next week's Big Ten tournament to look forward to, but we also have a final weekend during which four teams could stake a claim to the Big Ten title. There could be no more fitting ending to the 2012-13 Big Ten season. Here's where we stand:
1. Indiana. Has your opinion of Indiana changed? Did Ohio State's party-spoiling win in Bloomington on Wednesday alter your overall perception of Indiana or make you question the Hoosiers' national title hopes in a way you hadn't yet approached? Fair enough: Losing your outright-Big-Ten-title-clinching game at home on senior night isn't a great look, and neither is seeing your offense -- the most efficient in the country pretty much all season long -- getting physically manhandled by the Buckeyes' impressive defense and glasswork. If you thought Indiana was the clear overall favorite to win the national title, and you're suddenly feeling less sure, I don't blame you.
But I'm not so sure focusing on Indiana's faults is the best way to look at Wednesday night's proceedings. I'd rather give credit to the Buckeyes, led by guard Aaron Craft, for a totally brazen, confident performance in one of the nation's toughest venues. I think it makes just as much sense to see Indiana as the Big Ten's best overall team, but one that isn't that much better than OSU or Michigan State or Michigan or even Wisconsin, and which -- like any other potential Final Four contender -- has its smattering of flaws. In IU's case, they are turnovers and poor defensive rebounding. Teams that can exploit those issues the way Ohio State did have a chance to knock off Indiana. But look around the country: Do you really see any favorites you feel totally confident in picking to win the national title? Me neither. Indiana still has as good a chance as any of those teams -- and, let's not forget, can still seize that outright title with a win at Michigan on Sunday. But it's not a flawless team. We knew that already, didn't we?
2. Michigan State. The Spartans utterly dominated Wisconsin Thursday night, preserving their chance at a Big Ten title (if they beat Northwestern and IU loses this weekend) in the process. But without question the most important story from Thursday night's action was the sudden discovery of some guy named Keith Appling, who returned to the Spartans' lineup and led the way with 19 points and five rebounds on 7-of-13 shooting. Wait ... what's that? Pardon me, folks. I'm actually being told this Appling fellow was indeed present and in the lineup for all of Michigan State's recent contests. OK, har-har, you see where this is going. The bottom line is that if Appling plays well -- alongside fantastic freshman Gary Harris and a strong, athletic, versatile frontcourt -- there really is no limit to what the Spartans can accomplish. If Appling struggles, as he has in recent weeks, Michigan State becomes something closer to average. It's just that simple.
3. Ohio State. The Buckeyes move to No. 3 after their uber-impressive win in Bloomington, which not only was just a flat-out great victory but also showcased exactly what this team, at its best, can be. What is that, exactly? It is a brutal defensive squad that plays passing lanes and turns dribblers and helps and recovers and protects the rim and rebounds. It leans on Deshaun Thomas at the offensive end but gets a peppering of secondary scoring from Craft and, if lucky, one or two others. Craft made every big play Wednesday night and finished 7-of-10 from the field. He isn't always going to be that good, but if he is even 75 percent as good, and the Buckeyes defend like that, it doesn't matter if they light it up on the offensive end. They can guard their way to a deep tournament run. And in the meantime, Thad Matta might be the coach of the year. This team has some talent, but it is not one of his vintage squads; Evan Ravenel isn't even in the 25th percentile of the big men Matta usually wields. But the Buckeyes have succeeded all the same. Just hugely impressive stuff all around.
4. Michigan. The Wolverines needed some Trey Burke brilliance to get past Michigan State 58-57 Sunday, and not in the usual fashion. Burke is still a national player of the year contender mostly for his immense offensive talents -- his ability to balance his own efficient scoring with the needs of the versatile offensive group at his command. And boy, is he brilliant. But Burke's biggest play Sunday was his late rip of Appling at half court, a deft sleight of defensive hand that changed the trajectory of that game in the most crucial moments. (Hence the Appling jokes. It all comes together.) This is essentially the story of Michigan this season, and it has been since October: Can the Wolverines defend at a championship level? Thus far, we haven't seen it. By March 8, if we haven't seen it yet, we (probably) won't see it in the weeks to come. So the Wolverines remain a very good team and a very intriguing one, but not one that looks like a genuine threat to win the national title. Teams with glaring defensive holes just don't get there often, you know?
5. Wisconsin: Thanks to tight defense, good but not great offense and slow pace, the Badgers spent most of the Big Ten season playing everybody tight, and usually winning. Then, in advance of last week's power rankings, a new trend had emerged: Wisconsin had started blowing people out. Was this a trend? A sign of a sudden offensive efficiency breakthrough which, when paired with the stifling Badgers D, would turn Bo Ryan's team into one of the nation's fiercest? Um, apparently not. Instead, Wisconsin went crazy-cold, cold enough to lose to Purdue at home on its own senior day Sunday, and cold enough to score just 43 points in 63 interminable possessions in East Lansing Thursday night. The biggest concern is making sure the slump doesn't continue at Penn State this weekend, because Wisconsin still has NCAA tournament seeding to play for. Other than that, ugly as this week was, I'd wager the Badgers will be just fine.
6. Illinois. Are Illinois fans worried about the loss at Iowa? They really shouldn't be. Iowa's defense is good, the Hawkeyes are tough in their own building, and besides, Illinois is basically a No. 8 seed at this point. It's not missing the tournament. Its wins are too good. After the horror show that was January, and the flashbacks of late-season decline most Illini fans must have had throughout, the fact that I can say that with such certainty not just now but two weeks ago -- well, all of this is just a bonus, isn't it? Illinois fans should be ecstatic. Far as I can tell, they are.
7. Iowa. As of early Friday morning Iowa's defense now ranks among the 20 best in the country, per KenPom.com's adjusted defensive efficiency metric. But that's not all! Thanks to a historically awful bubble -- wherein pretty much every bubble team with work to do keeps losing, over and over and over again -- Iowa's sheer ability to not fall flat on its face in the last weeks of the season earned it a spot on the Bubble Watch page this week. Exciting stuff, right? The Hawkeyes are still a long shot, and as John Gasaway wrote in this week's Tuesday Truths, they have only their own gross schedule to blame, because Iowa actually has been about as good as Illinois throughout Big Ten play. The Hawkeyes have one regular-season game remaining, a home game against Nebraska that will do nothing for their at-large chances. They have to make some noise in the conference tournament to get the committee to sit up and take note. But if they play top-20 defense in Chicago, they might do exactly that.
8. Minnesota. After Minnesota's win over Indiana last week, I wrote the following: "It would almost be easier if Minnesota had gotten punked Tuesday, because then we could start to acknowledge that they're just not that good after all. Nice November, lots of promise, another disappointing season. But Minnesota is good. They're big, physical, deep, balanced and good. I think Iowa is really underrated, but you can't tell me the team we saw Tuesday night is 19 points worse than Iowa. Or seven points worse than Northwestern. It just isn't. Which means one thing: They've underachieved. The effort hasn't been there. If I were a fan I'd rather my team was just bad." On Wednesday night, Minnesota lost at Nebraska 53-51. Some motivational speaker I am.
Look, I'm not a Minnesota fan. I have no skin in the game. But even I'm frustrated. It's frustrating to watch pretty good teams play way below their station, especially for reasons you can't quite put your finger on. All I know is that Trevor Mbakwe & Co. looked great against Indiana, and soaked up all the love that came with it, and screamed and pounded their chests and posed for the camera, and hey, here comes Minnesota! Finally, right? And then they lay another egg just a few days later. I can't explain it, and I'm not sure anyone -- Tubby Smith included -- can.
Anyway, I don't know whether this is the eighth-best team in the league, but whatever. If the shoe fits ...
9. Purdue. Some sincere kudos are in order to the Boilermakers. This time two weeks ago, the Boilers were a shambles, coming off yet another embarrassing blowout to the rival Hoosiers, their fans fighting internecine skirmishes in Internet comment sections. It kind of felt like things were falling apart, that Purdue would end the season in sour, even ugly, fashion. Not so much! The Boilermakers got corrective on that in a hurry, toppling Wisconsin at Kohl Center, which they followed by pushing Michigan all the way to the brink Wednesday night at Mackey. If there's one thing fans can't handle during losing seasons, it's a lack of effort. But if you bring it, if the process is there, the outcome matters less. And it's great to see this young Boilers team still battling at the end of a no doubt frustrating campaign.
10. Penn State. If the Nittany Lions had collapsed, exhausted by the sheer euphoric joy of last week's upset win over Michigan, that would have been understandable. Just getting that winless monkey off your team's back can be a totally draining process. And sure, Penn State flatlined against Minnesota on Saturday. But it didn't fade. Instead, it came back and won at Northwestern on Thursday. Sure, Northwestern has been ravaged by injuries, but still: Penn State got a road win in Big Ten play. Progress, kids. Progress.
11. Nebraska. I hope the above rant on Minnesota isn't interpreted as disrespectful to Nebraska or its fans, because some credit is obviously due: The Cornhuskers had to go out and win that game, after all, and a great win it was. It's going to be really interesting to watch this program in the years to come. Tim Miles is a smart, ahead-of-the-curve type of coach. The Cornhuskers have had their practice facilities working for almost a year now, and will open their new downtown Lincoln, Neb., arena later this year. With an energetic young coach and a school putting real resources behind its basketball program for maybe the first time in its history, what's Nebraska's ceiling, exactly? I'm fascinated to find out.
12. Northwestern. No way around it -- just a nightmare season for the Wildcats. Drew Crawford's injury ensured that months ago, but Jared Swopshire's only made it worse. The sooner it ends the better for everyone involved.