Badgers, Buckeyes have class even if Big Ten is down

Between now and early March, much will be written on the topic of good conferences and bad conferences. Trees will be killed to make newsprint and space will be occupied on this fancy Internet thing.

What then is the definition of a good conference? An up conference? A league that is down?

The answer, in a roundabout way, will bring us to tonight's Ohio State-Wisconsin game.

Does a conference have a good year when it has good balance, a multitude of NCAA Tournament teams and a gaudy standing in the RPI? Or does everything come down, simply, to a league's performance in those three weeks in March?

Obviously, achieving a combination -- a deep league and a victory-filled March -- is best. But things don't always work that way. The Big Ten's past two seasons are a perfect example of this.

Last season, the Big Ten had that elusive balance. Six teams ranked in the top 34 of the RPI, all of them reached the NCAA Tournament and it was the best conference in the country, according to the RPI.

But then the conference had a disastrous NCAA tournament. Iowa, Michigan State and Wisconsin didn't get out of the first round. Ohio State, Illinois and Indiana lost in the second round. Four of those six losses came against lower-seeded opponents.

The Midwest power conference had two fewer Sweet 16 teams than the Missouri Valley Conference (that, for the math-challenged, was exactly zero).

So was that a good year?

Now let's go back to the 2004-05 season. From almost the beginning of the season until the start of the NCAA Tournament, the Big Ten was criticized. And, as is usually the case in the Big Ten, the more fans/sportswriters/TV talking heads dogged the conference and talked about how it was Illinois and then everybody else, the more the league's coaches got irritated.

They busted out all the typical lines about how it's so hard to win on the road in the Big Ten, how there's great balance and great coaching and great, well, everything.

So what happened to a conference that finished the regular season ranked sixth in the RPI? It got two teams -- Michigan State and the national runner-up Illinois -- into the Final Four and a third, Wisconsin, into the Elite Eight.

So was that a good year?

That brings us back to this season and tonight's game in Madison.

Much already has been made about the Big Ten's play in the nonconference portion of the season. The league is fifth in the RPI, it is 17-21 against the other BCS conferences (and a wretched 3-10 against the ACC) and the league went 3-10 in nonconference games against ranked opponents.

That, by at least one definition, is not good. That Illinois and Michigan State both lost their first two Big Ten games doesn't help either.

But then there are Wisconsin and Ohio State.

As expected, the two teams have clearly been the best teams in the Big Ten. With the Badgers ranked third by the writers and fourth by the coaches, and the Buckeyes ranked fifth in both polls, the two certainly are on a short list of potential Final Four teams.

Wisconsin (15-1) starts three seniors -- including Big Ten preseason player of the year Alando Tucker -- and two juniors. Ohio State (13-2) has four freshmen playing significant roles. While the Badgers certainly don't play slowly, they are a disciplined squad that understands Bo Ryan's offense and looks for mismatches. Ohio State is much more of an up-and-down team and leads the Big Ten in made 3-pointers per game.

Those contrasts make tonight's game -- along with the Feb. 25 rematch in Columbus -- worth watching, despite the status of the rest of the Big Ten. The winner will be in clear control of the league race, despite the fact that it's still early January.

A case can certainly be made that the game is more important for Wisconsin. Since Ryan's arrival in Madison, the Badgers are 39-2 in conference games at the Kohl Center, losing only to Illinois in each of the past two seasons.

The Buckeyes, though, certainly arrive in Madison with momentum. After the two nonconference road losses, Ohio State won its first road game of the season by undressing Illinois in Champaign. While the Illini have dealt with injuries all season and certainly aren't what they were in recent years, Ohio State handed Illinois its worst conference home loss in more than 30 years.

Ryan doesn't buy the theory that Ohio State's freshmen will be too wide-eyed to play well. After all, this will be their third road game this season against a team ranked in the nation's top five at the time the game was played.

"By the time you get to this point of the season, when you've played 12 to 15 games, a lot of that [inexperience] is gone," Ryan said.

"It isn't as if one through five are freshmen. They've got guys who have played and been through the Big Ten. Plus, in January a lot of that newness has gotten some experience and they've learned a lot. You can tell with the way they played against Illinois; they're not playing like freshmen any more."

That's especially the case with Greg Oden, Ohio State's 7-foot monster inside.

"As my daughters who are in high school say, 'He looks a lot older than 18 or 19,'" Ryan said. "I thought that was a pretty good observation. I mean physically and his poker face and the way he gets things done and goes about his business, he seems much older."

If the Badgers are going to protect their home court, they will likely have to find a way to draw Oden away from the basket. When the Buckeyes have been at their best, Oden has, in essence, played goalie. He's defended the basket and allowed the Ohio State perimeter players the opportunity to be more aggressive because they don't have to worry about giving up a layup.

With Wisconsin running the swing offense -- a system set up to move players all over the floor and give almost every player a chance to score inside -- it doesn't seem unrealistic to believe that Ohio State will play some zone defense.

"If some of the Wisconsin players, their bigs, start making some shots outside, now [Oden] has to come out [away from the basket]," Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. "The other thing is, people have gotten him involved in ball-screen action and Wisconsin is pretty effective on that."

But as Illinois learned on Saturday, the Buckeyes are more than just Oden.

"Their young guys, like Mike Conley Jr. and Daequan Cook, they're not playing like freshmen anymore," Wisconsin guard Kammron Taylor said. "We know from the guard position, we're going to have to come ready to play on Tuesday."

Why? Because this isn't just any game against a Big Ten team. This one has two potential Final Four teams. And that's not bad for a league that might be down.

Jeff Shelman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (www.startribune.com) is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.