We are now almost exactly halfway through the Big Ten conference schedule, with every team having played at least nine games (Nebraska and Northwestern have played ten). The standings are:
Penn State, 0-9
Contenders: Indiana, Michigan, MSU, OSU, Wisconsin, and Minnesota
So far, things are going relatively according to plan. Chorlton's Big Five—IU, Mich, MSU, OSU, and UW—are a clear cut above every other team with the possible exception of Minnesota. These six teams are all clearly going to the NCAA tournament. At the very top, Indiana, Michigan, and Michigan State all appear to be Final Four caliber teams. Here's a breakdown of the contenders, worst-to-first:
Minnesota. Coming in to the conference season, Minnesota was a mystery, and a source of disagreement between me and Chorlton. Although I disparaged Tubby Smith before the season, I was starting to become a believer in this year's squad. Chorlton thought they were a clear cut below the Big Five. Halfway through, Minnesota is still a difficult team to get a read on. They lost four in a row at one point, but three of the losses (at Indiana, vs. Michigan, and at Wisconsin) were entirely excusable. Only the loss at Northwestern stands out as a bad loss. But then they barely beat Iowa at home yesterday, and only because Iowa made a series of blunders in the final two minutes. Still, Minnesota has one of the more favorable schedules remaining among the top conference teams: @MSU, Ill., UW, @Iowa, @OSU, IU, PSU, @Neb., @Purdue. They've got a good shot at winning six of those games and finishing 11-7 in conference. The key for them will be the stretch next week when they host Wisconsin and go to Iowa. They'll be favored in both games, and have to win one of them. If they lose both—and they could—I think the wheels could fall off.
Ohio State. Another tough team to figure out. On offense they are a one-man show, with Deshaun Thomas taking nearly a third of the team's shots when he's on the floor (which is almost always). But they play great defense, led by handsy Aaron Craft, and Matta has them coached up, as always. The problem is that OSU's remaining schedule is pretty brutal. Incredibly, they have zero games left against PSU, Purdue, Nebraska, and Iowa. And road games against Michigan, Wisconsin, and Indiana await them: @Mich., IU, NW, @UW, MN, MSU, @NW, @IU, Ill. Not a lot of sure things in there. If Ohio State wants to stay in the hunt for its fourth straight title they are going to have beat Indiana and Michigan State at home and beat Wisconsin on the road. A difficult task, but it wouldn't be shocking.
Wisconsin. We know all about Wisconsin, obviously. They are at 6-3, which is where I predicted they'd be—but they got there in a surprising way: road wins at Indiana and Illinois, and losses at Iowa and to Michigan State. They are almost through their murderer's row portion of the schedule, and we'll find out if they can keep their dark-horse hopes for a title alive over the next two weeks: three home games against Iowa, Michigan, and OSU, and a trip to Minnesota. Two wins there keeps them on pace to finish 12-6, as we both predicted; but if they manage to get three then we can start to dream a little. Perhaps a more realistic goal is finish ahead of Minnesota and OSU to keep the "top 4" streak going. If they can beat OSU and win at Northwestern, I think they'll at least tie with OSU for fourth. Remaining schedule: Iowa, Mich., @MN, OSU, @NW, Neb., Purdue, @MSU, @PSU.
Indiana. Indiana stands alone atop the conference (and the nation) at 8-1, with just a single, glorious loss at home to Wisconsin. But, like Ohio State, the Hoosiers have yet to face the meat of their schedule, with four tough road games remaining at OSU, MSU, MN, and Michigan—not to mention a losable game at Illinois. Indiana is a very good team, and they have two truly great college players in Oladipo and Zeller. They have the talent to win a national title. But do they have the grit to win a Big Ten title? We may have to wait until their final game—at Michigan—to find out. Remaining schedule: @Ill., @OSU, Neb., Pur., @MSU, @MN, Iowa, OSU, @Mich. They are lucky they don't have to come to Madison this year.
Michigan. Chorlton did a good job of breaking down how scary this team is on offense, and their defense isn't half-bad either (4th best defensive efficiency in conference play). Trey Burke has been amazing, and then they've got all these fantastic freshmen. It's pretty unfair. But they have five tough games remaining: both games against MSU, a game in Madison, and the rematches with Ohio State and Indiana. Remaining schedule: OSU, @UW, @MSU, PSU, Ill., @PSU, MSU, @Purdue, IU.
Michigan State. The Spartans aren't blowing anyone out, but they are always in a position to win. Though they usually lose one bad game on the road in the Big Ten (attention, Purdue, on Feb. 9th), they have the second best win in the conference so far, their win at Wisconsin. The only thing I see holding MSU back is injuries. Both Thrice and Harris are banged up. If neither plays against Minnesota on Wednesday, that could be a difference maker. But, in the end, I expect MSU to be right there, playing in a regional final, and probably winning it.
Bubble Teams: Iowa, Illinois, and Northwestern
Iowa, Illinois, and Northwestern are technically on the bubble. But it's hard to see either Northwestern or Illinois finishing better than 7-11 (and definitely not both of them, as they play each other). At this point they are both very likely headed to the NIT.
That leaves Iowa. Iowa has been so close to a breakout season. They blew late leads against Michigan State, at Purdue, and at Minnesota. If they win just one of those games, they would be looking very good for a tournament spot. But those three losses actually expose a big Iowa weakness: they just aren't very good on offense, particularly in the half-court. When things get tight, they fail to execute and they cannot score. So I will not be surprised if they blow a couple more games. Here's their remaining schedule: @UW, NW, @PSU, MN, @Neb, Purdue, @IU, Ill., Neb. There are seven clearly winnable games, and they need six to get to 9-9. Will they? I've got my eye on their Valentine's Day game at Penn State: I think may be a lot of broken hearts in Iowa City that night.
The Rest: Purdue, Nebraska, Penn State
Each of these teams, especially Purdue, has some pluck. But it's unlikely any of them has the firepower to pull off an upset over any of the top six teams. Purdue seems to be getting better, but their non-conference was so terrible that they likely won't qualify for the NIT.
When I look at the schedules, I see Indiana, Michigan, and Michigan State all coming in right around 14-4. A three-way tie is a real possibility, and that's what I'm going with for now. It should be really fun to watch. In response to any accusations of copping out, please note that I listed the top six teams above in "worst-to-first" order so that's my opinion of the top three teams' relative merit. That said, whichever of them wins the title I will retain the right to say I predicted it.
MSU - 14-4 (+1 from pre-season prediction)
Mich. - 14-4
IU - 14-4
UW - 12-6
OSU - 12 6
Minn. - 11-7 (-1)
Iowa - 8-10 (-1)
NW - 7-11 (+3)
Ill. - 6-12 (-2)
Purdue - 6-12
Nebraska - 3-15 (+2)
PSU - 1-17 (-1)