There are going to be a lot of really good weekends in the Big Ten this season -- any game featuring any of the top seven or eight teams, depending on the home-road configuration, is a recipe for entertaining and important basketball -- but this weekend is the early favorite for best of the year. On Saturday, Indiana hosts Minnesota, which is off to its best start since The Season That Shall Not Be Named and which presents a bunch of really intriguing matchup issues for the Hoosiers. On Sunday, Michigan travels to Ohio State, where I think we're basically guaranteed to, (a) learn more about what the Buckeyes can and can't do and, (b) get to see a pretty awesome rivalry game. Yes, please.
1. Michigan: Hosting Nebraska on Wednesday, the Wolverines didn't quite match their insane scoring output of the first two games, when they blitzed Northwestern and Iowa with a combined 189 points and 1.39 points per possession. Instead, they limped out to a 25-point first half before casually cleaning things up in the second. But I'm not worried about the Wolverines' offense. Instead, you should be keeping an eye on their defense, which in the past few weeks has gone from one of the nation's 25 best to No. 43 in Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings. (Then again, the Wolverines haven't exactly needed much defense lately.)
2. Indiana: Since March, coach Tom Crean has been almost relentlessly focused on defense, and with good reason: While the Hoosiers were one of the nation's most prolific offensive teams in 2011-12, they were mediocre on the defensive end, and that is not exactly the most proven recipe when it comes to national title contention. Crean's focus has paid off. In recent weeks, the Hoosiers' defense has become -- believe it or not -- almost as good as its offense. On a per-possession basis, IU is the only team in the country ranked in the top five in points (1.21) and points allowed (82.2) per possession. At the halfway point of the season, that's exactly where this team wants to be, and it's getting to the point where Gasaway is threatening to pull a Kentuckian efficiency reversal on us. He'll do it, people. Don't make him do it.
Anyway, Indiana's five games since the Butler loss have, with the exception of a road win at Iowa, hardly been against great competition. Minnesota, which comes to town Saturday, is a totally different beast. The Gophers are scoring just fine, including in their road win over Illinois this week, and they present some of the most difficult matchup woes -- a bruising, offensive-rebound-gobbling front line and big, strong, athletic guards -- that Indiana could face all season. Hard as it is to picture IU losing to anyone at home this season, the Gophers may be the team to pull it off.
3. Minnesota: I love this Minnesota team. The Gophers have everything a coach could want: A big, bruising, veteran forward who grabs a ton of rebounds (Trevor Mbakwe); an insanely athletic four (Rodney Williams); and a cadre of efficient, physical guards (Andre Hollins, Joe Coleman, Austin Hollins) who not only make shots but get to the rim and impose their will on opposing defenders. Oh, each week we've done these rankings, this has been the nation's best offensive rebounding team. That is still the case this week. (If it changes, rest assured I'll let you know.) Asking a team to win at Indiana is a lot. Asking them to do it three days after toppling Illinois in their Assembly Hall is kind of ridiculous. But you know what? I wouldn't be surprised if the Gophers pulled it off.
4. Michigan State: You know the deal with Michigan State: Great defense, bruising bigs, a budding star freshman in Gary Harris, and way too many turnovers for anyone's liking. So why do I have them fourth this week? Consider it a sign of respect for Iowa: The Hawkeyes are going to be very tough to beat at home this season, and the Spartans gutted out (that phrase is overused, but on Thursday night Harris hit three 3s after popping his dislocated shoulder back into place; I'd say "gutted" fits here) a 62-59 win in Carver-Hawkeye Arena. That's a great win.
Also of interest: After last week's IN-DEPTH INVESTIGATION into Derrick Nix's paucity of right-handed hook shots, I now have Spartans fans tweeting at me every time the man takes a shot with his right hand. It's the little things, you know?
5. Illinois: Well, this is a bit of a quandary. Illinois is 1-2 in its first three Big Ten games, but one of those losses came at Mackey Arena, which is never an easy place to get a win. The other loss came at home Wednesday night to Minnesota, which basically manhandled the smaller, more perimeter-oriented Illini and won going away. And sandwiched in between those losses was a really impressive 74-55 win over Ohio State. OK, sure, the Illini got the benefit of a really poor OSU shooting night (the Buckeyes fired up 19 3s and made only four, and scored just 0.74 points per trip), but Illinois also did a totally credible job of keeping the Buckeyes off the offensive glass, and scored a point per trip despite hitting only eight of their 27 3s.
When taken together, to me these results scream "good but glaringly flawed." Which is about where the team that precedes the Illini (Michigan State) and the team just below them (Ohio State) seem to be, too. In fact, if we want to consider all three of these teams roughly equal in these power rankings right now, I'm cool with that.
What's that you say? That's a copout? Well, err … you're a copout! Or something! Moving on.
6. Ohio State: Good but glaringly flawed is where we land on the Buckeyes, too; I think the phrase describes them quite well. In fact, I've had people whose basketball knowledge I deeply respect make the case that no, actually, Ohio State isn't any good, they haven't beaten anybody, they're just overrated by advanced per-possession statistics. The fact of the matter is, that's a hard charge to combat, because despite all of their impressive per-possession numbers thus far this season, and as much as I loathe people who try to tell you their eyeballs are the only metrics they need to evaluate basketball … Ohio State really hasn't looked good.
The last time I was impressed with the Buckeyes was at Duke, when they lost by five in a game they largely controlled. But since? I'm not seeing it. Let me be more specific: Outside of Deshaun Thomas and Aaron Craft, I'm not seeing any of Ohio State's various highly touted sophomores and complementary pieces morph into reliable offensive threats. I'm not seeing another go-to player besides Thomas. I'm seeing LaQuinton Ross try, with mixed results. I'm seeing Amir Williams not even look for the ball in the post. We could still be wrong, and maybe this is all fuzzy, and maybe the Buckeyes will put it together against Michigan Sunday. But there are good reasons to be skeptical.
7. Iowa: Home against Indiana, on the road at Michigan, home against Michigan State: Life in the Big Ten is tough, but rarely does the schedule present three games with such challenges and opportunities baked in. Iowa could have gotten Indiana; it lost 69-65. On Thursday night, it could have — should have — gotten Michigan State; it lost 62-59. (It could not have gotten Michigan in Ann Arbor. That was to be expected.) On the one hand, you can forgive Iowa for losing those games; Indiana and Michigan State are very tough teams to beat. On the other hand, you wonder if Hawkeyes fans will spend the latter half of the Big Ten season wondering how much better their NCAA tournament chances would be had they managed to take one or both of those would-be marquee wins. Tough week in Iowa City.
8. Wisconsin: Wisconsin hasn't beaten anyone good. Wisconsin's past five games are wins over UW-Green Bay, UW-Milwaukee, Samford, Penn State and Nebraska. Wisconsin is a state full of proud, friendly people rightfully enthusiastic about cheese. (That last part isn't about basketball, it's just an opinion.) But Wisconsin basketball is also Wisconsin basketball, and while the offense may be a sight for sore eyes, if the Badgers keep defending at current levels they are going to beat plenty of Big Ten opponents, perhaps starting with Illinois Saturday afternoon.
9. Purdue: Record-wise, the 7-8 Boilermakers feel like they've been taking one step forward and two steps back for pretty much the entire season. For example: They got a nice home win over Illinois on Jan. 2, but scored just 0.86 points per trip and didn't defend well at all in a 23-point loss at Michigan State. Back at home Tuesday, Terone Johnson & Co. allowed Ohio State (which, if you'll recall, shot 30 percent from the field at Illinois) to shoot 60 percent from inside the arc, losing 74-64 in the process. But we've said it all along: That's the kind of season this is going to be for Purdue, as a young team transitions into a new era.
10. Northwestern: OK, so it's only Penn State, but with Reggie Hearn back in the lineup, Northwestern scored 1.17 per trip at Penn State Thursday night, winning 70-54. Again, it's only Penn State. But a result is a result, and even better if it's on the road.
11. Nebraska and 12. Penn State. I'm penalizing Penn State and moving it back down to last place for losing to Northwestern by 16 points at home. I don't like it, but it has to be done. Meanwhile, kudos to Nebraska. Last week, I did the whole Bruce Springsteen album har har routine with their space, but they actually nearly nipped Wisconsin at home Sunday and then held Michigan to 25 first-half points in Ann Arbor Wednesday night. Neither of those games ended in wins, but still. Progress.