The Big Ten. Best basketball conference in the nation. No group of teams vaguely aligned via geography and academic cooperation is better than the Big Ten. Right? Then how come no one in the conference seems happy about how their season has gone. Truly it seems like every team sans Michigan and Nebraska has a fan base scratching their heads and asking what happened. Let's take a look at them team by team and try and figure out in order who is happy and why.
1. Michigan - Now obviously any time you can grab an outright Big Ten title you have to be very satisfied with how your team has performed. The Wolverines had a small hiccup mid-season losing to the then hapless Hoosiers and following that up by getting blown out in Iowa and losing to Wisconsin at home, all within a span of 5 games. But after that they've been right back into cruise control. A squad that was looking to finish top 4 before the games started is staring an outright title in the face.
2. Nebraska - Did you know that people in Nebraska care about basketball? Well they didn't used to but they sure as hell do now. If not for John Beilein's strong season in Ann Arbor, Tim Miles would be a run away for coach of the year. Nebraska fans are doing back flips with the idea that even getting into the NCAA tournament is a possibility. Expected to be in the basement to start the year, they're going to finish middle of the pack. Hell they may even make it above .500 if they can beat Indiana in Assembly Hall on Wednesday.
3. Northwestern - Northwestern was supposed to be this conference season's punching bag. Instead that had a very fun run to start the conference season 5-2. Now they haven't won a game since then and currently still reside in the basement of the conference, but only one other time in the history of conference play has the last place team finished with at least 5 wins. They also finish up their schedule with two games against the other two teams that reside along with them in the basement. A 5 win season is already a coup for Northwestern, but 6 and a not last place finish? Might as well order the kegs and burn a couch.
4. Wisconsin- No team this year has been immune to runs of just god awful basketball and Wisconsin is no different. After starting 3-0 the Badgers went 1-5 with their sole win being at Purdue in that stretch. The run was fraught with very bad defense and only mediocre offense. It was not looking good. However, they've righted the ship and Bo Ryan's squad has run off 7 straight. Sitting in second place, there is still a shot at a share of the title if Illinois and Indiana can help out against Michigan.
5. Penn State - Another squad that is currently residing in the basement, but with more wins than expected so it's a good thing. The Lions have to go to Northwestern and Minnesota to wrap up the season. While underdogs in both match-ups, they aren't impossible tasks to overcome. Not finishing last let alone with 6 wins should be a victory in this fan base's books.
6. Michigan St. - Also in a position to still get a share of the title, Spartan fans aren't quite as optimistic. They haven't won two games in a row since mid January and still have to face Iowa at home and Ohio State on the road. The chances are slim, and fans are trying to figure out if the glass is half empty or half full. On one hand they've been plagued with injuries and are still in a good place, but on the other hand the healthy individuals have been iffy for long stretches. Confidence is not flowing, but they've still got to be happy with the results despite the adversity.
7. Minnesota - This is where the list starts to get a little hairy. Minnesota was banking on a rebuilding year and currently looks to be set to finish 8-10. That's approximately where they were projected to finish. The talent is there, but it still has some work to do with a new coach. I can't imagine they're ecstatic with the way they've finished but they had a fun run in the middle of the conference season and are on the bubble. If they make the tournament, the season is a win.
8. Illinois- 2 weeks ago this season was over. They were sitting at 3-10 in conference and had lost 10 of 11. Two weeks later and the Illini have reeled off 3 straight are at 6-10 and have the chance to play spoilers in their building against Michigan tomorrow. Win there and the season, while not a huge success will finish with them notching some signature wins and in a position to make some good NIT noise. With a young group taking over for the seniors the future is feeling brighter than the present for Illinois. But overall, not as bad as it looked a few weeks ago.
9. Iowa - Until yesterday the sky was falling in Iowa City. Three straight losses in a tough stretch of schedule had them sliding fast in the conference standings. Now sitting at 9-7 with a very real possibility of finishing 1-1 in the final two games, Iowa will be finishing top 5 but in an uglier fashion than imagined. They were a dark horse candidate to grab the title this year and things just didn't pan out quite as expected. If the expectations for the season were lower to begin with, they'd be happy with this season. Instead, they're going to have to focus on making a tourney run as a 6+ seed.
10. Ohio State - Another squad with a lot of pre-season promise, the Buckeyes started slow, gained momentum and appear to have hit the skids again. Swept by Penn State and a loss on the road to Indiana have many a Buckeye wringing their hands. They're still going to be a team capable of getting into a Final Four, but the confidence level is not high as their offense has seemed to have evaporated recently. For a squad that was supposed to finish top 2 in the conference a 3 way tie for 4th is pretty disappointing.
11. Indiana - The Hoosiers and their fans have been pretty bummed about this season up until the last week. The Hoosiers were floundering and looked terrible on offense. But oh what two performances against ranked squads can do. The Hoosiers season is now looking up and if they can manage to win their last two games to finish 9-9 they fly up the rankings. Still that doesn't negate the fact that a very loud and growing minority was starting to scream for Tom Crean's job.
12. Purdue - The two most under performing teams were out of Indiana. If not for Purdue the Hoosiers would be at the bottom of this list. However, the Boilermakers are also warming to the idea of firing a coach. The young players haven't quite developed as quickly as expected and the Boilermakers are the only conference team to not have a win versus a ranked opponent as they sit in a tie for the basement. The boo birds have been flying at games and its been directed at their teams as much as it has been the officials. If Purdue can't win at home against Northwestern next Sunday expect West Lafayette to implode as they finish dead last in conference when some were predicting a top half finish.
Ultimately the conference is still the strongest in the nation, but not nearly as far apart as it has been in the last few years. Few fan bases are happy or even satisfied with their performance but good tourney runs cure most ills. Can the Big Ten launch some teams into the Final Four? It doesn't feel likely right now, but sometimes adversity is more beneficial than cruise control.