The Wolverines fell from the top this weekend, but they'll live. What about Minnesota and Northwestern?
With the first half of the Big Ten schedule in the rearview mirror, it is time to sort out the Pandora's box that is the Big Ten conference. Indiana and Michigan have showed they are the top dogs in the NCAA's deepest conference, but after those two the Big Ten is wide open. Michigan State, Ohio State, Minnesota and Wisconsin have proved to be capable teams so far, but each have flaws that keep them from the top two spots in the Big Ten power rankings.
After that, there's a large mess of average teams trying to put enough wins together in the last nine games of the season to be considered for the Big Dance come March.
1. Indiana (20-2, 8-1 Big Ten): After a dominant 81-72 win over No. 1 Michigan on Saturday, Indiana has cemented its place as the top dog in the Big Ten. The Hoosiers' frontcourt proved to be too much for the Wolverines to handle in Bloomington as IU dominated the boards, out-rebounding the Wolverines, 36-22. Indiana's slaying of top-ranked Big Blue came just three days after a 37-point pounding of Purdue on Wednesday. Indiana definitely is hitting its stride right now and will certainly be No. 1 in the AP polls come Monday with No. 2 Kansas losing to Oklahoma State over the weekend.
2. Michigan (20-2, 7-2): Michigan fans will have to go back to reminiscing about the Fab Five after a poor showing in Indiana that will knock the Wolverines out of the No. 1 spot. Michigan won't have much time to get over its Hoosier-induced hangover with Ohio State coming to Ann Arbor on Tuesday and then a two-game road trip starting at the Kohl Center to take on the free throw-inept yet always dangerous Wisconsin team.
3. Michigan State (17-4, 7-2): Although Michigan State almost gave away a game to Illinois in East Lansing on Thursday, the Spartans have done enough in the first half of the Big Ten schedule to wiggle their way into third. Honestly, right now I'd say it is a tossup between Michigan State and Ohio State for the third spot, but since the Spartans have a home win against the Buckeyes I have to give the edge to Tom Izzo's club. Don't be surprised, though, to see Ohio State get a home victory of its own over Michigan State later in February.
4. Ohio State (17-4, 7-2): Junior forward Deshaun Thomas continues to lead Ohio State to victories, playing all 40 minutes in the Buckeyes' last two games against Wisconsin and at Nebraska. Ohio State only won by seven in Nebraska but beat a pesky Wisconsin team at home earlier in the week. The Buckeyes, with the dangerous backcourt combination of Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith, Jr., are still one of the more dangerous teams in the conference.
5. Wisconsin (14-7, 6-3): What's the best way to make sure you don't miss a free throw? Don't shoot any. The Badgers tried an interesting tactic last Tuesday in Columbus and avoided their nightmares at the free-throw line by not attempting any for the first time since Bo Ryan came to Madison. The Badgers were completely overmatched in the paint against the Buckeyes, giving up 25 points to the surging Thomas. Wisconsin did bounce back, attempting 42 free throws in a 74-68 win over Illinois on Sunday. Wisconsin's inability to make free throws and its tendency to live or die by the three makes for an inconsistent mixture. Yet, Wisconsin has proven it can win the big games, à la Indiana and Minnesota. If the Badgers can figure things out at the charity stripe, they could be a sleeper in the Big Ten Tournament.
6. Minnesota (16-5, 5-4): Tubby Smith's team finds itself below Wisconsin after losing an ugly game to the Badgers last week in the Kohl Center. The Golden Gophers still have plenty of talent on their roster with Andre and Austin Collins to make their way up this list. They can start with a statement win over Michigan State in East Lansing on Wednesday.
7. Northwestern (13-10, 4-6): I know. After an embarrassing 15-point loss to Nebraska last week, Northwestern probably doesn't deserve to be even No. 7 on this list but with wins over Illinois, Minnesota and most recently Purdue on Saturday, the Wildcats show signs that they can still contend with most teams in the Big Ten.
8. Iowa (14-5, 3-6): Iowa fans are probably screaming that their Hawkeyes should be ranked above Northwestern after clobbering the Wildcats by 20 a couple of weeks ago and almost beating Minnesota on Sunday. But, Northwestern did beat Minnesota. Just when it seemed like Iowa had it figured out with wins over Northwestern and Wisconsin, the Hawkeyes proceed to lose three of their next four. Maybe the near upset of Minnesota is a sign of good things to come.
9. Purdue (11-11, 4-5): Purdue fans are probably still looking at Robbie Hummel posters hanging in the living room and sobbing after every Boilermaker loss. Hummel probably does the same thing after finding himself playing basketball in Spain. Purdue has a couple of nice conference wins over Iowa and Illinois, but they just lack the talent to compete with the better teams in the conference. Granted, A.J. Hammonds and Terone Johnson can put up double-digits on any given night, but Purdue needs some depth to be a consistent threat in the Big Ten.
10. Illinois (15-7, 2-7): After a promising 13-1 start, Illinois has crashed and burned following its early-season high in losing seven of its last 10. Now, with only two conference wins to its name, Illinois finds itself in the Big Ten Basement. The Fighting Illini appeared on their way to a big win over Michigan State on Thursday, but blew a 10-point halftime lead and allowed the Spartans to score 53 in the second half of an 80-75 loss. Illinois had no chance to win on Sunday against Wisconsin at home after putting the Badgers on the line 42 times. Even against a team like Wisconsin, there is no way to come out with a win after giving an opponent that many freebies.
11. Nebraska (11-12, 2-8): Nebraska effectively continues to prove it is a football school with every basketball game against a Big Ten opponent. Sure, the Cornhuskers came away with a win over Northwestern last week and only lost to Ohio State by seven, but Nebraska's lack of experience on the roster is too big of an obstacle to overcome in the 2012-13 season.
12. Penn State (8-13, 0-9): No surprise here. I think everyone at Penn State was so busy celebrating head football coach Bill O'Brian's decision to stay with the Nittany Lions that the university forgot it had a basketball team, too. Penn State has yet to win a conference game this season and shows no signs of winning one anytime soon.