1. Indiana (23-3 / 11-2) W v. Nebraska 76-47 , W v. Purdue 83-58
A week with an average 27-point margin of victory in Big Ten play reaffirms Indiana's current standing as a clear national and conference #1. Victor Oladipo seems like he's fine, which was the real concern of the week's games (coming out healthy), and the non-Will Sheehey bench got a few minutes to contribute, too. Players 6-11 in the rotation (Jeremy Hollowell, Maurice Creek, Remy Abell, Derek Elston, and Hanner Mosquera-Perea) played an average 43.5 minutes in the last two games. That's a big boost from the 25.8 mpg they had been averaging over the last five (which includes a high of 48 in the West lafayette blowout). I was going to write that the last five games looked like one of the most difficult season-ending stretches that Hoosier fans have seen in a long time, but it was just two years ago that half this roster played against three top-10 teams (Purdue, Wisconsin, & at Ohio State) and went on the road to face a desparate Illini team to close out the season. So Christian Watford, Jordan Hulls, Oladipo, Sheehey, Elston and even Jeff Howard, Taylor Wayer, and Creek have all seen something like this before.
Another quick note, Hoosierdaddynow was asking if anyone in the conference was playing as well as Watford, and statistically, CWat has had a great five-game stretch to support some conversation about first-team status. He's shooting a hair over 50% from the field, 55% from the arc, 91% from the stripe, and is nabbing nearly 8 rebounds/game! Not to mention that the 2 block/3 steal combo in the PU game was the best of his career. With those sort of marks, you can live three turnovers a game. Ehhh. Mostly. Those threes won't always drop, so the Hoosiers really need CWat to tighten up his grip on the ball.
2. Michigan State (22-4 / 11-2) W v. Michigan 75-52, W v. Nebraska 73-64
I wouldn't put any weight on the Nebraska game as revealing any weakness for the Spartans. They were due for a bit of a let-down after destroying the Wolverines in about a perfect a game as even Coach Izzo could ask for. While I respect that Izzo, etc. are not intimidated of Indiana, Derrick Nix is woofing a bit that Adriean Payne and Brandon Dawson can do everything that Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo can do isn't exactly accurate. (The Dagger has a good take on this, although they don't get into specifics: for example, Dawson has a pretty ugly free-throw percentage and neither Spartan has been able to match the Hoosiers' field-goal percentage or even Zeller's meager 2:3 assist/turnover ratio)
Make no mistake, I've had the game in East Lansing circled as a loss for the Hoosiers since, well... since before it actually was scheduled. I just have a suspicion that Indiana's going to have some problems with foul trouble up there, and MSU has the talent to exploit whatever weak point gets revealed. Win or lose, how Izzo's club fares in the following road games to Columbus and Ann Arbor will really determines the course of the conference title race.
3. Wisconsin (18-8 / 9-4) L @ Minnesota 53-58 (OT), W v. OSU 71-49
Living on the edge bit the Badgers when they finally lost at overtime game. Otherwise, Bo Ryan's team is on one heck of a roll. The beatdown of Ohio State, who had posted the biggest margin of victory (of a mere nine points) over the Badgers in conference games, has to have Badger fans pretty happy. They win out (and only a game at MSU seems like a probable loss) and they'll likely get a piece of the conference title. Who would've thought that possible before their shocking win in Bloomington? Ben Brust putting up points seems to be one consistent way in which Wisky has gotten rolling of late. After a stretch where he had reached double figures only once in 12 games, Brust has now done so in five straight matches, averaging 15.6ppg in February.
4. Michigan (22-4 / 9-4) L @ Michigan State 52-75, W v. Penn State 79-71
Wolverine fans can feel outraged, and rightly so, Michigan's body of work looks like a national title contender. But this just another example of how freaking tough the conference is, and how a mere week where you're not at your best can hurt you. Unlike the loss in Bloomington, the loss to the Spartans seemed like the Wolverines got exposed. The hangover doesn't seem to have lifted, and lowly Penn State gave Michigan all they could handle at home. There are, however, signs of hope. Freshmen Glenn Robinson III (21 points, 10 rebounds) and Nik Stauskas (18 points, 4 assists) reemerged in the PSU game. Jordan Morgan made his first start in almost a month (although he only played 7 minutes and didn't really contribute much). And excepting home rematches with Michigan State and Indiana, Beilien has a fairly favorable back schedule to make some adjustments to get the defense tightened back up to an acceptable level.
5. Illinois (19-8 / 6-7) W v. Purdue 79-59, W @ Northwestern 62-41
A pair of revenge blowouts has confirmed that the Illini are not last year's team. While a lot of folks are concentrating on Tyler Griffey's emergence, I'm interested in the inclusion of Sam McLaurin into the starting line-up. It may have started off poorly (with a blowout home loss to Northwestern) and /or not seem statistically significant in terms of per-game production. However, since that first game the Illini have been competitive or victorious in every match. A tough scheduling stretch against Michigan, MSU, and Wisconsin (all losses, but close losses) I think has obscured just what a good decision this was by Coach Groce. I think the Illini will still need to win at Iowa to have a worry-free Selection Sunday, but they are in great shape right now.
6. Ohio State (18-7 / 8-5) W v. Northwestern 69-59, L @ Wisconsin 49-71
The Buckeyes just look kind of broken right now. How is this the same team that played Duke and Kansas so tough, that beat Michigan and had Wolverine and Spartan fans holding their breath on the final possessions on their home floors? They've got to do better against Minnesota and Michigan State teams at home this next week, or risk really backsliding to a poor seed in the NCAA tourney. What's the problem? One easy point to see is that their best shooter (DeShaun Thomas) has gone 1-of-8 from three in the last two games. A couple of games ago, his season three-point shooting average was 40%, but he hasn't been above that mark in a month. Also, one of the sole sources of bench production for the Buckeyes, LaQuinton Ross played terribly in the last two games (1-for-9 shooting, 5 turnovers) after doing well against Michigan and Indiana.
7. Iowa (17-9 / 6-7) W @ Penn State 74-72, W v. Minnesota 72-51
With that huge win over Minnesota, Iowa is now trying to gather momentum to make a case for inclusion in the NCAA tournament. What makes it possible is that the Hawkeyes dodged a bullet in Happy Valley. A loss there and they would have been totally out of the discussion. Winning at Indiana is probably too big of a hurdle to ask, but they really can go 4-1 down the stretch as they host Purdue and Illinois and play Nebraska twice. That'll mean they go into the Big Ten Tourney at 10-8 (21-10 overall) and winning seven of their last eight games. If they can get a nice run in the tourney, you really could see the Hawkeyes dancing. Still, I'm thinking they will be the conference's sacrificial lamb. What mystifies me about the Hawkeyes right now is their starting line-up. Going big (Adam Woodbury, Melsahn Basabe, Aaron White, Roy Devyn Marble, and Mike Gesell) was getting them into big holes to start games last week, and then McCaffrey rolls it out against small teams like Penn State and Minnesota. I know, it netted two wins, but they started out down 21-5 to Minnesota, and needed a buzzer three from Aaron White to go into halftime up four at Penn State.
8. Minnesota (18-8 / 6-7) W v. Wisconsin 59-53 (OT), L @ Iowa 51-72
Anyone who doesn't at least try a zone against the Gophers deserves what they get. Go take a look at the "Fran-graph" and try to argue against playing zone against Tubby Smith. Even Bobby Knight would break it out if faced with these data points. Still, Tubby got a pretty good win at home with the OT victory over the otherwise red-hot Badgers last week. The Gophers just need to finish .500 to ensure a berth in the NCAA tournament, and they should easily get there with their last three games being at home versus Penn State and at Purdue and Nebraska. Still, if Tubby loses at Ohio State and at home against Indiana (quite reasonably), I wonder if fan patience doesn't reach a bit of a boiling point. It's funny, because I see a lot of the same sort of frustration over at The Daily Gopher that I used to see in Hoosier circles in 2006. It's like, yeah, this team is not bad, but looking down the next few years.... is this mediocrity really good enough for a high point for this program? Of course, Indiana fans were measuring Davis against Bobby Knight, not Dan Monson.
9. Northwestern (13-13 / 4-9) L @ OSU 59-69, L v. Illinois 41-62
I really expected a bloodbath in Columbus when NU traveled with seven scholarship players, two of which had played 40 minutes in the last five games *combined* (or about 2.5mpg/apiece, walk-on minutes). But the Buckeyes needed a 12-0 run at the end of the game to salvage a victory at the end of the season. Carmody rolled out a previously unused 2-3 switching zone (which has been compared to the amoeba defense) that outfoxed the Buckeyes for nearly the entirety of the game. Still, it was going to be tough to hold off a red-hot Illini team who was both hungry for a win and looking for revenge for an earlier homecourt beatdown. And sure enough, the lack of bodies finally caught up with the Wildcats in a 21 point loss that doesn't really show how far out of hand this one was. Northwestern scored about a quarter of its point total in the last 4:30. The way things are going, Carmody's squad (or what's left of it) will beat Wisconsin at home before gifting Penn State their first win on Northwestern's senior night.
10. Purdue (12-14 / 5-8) L @ Illinois 59-79, L @ Indiana 58-83
I predicted before the Purdue game that we'd see the Boilers stiffen up and have a small mini-revival before the schedule brought a brutal end to Purdue's season. But maybe these guys have quit. With AJ Hammons coming back down to earth, Painter's team doesn't look all that dangerous. However, the next few games will give them a small chance at somewhat redeeming the performance of the past few weeks. Painter's got a few days to try to start building something for the future before a limping Northwestern visits. NU has confusing schemes, and the Boiler roster is full of freshmen, but Purdue is much more athletic and deep than the Wildcats, so there's really no excuse for the Boilers not getting one more home win on Sunday.
11. Nebraska (12-14 / 3-10) L @ Indiana 47-76 L @ Michigan State 64-73
The Huskers had about a brutal a schedule as anyone could imagine, and frankly handled it pretty well. They fought tough in Assembly Hall before eventually succumbing to the inevitable, and bounced back to play 40 minutes against Spartans, who could not put them away in the Breslin center. Freshman Shavon Shields went for 19 points and 13 rebounds against the Spartans, which is frankly eye-opening. This has got to have Husker fans thinking "could Tim Miles building something in Lincoln?" He's got three guys sitting on the sidelines who should be able to help next season in Florida transfer Walter Pritchford, Texas Tech transfer Terran Pettaway, and All-American Juco Deverell Biggs. He'll return starters Shields, David Rivers, and Ray Gallegos, and add at least three freshmen, most notably four star point-guard Tai Webster. There's definitely reason for guarded optimism, but Coach Miles will really need Pitchford to live up to his potential as there won't be much competent size on the roster with the graduations of Brandon Ubel and Andre Almeida, and converted wing-point Dylan Talley will be moving on as well.
12. Penn State (8-17 / 0-13) L v. Iowa 72-74, L @ Michigan 71-79
When DJ Newbill's go-ahead three clanged off the rim with about 30 seconds left, I was pretty sure that PSU's "defeated" record in conference play was sealed. Now, after that solid showing at Michigan, I'm not so sure. Newbill has started taking it to the hoop in the last two games, getting either quality looks for himself or others, and this bodes well for the Nittany Lion's stretch run. Next year should be much better for Coach Chambers as well, as the only senior on the roster is walk-on Nick Collela (who played well at Michigan with 9 pts, 6 rebs, and 4 assists before fouling out), although center Sasa Borovnjak will be leaving as well. They get a few recruits, notably three-star point guard Geno Thorpe, but really next season everyone will be looking forward to Tim Frazier's return. For the rest of this season, I'm just rooting for PSU not to go defeated. Coach Chambers seems like a hard-working guy, and I'd hate to see that albatross around his neck.