The Big Ten proved to be the king of college basketball conferences this weekend with a variety of upsets, near-upsets and tough efforts by some of the league’s bubble teams. Doesn’t make it any easier to rank this league, though.
1. Michigan State: The Spartans keep rolling. They toyed with the Badgers on Thursday. They fought off a motivated Boilermakers squad Sunday. And with just four games remaining on their Big Ten slate, it’s hard to see the Spartans stumbling and squandering the Big Ten title. And they’re probably a team that deserves a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tourney.
2. Michigan: The Wolverines kept their conference title hopes alive with a crucial win over the Buckeyes. They’re undefeated at home. And although he’s just a freshman, Trey Burke (17 points, five assists against the Bucks) is a gamer who’s equipped to lead the Wolverines on a run in March.
3. Ohio State: The Buckeyes don’t look like the same crew that recently rattled off six straight wins. They took a major hit against the Spartans last weekend. And their loss to Michigan on Saturday put a serious dent in their Big Ten title hopes. It’s easy to look at Jared Sullinger's recent struggles (14 turnovers in his last three games, including 10 in the loss to the Spartans last weekend), but William Buford has failed to record double-digits in three of his team’s four Big Ten losses. Buford, the team’s second-leading scorer, finished with six points in Saturday’s loss in Ann Arbor.
4. Wisconsin: The Badgers are certainly an NCAA tournament team. If they play a team that’s equally interested in the grind-it-out style that makes Bo Ryan’s system go, then they’ll have a chance to advance in March. But I don’t know how they’re going to keep up with some of the nation’s more talented offensive squads if their scoring droughts continue (five scoreless minutes in the first half of their loss to Michigan State).
5. Indiana: Sunday’s road loss to the Hawkeyes interrupted a three-game winning streak for the Hoosiers. With Cody Zeller inside and the confidence that comes from knowing that they’re the only team in the country that’s cracked the Kentucky Code, the Hoosiers have the potential to make noise in March. Their struggles away from Assembly Hall, however, warrant doubts.
6. Northwestern: A few weeks ago, I wrote that the Wildcats would not crack the field of 68 on Selection Sunday. Northwestern had offered few reasons to consider another postseason path. But I’ve certainly been proven wrong in recent weeks. The Wildcats never quit after losing three consecutive games in late January. They’ve won four of six, and if you ask Joe Lunardi, they’re in the Big Dance right now. A victory over Michigan on Tuesday would be huge.
7. Purdue: In stretches of Sunday’s loss to Michigan State, the Boilermakers took on the “play through adversity” mantra that sometimes fuels inspired performances. But in the end, MSU was too tough and the Boilers lacked the firepower to build on a 38-35 halftime lead. The D.J. Byrd/Kelsey Barlow drama could change Purdue's postseason outlook.
8. Iowa: Sunday’s win over nationally ranked Indiana was another sign of progress for Fran McCaffery and his staff. Next season’s task: win on the road (five straight losses). Some squad from the bottom of the league is going to score an upset in the Big Ten tournament. The Hawkeyes are on that list.
9. Minnesota: The Gophers are certainly on the outside of the bubble right now, but a victory over Michigan State on Wednesday could push Minnesota back into the discussion. The Gophers don’t have a magic number, just a need to score some additional signature victories in the coming weeks when they’ll play the Spartans, the Hoosiers and the Badgers.
10. Nebraska: The Cornhuskers’ 23-point win over Illinois on Saturday was an embarrassment for the Illini but a major boost for a squad that’s struggled all season. Is it too late to save Doc Sadler's job?
11. Penn State: The Nittany Lions’ loss to Wisconsin in Madison was Penn State’s ninth consecutive road loss. This is another team that’s been solid in stretches at home but unable to duplicate any sliver of that success away from State College, Pa.
12. Illinois: I don’t care about the Illini's record. I don’t care about nonconference wins or their past victories over the Spartans or Buckeyes. That performance against Nebraska this weekend -- an 80-57 loss when they knew what was on the line -- put the Illini at the bottom of these power rankings. They’re the worst team in the league right now for a lot of reasons. But on Tuesday in Columbus, they have a crucial opportunity to revive their at-large hopes and potentially save Bruce Weber’s job. Don't count on it.