How many NCAA tourney bids will the Big Ten receive? Five seem safe at this point, but beyond that is anyone's guess -- especially after Illinois' home loss to Northwestern on Sunday.
1. Ohio State: The Buckeyes went to Madison and beat the Badgers at their own plodding game Saturday. Thad Matta's squad isn’t just the best team in the Big Ten right now. It’s arguably the top squad in the country based on the way it’s played during its five-game winning streak. The Buckeyes could really pull away from the rest of the field with a win against Michigan State Saturday.
2. Michigan State: Spartans fans can exhale now. Draymond Green scored 14 points and grabbed 16 rebounds in a 64-54 win over Michigan Sunday, days after leaving the team’s road loss at Illinois with a knee injury. The Spartans get a shot at Ohio State Saturday in Columbus. And they possess the physical style to stifle the Buckeyes.
3. Wisconsin: Can’t knock the Badgers for putting up a 40-minute fight against an Ohio State team that’s been the league’s best squad for weeks. A few late mistakes cost the Badgers. Their challenges from the 3-point line (18.5 percent against the Buckeyes) continue to hurt a team without an inside force. But they’re going to challenge every team in the Big Ten with their stingy defense.
4. Michigan: Yes, the Wolverines had their fourth conference loss of the season Sunday against Michigan State. No, they’re not out of the Big Ten title race. The Wolverines get Ohio State, Purdue and Illinois at home in the coming weeks. And they play Nebraska, Illinois, Northwestern and Penn State on the road. The Wolverines, however, continue to suffer inside with their limited frontcourt depth.
5. Indiana: The Hoosiers have won three of their past five games. Saturday’s 78-61 win at rival Purdue served two crucial purposes for Tom Crean’s program. It saved Indiana from a 5-7 Big Ten record and it snapped its four-game road losing streak in conference play. Only two of Indiana’s final seven games will be played outside of Bloomington.
6. Illinois: The Illini followed Tuesday’s 42-41 home win over Michigan State with a 74-70 loss to Northwestern Sunday … in the same arena, Assembly Hall in Champaign. Really? You try to figure out this up-and-down Illini team because I can’t.
7. Purdue: The Boilermakers have lost three of four. And they play Ohio State, Illinois, Michigan State and Indiana in their last eight Big Ten games. Why are those opponents significant? Because they all have the inside threats that can expose Purdue’s void in the paint.
8. Minnesota: The Gophers have won five of their past seven games. After losing their best player, Trevor Mbakwe, to a season-ending knee injury in November, they could easily be at the very bottom of the Big Ten standings.
9. Iowa: The Hawkeyes are 3-2 at home in 2012. Fran McCaffery’s team has won two in a row. That’s certainly an accomplishment for this rebuilding team.
10. Northwestern: The Wildcats entered the season amid ongoing hope that this would be the first time the program makes the NCAA tournament. That’s not going to happen this season.
11. Penn State: The Nittany Lions have the worst record in the Big Ten at 2-9. But there’s just something about State College. Big Ten teams always seem to encounter trouble when they play there. Plus, Tim Frazier (18.3 ppg, 4.8 rpg and 6.3 apg) is one of the top players in the league. That’s why they avoided the No. 12 slot.
12. Nebraska: The Cornhuskers’ introduction to the Big Ten hasn’t been a smooth one. And that’s too bad because Bo Spencer (15.3 ppg and 3.5 apg) is a special player and he deserves more praise.