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Big Ten PG: The Nation's Best?

Welcome to Big Ten Point Guard!

OSU's Deshaun Thomas works against IU's Cody Zeller

Hopefully, each week I’ll have a quick read on the Big Ten basketball scene as well as what’s happening in the nation at large. Most weeks this will appear late Monday or midday on Tuesday.

Without any further ado, let’s get right to it:

Big Ten Notables

* The Nation’s Best Conference – Over the years, we have talked about the Big Ten’s strength as a basketball conference. This year – at least so far – the conference has truly been the best.

Of course, the real barometer of which league is the best will be decided during the NCAA Tournament. The Big Ten has had plenty of teams reach the Final Four in recent years, but has not had a national champion since Michigan State won it all in 2000.

Could this be the year a Big Ten school breaks through and wins it all? We will have to wait to get the answer to that question.

But as things stand, the Big Ten has stood above the rest. The conference boasts the nation’s best conference RPI rating. Four of its teams are ranked in the AP poll top 13 with five schools total in the top 25. Two others have been ranked during the course of the year.

Indiana, despite a loss to an unranked Illinois team, remained No. 1 in this week’s AP poll. Other Big Ten teams ranked include Michigan at No. 4, Michigan State eighth, Ohio State 13th and Wisconsin 20th.

Seven Big Ten teams are ranked in the RPI top 35 – a good (or at least early) indication that they should make the NCAA Tournament. (Click here for the most updated RPI rankings.)

The two leading Bracketologists each have those same seven Big Ten teams in the Big Dance.

ESPN.com’s Joe Lunardi’s latest picks, linked here, have Indiana as the No. 1 seed in the Midwest and Michigan as the No. 1 seed in the South. Others in the field include Michigan State (three seed), Ohio State (four seed), Wisconsin (five seed), Minnesota (six seed) and Illinois (11 seed).

CBSSports.com’s Jerry Palm’s latest picks, linked here, have Michigan as the No. 1 seed in the Midwest and Indiana as the No. 1 seed in the East. Others in the field include Michigan State (two seed), Wisconsin (four seed), Minnesota (five seed), Ohio State (six seed) and Illinois (seven seed).

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo joined the Spartans as an assistant for Jud Heathcote in 1983 before becoming the head coach in 1995. He was asked if he can recall a time when the Big Ten was this competitive.

“I never can,” Izzo said. “I know there were some good teams when I first came in as an assistant. You look at Illinois now. They are starting to play well. You look at Minnesota (against Illinois) when Williams went down. You get a key guy injured right now the league is too good to win games.

“You look at a team like Purdue. They are so young, but they are talented. On any given night, they can be good. You look at Iowa, they are so much more improved from last year. I don’t remember it ever being this deep and this good.”

Over a 2-1/2 month conference season teams will drift between hot and cold. Izzo said the key is to make sure the cold spells don’t last any longer than they have to.

“I’ve said all along that in this league you have to stay away from those three- and four-game losing streaks,” Izzo said.

His Spartans are tied with Indiana for the Big Ten lead at 9-2 in conference play. They will host Michigan tonight at the Breslin Center.

“I’ve said all along that Indiana and Michigan are a head above the rest,” Izzo said.

Avoiding an upset is the key to staying in contention, said OSU coach Thad Matta.

“This league is like, ‘Wow,’ ” Matta said. “The one thing I know is there are no games in this league that are a sure thing. There are too many good teams and players. You have to play your best basketball every time. Every game is going to be a challenge home or away.”

Regarding Indiana and Michigan, they seem to be in a battle for the top seed in both the Big Ten tournament and possibly the NCAA Tournament. The key will be which one wins the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Region, set to be played at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis (imagine 40,000 IU fans jamming in for that).

It’s a possibility that it could come down to the Big Ten tournament championship game. If one defeats the other in that game, that team could be rewarded with the Midwest top seed and the loser relegated elsewhere.

* Statement Win For Indiana? – There were some questions about Indiana after the Hoosiers blew a late 10-point lead and fell at Illinois 74-72 on Tyler Griffey’s layup at the buzzer. But the Hoosiers bounced back and showed their class with a decisive 81-68 win at then-No. 10 Ohio State on Sunday.

IU coach Tom Crean liked the way his team bounced back.

“They were really disappointed on Thursday night,” Crean said. “Instead of carrying that disappointment into a woe is me mentality, they really did trigger how to get better. It was in the sense of closing games. We just didn’t finish it off. There was a new level or sense of urgency.

“We were playing a team that was really good and we had not won in that building (since 2008). They were locked in.”

Three Indiana players reached the 20-point plateau in the win at OSU. Victor Oladipo led the way with 26 points, while Cody Zeller had 24 and Christian Watford scored 20. After that win, Crean was asked if he would push Oladipo (one of the nation’s most improved players) or Zeller (a preseason All-American) for postseason honors.

The IU coach deftly sidestepped that one.

“I’ve got a couple of great players,” Crean said. “I read other coaches and I read what they say about their players and I wonder, ‘Am I not doing enough?’ But our focus is on the team. I’ll hear that a team has the best backcourt or the best defensive backcourt. At the end of the day, we’re trying to have the best team.

“I would say today, I would say Victor Oladipo, Cody Zeller and Christian Watford they played as well as a triangle as they could play at both ends of the floor. I’m not into the promotion aspect. If we keep winning, that will take care of itself.”

(Nobody asked me, but if I had to vote today I would say that Oladipo and Michigan’s Trey Burke would be Big Ten player of the year award candidates as well as two favorites for the Wooden Award as national player of the year. My other All-Big Ten first teamers would be Zeller, OSU’s Deshaun Thomas and Michigan’s Tim Hardaway Jr. Michigan State’s Keith Appling would be right there as well, if we stretched it to a top six.)

* The Surging Illini – Illinois parlayed its win over Indiana into a huge road win at Minnesota on Sunday night (57-53). Prior to the back-to-back wins, Illinois had endured an awful run since starting 12-0. The Illini had lost eight of 11 and fallen to 10th in the 12-team Big Ten.

First-year Illinois coach John Groce was glad to see his team come alive at the right time.

“Obviously, we had two big wins last week,” he said. “But the most important thing was how we played. We played the right way. We played with some togetherness and some toughness. We’re trusting the system and one another a little bit more.

“I was proud of the fight. We came back from double-digit deficits in both games and really showed what we are capable of.”

The wins improved Illinois to 4-7 in conference play. The Illini only have two of their last seven games against ranked team, giving them a chance to finish .500 in the conference.

* The Ailing Wildcats – Northwestern has lost three of its last four games and, at 13-11 overall, seems unlikely to reach the NCAA Tournament.

The news got even worse in Saturday’s 71-57 loss at Iowa as center Alex Olah left the game with a concussion and forward Jared Swopshire injured his right knee. NU coach Bill Carmody said he doubted either player would be available for Thursday’s game at Ohio State. (In fact, it was later learned that Swopshire underwent arthroscopic surgery and will be out for the year.)

“Right now, we have to see what we have,” Carmody said. “We play Ohio State and Illinois, two very good teams. Some different guys will get some time and we will have to figure that out.”

* Mr. Big Shot -- Wisconsin stole a home win over then-No. 3 Michigan on Saturday (65-62, in overtime).

The Badgers seemed headed to a rare home loss when UM’s Tim Hardaway Jr. splashed a contested three-pointer under three seconds left in regulation for a 60-57 lead. But UW’s Ben Brust took an inbounds pass from Mike Brusewitz, moved past midcourt and hit a 40-footer to tie the game at force overtime.

Brust then broke a tie in the final minute of the overtime with another three. UW coach Bo Ryan said it takes something special to hit big shots like the ones Brust hit to beat the Wolverines.

“The guys who have hit those shots for us over the years have been confident young men,” Ryan said. “Ben Brust thinks he can make a shot from the parking lot even when he is outside the building. I’ve had guys like Jordan Taylor, Trevon Hughes, Alando Tucker and Devin Harris – guys who have made tough shots in tough situations.

“It’s the make-up of the person and their belief in themselves and their teammates. It’s the guy who makes the pass. Mike Brusewitz delivered the ball on a dime to Ben on this one. You have to have guys with that confidence.”

Ryan talked about the play where Brust tied it.

“The play that we ran was a play that is kind of a universal two- to five-second situation that other teams run,” he said. “But it’s about execution. How many times can Ben turn around with one dribble and make that shot? I’m a realist.”

The win kept Wisconsin within one game of the Big Ten lead at 8-3 in conference play.

* Quite A Rivalry -- No. 4 Michigan and No. 8 Michigan State will renew their rivalry tonight at the Breslin Center. UM coach John Beilein talked about the nature of that rivalry.

“I hope when we first came here it wasn’t the same as it had been in the past because there was a pronounced Michigan State dominance,” Beilein said. “Both programs have continued to get better. We’re getting there. But we have tremendous respect for their program. As long as Tom and his staff will be there, they will always be strong. Hopefully we will be strong as well for the years to come.”

Michigan is 20th nationally in scoring (77.0 ppg) and sixth in field goal percentage (49.8 percent). Beilein was asked about the evolution of his offense.

“It developed 20 years ago and it has changed for 20 straight years,” Beilein said. “You just keep changing with the game. I am not afraid to do that. It started by having an un-athletic team and trying to win against athletic teams. We have very good athletes now. We try to evolve to what fits best to the way the game should be played.”

* The Hopeful Hawkeyes – Iowa heads into the stretch run at 15-9 overall and 4-7 in Big Ten play. The Hawkeyes, a distant 92nd in RPI, may need a 6-1 finish to do enough to make a big enough splash to earn a spot in the NCAA field.

But Iowa coach Fran McCaffery wants his team on an even keel. They dropped a tough double overtime decision at Wisconsin (74-70) last week.

“It’s never that good or it’s never that bad,” McCaffery said. “You have to look at the situation with some perspective. You have to say, ‘We did some great things at Wisconsin. Boy, it’s horrible that we lost.’ We have to improve our end-of-game situations.

“If we didn’t play well in that game, we’d get blown out. On Saturday, we won a game (over Northwestern). But we made a lot of mistakes. We have to correct those. It is a constant journey.”

* Players Of The Week – Illinois’ D.J. Richardson and Wisconsin’s Ben Brust were the co-Big Ten players of the week, while Michigan’s Mitch McGary was the freshman of the week.

Richardson averaged 18 points in the wins over Indiana and Minnesota. Brust averaged 16 points in wins over Iowa and Michigan, hitting those clutch shots to sink the Wolverines. McGary averaged 13 points, seven rebounds and 3.5 steals in UM’s two games last week.

* Looking Forward To Chicago – OK, we just passed the halfway point in the conference race. I thought it would be worthwhile to project the seedings for the Big Ten tournament. It is set for March 14-17 at Chicago’s United Center. The tournament moves back to Chicago for the first time since 2007 after a five-year run in Indianapolis.

As of now, those pairings would be:

Projected Opening Round (March 14): Iowa (8 seed) vs. Northwestern (9), noon Eastern (BTN); Ohio State (5) vs. Penn State (12), 2:25 p.m. (BTN); Purdue (7) vs. Illinois (10), 6:30 p.m. (ESPN2); Minnesota (6) vs. Nebraska (11), 8:55 p.m. (ESPN2).

Projected Quarterfinals (March 15): Indiana (1) vs. Iowa-Northwestern winner, noon (ESPN); Michigan (4) vs. OSU-Penn State winner, 2:25 p.m. (ESPN); Michigan State (2) vs. Purdue-Illinois winner, 6:30 p.m. (BTN); Wisconsin (3) vs. Minnesota-Nebraska winner, 8:55 p.m. (BTN).

Semifinals (March 16): Quarterfinal winners, 1:40 p.m. and 4:05 p.m. (CBS).

Championship Game (March 17): Semifinal winners, 3:30 p.m. (CBS).

Big Ten Notable Games This Week

* Michigan at Michigan State, Tuesday, 9 p.m. (ESPN) – A top-10 match-up at the Breslin Center between two bitter rivals. Need we say more?

* Wisconsin at Minnesota, Wednesday, 7 p.m. (ESPN) – Minnesota has hit a rough patch after losses at Michigan State and to Illinois last week. Wisconsin is red hot with three straight wins. The Gophers really need to hold serve at home. Wisconsin won the first meeting on Jan. 26 in Madison (45-44).

* Ohio State at Wisconsin, 1 p.m. (CBS) – Ohio State pulled away late for a home win over Wisconsin on Jan. 29 (58-49). This could be a critical game in separating the fourth and fifth seed in the Big Ten tournament, which is the difference in getting an opening round bye.

National Games To Watch This Week

* Kentucky at Florida, Tuesday, 7 p.m. (ESPN) – The Wildcats have quietly won five in a row and go into the O-Dome playing their best ball of the year. But the Gators figure to be hungry.

* North Carolina at Duke, Wednesday, 9 p.m. (ESPN) – The sport’s top rivalry is renewed at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Duke moved into No. 1 spot in the USA Today coaches poll (No. 2 AP), while North Carolina comes in off a 26-point loss at Miami (Fla.).

* Georgetown at Cincinnati, Friday, 9 p.m. (ESPN) – A rare Friday night game. UC needs a signature win to get back into the top 25.

* Pittsburgh at Marquette, Saturday, 1 p.m. (CBS) – Marquette won the first match-up at Pitt on Jan. 12 (74-67, in overtime).

* Notre Dame at Pittsburgh, Monday, 7 p.m. (ESPN) – Pitt has a quick turnaround to host the surging Fighting Irish (winners of four of last five, including five-overtime thriller over Louisville) on Big Monday.

My National Top 20

Here’s what I have: Indiana, Duke, Michigan, Miami (Fla.), Florida, Syracuse, Michigan State, Gonzaga, Arizona, Louisville, Kansas, Ohio State, Butler, Kansas State, Georgetown, Pittsburgh, Oklahoma State, New Mexico, Marquette, Wisconsin.

Big Ten Standings, Schedule

TEAM CONF OVERALL
Indiana 9-2 21-3
Michigan State 9-2 20-4
Michigan 8-3 21-3
Wisconsin 8-3 17-7
Ohio State 7-4 17-6
Minnesota 5-6 17-7
Purdue 5-6 12-12
Illinois 4-7 17-8
Iowa 4-7 15-9
Northwestern 4-7 13-11
Nebraska 3-8 12-12
Penn State 0-11 8-15

Tuesday’s Game

Michigan at Michigan State, 9 p.m. (ESPN)

Wednesday’s Games

Nebraska at Indiana, 7 p.m. (BTN)
Purdue at Illinois, 9 p.m. (BTN)

Thursday’s Games

Wisconsin at Minnesota, 7 p.m. (ESPN)
Northwestern at Ohio State, 7 p.m. (BTN)
Iowa at Penn State, 9 p.m. (ESPNU)

Saturday’s Games

Purdue at Indiana, 2 p.m. (ESPN)
Michigan State at Nebraska, 8 p.m. (BTN)

Sunday’s Games

Penn State at Michigan, noon (BTN)
Ohio State at Wisconsin, 1 p.m. (CBS)
Minnesota at iowa, 2 p.m. (BTN)

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