Wisconsin could be last team standing in Big Ten

The Big Ten had few miracles to offer this year.

Denzel Valentine, last season's Big Ten player of the year, had left for the NBA. Three other all-Big Ten first-teamers from last season (A.J. Hammons, Yogi Ferrell and Jarrod Uthoff) had also graduated.

The Big Ten's backers anticipated shortcomings and stumbles for a younger, less predictable league.

But Michigan State's struggles after Tom Izzo secured one of the nation's best recruiting classes? Indiana's 0-2 start, a stretch that includes a loss to Nebraska in Assembly Hall? Purdue's losing to Minnesota on its home floor over the weekend? Those were all early surprises.

A week into conference play, Wisconsin basketball -- after the squad's 75-68 win at Indiana on Tuesday -- is the only program that makes sense in the Big Ten.

We learned as much when the Badgers manufactured the third consecutive loss for the descending Hoosiers. The Badgers look the part of early favorites to win the conference championship.

They're the only preseason contenders who have survived the first week of league play without a loss. That's a positive for the Badgers but also another indication of the Big Ten's slip behind the ACC, the Big 12 and the Big East in the conference power rankings.

If this slide persists, the Badgers will leave the rest of the league behind.

Sure, the Big Ten boasts an intriguing slate of upstarts. Will Minnesota turn Sunday's win over Purdue into a redemptive season for Richard Pitino? Could Northwestern secure enough quality wins in conference play to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time? Is a Nebraska team with wins over Maryland and Indiana serious about erasing an ugly November and December? We'll know later in the season.

Today, however, it's clear that Wisconsin could win the Big Ten championship. Perhaps the Badgers should win the Big Ten championship.

Against one of the nation's most athletic frontcourts, Ethan Happ navigated foul trouble and registered 19 points, six rebounds and four assists against the Hoosiers. Is he athletic enough to play at the next level? Ask Indiana's NBA prospects, who couldn't stop him.

Bronson Koenig (5-for-5 from the 3-point line) hit a barrage of corner 3-pointers and helped Wisconsin snatch a double-digit lead in the first half. Zak Showalter added 14 points.

Nigel Hayes (4-for-11) took some ugly shots. But Wisconsin hasn't lost since he stopped trying to prove he's an NBA wing by attempting an abundance of 3-pointers. Hayes took 31 shots from beyond the arc in the team's first six games, but he has attempted just six 3-pointers during his team's current nine-game win streak.

Wisconsin continues to blossom under Greg Gard.

Yet it's too early to throw in the towel in Bloomington, West Lafayette and East Lansing. The Big Ten race could change in the coming weeks.

However, the Wisconsin team that suffered nonconference losses to Creighton and North Carolina leads a conference that has failed to impress. The league's best didn't wow anyone prior to conference play. Instead, they suffered losses to Fort Wayne (Indiana), Nebraska-Omaha (Iowa), Northeastern (Michigan State) and Gardner-Webb (Nebraska).

By the time March arrives, the Big Ten could stage a frenetic finish in the conference race and a compelling Big Ten tournament.

And it might all end there. Wisconsin is good, but the league has yet to unveil a serious contender for the national title.

The ACC's internal carnage in the first week of league play affirmed its projected strength. The Big Ten's early mess only confirms the preseason nightmares about a conference that lost far more, it seems, than it gained.