Here's my attempt at ranking the Big Ten teams:
- 1. Ohio State: The Buckeyes finished off South Carolina essentially without Jared Sullinger, who was hampered by a foot injury. They’re a solid team without him. But to maintain this post, they need Sullinger to get healthy fast. The Big Ten’s contenders are coming, and they’re far more competitive entering conference play than it appeared they'd be in mid-November.
2. Indiana: The Hoosiers passed their first test since becoming a ranked team with a win Saturday over Notre Dame in Indianapolis. Cody Zeller scored 21. His 6-foot-11 frame and skills that go with it make the Hoosiers Ohio State’s greatest threats in the Big Ten. Seasons 2008-09 through 2010-11 just called and they can’t believe what I just wrote.
3. Michigan State: The Spartans are rolling. They’ve won nine in a row. I’d love to see this Spartans squad matched up against North Carolina and Duke right now. It’s just a different team compared to the one that lost to those ACC powers in back-to-back games at the start of the season. Draymond Green (15.9 ppg, 9.7 rpg) is playing like an All-America candidate.
4. Wisconsin: The Badgers bounced back from a Dec. 3 home loss to Marquette with four straight wins. That streak included a win over UNLV and a road victory over UW-Milwaukee. The Badgers have the best scoring defense in the country. Bo Ryan’s system still works.
5. Illinois: The Illini’s offensive inconsistency finally caught up with them Saturday in Chicago, where they accrued only 48 points in a loss to UNLV. Memo to the Illini: That 7-footer in the paint (Meyers Leonard) didn’t get enough touches down the stretch in that game. They’ll learn. It was just their first loss of the season.
6. Michigan: Trey Burke’s talent is undeniable. He’s averaging 13.1 points and 4.7 assists per game as a freshman. But it’s his poise and leadership that should really scare Big Ten opponents.
7. Minnesota: The biggest surprise in the Big Ten. The Gophers didn’t collapse after they lost Trevor Mbakwe to a torn ACL in a loss to Dayton last month. That was their last loss. They’ve won five in a row, as juco transfer Julian Welch (10.3 ppg) has blossomed into a leader for the team.
8. Purdue: Saturday’s 67-65 loss to Butler in Indy exposed one of Purdue’s greatest weaknesses: its limited interior. Robbie Hummel has recovered well from back-to-back ACL tears. And Ryne Smith and Lewis Jackson offer solid support. But in the oversized Big Ten, the Boilermakers need some beef inside. They could use a midseason trade.
9. Northwestern: The Wildcats had a close call against Central Connecticut State on Saturday (they won 70-64). But they’ve only lost once: a blowout against Baylor at home. This is still a hard team to peg based on its soft nonconference schedule. But Big Ten play is coming. We’ll find out soon if the Wildcats are ready for their first-ever trip to the Big Dance.
10. Nebraska: Bo Spencer (16.1 ppg) is a special player. He’s mature and the bright lights of the Big Ten won’t intimidate him, considering the time he spent in the SEC. But this is a deep league. So the Cornhuskers will need more than a one-man operation to climb the conference’s standings.
11. Penn State: The Nittany Lions have lost three of four. But Tim Frazier (17.4 ppg, 7.2 apg) is the one bright spot for this struggling team.
12. Iowa: Fran McCaffery’s rebuilding phase is apparently going to take some more time, especially considering the depth in the Big Ten. But if he ever gets discouraged, he should call Tom Crean. These rebuilding projects don't show results right away.