No introductions. Turn my headphones up. I'm going straight in.
1. Indiana. There has been a tendency to freak out about losses in Hoosierland this season. Expectations are high, and hints of future concern are not to be taken lightly. Which is why it was so encouraging to see so few people freak out about Indiana's close loss at Minnesota this week. It wasn't worthy of a freakout, not in the least. Minnesota, for all its weird foibles -- it was impossible to watch Trevor Mbakwe go nuts and that team play so well and not think it has just been dogging it for the past month, which is basically inexcusable -- is still a good basketball team. Its crowd was insane. And the Gophers, with their big guards and offensive rebounding prowess, have always been a bad matchup for IU.
If there was any real freakout/criticism (freakicism?), it was of coach Tom Crean's continued usage of the 2-3 zone, and it was in the near-exact mold of Grantland's Mark Titus, who wrote this:
Indiana's 2-3 zone has now joined Ohio State's 3-2 zone from 2008 and Baylor's "just kind of run around out there and try to confuse the offense" zone from 2012 on my list of most maddening zone defenses to watch. The Hoosiers have been at their worst all season while playing the zone, and Tuesday night was no different. I get why Crean wanted to use that defense against Minnesota — the Gophers have been terrible against zone recently. And considering that Minnesota missed a ton of wide-open shots against the zone, it makes some sense that Crean kept going back to it. But sometime between Minnesota getting their first and their 17th offensive rebound, Crean should've realized that the zone was giving the Gophers a ton of second chances because Indiana's players didn't know who to block out.
I love me some Titus, but there are a few things worth pointing out here. According to Synergy, Indiana is actually better in the zone than in man-to-man this season. (It plays far fewer possessions in zone, too.) Also, while I agree you really can't play zone against Minnesota because they just grab too many offensive boards, you also don't really want to leave Yogi Ferrell and Jordan Hulls on an island with Dre Hollins, Austin Hollins and Joe Coleman, either. So you pick your poison. Crean picked his. Bad matchup. Minnesota did enough to win. Nothing to see here.
If you want to criticize Crean, you're probably better off focusing on him maybe or maybe not telling his players in a late timeout to look for a Minnesota elbow, just a few seconds before guard Will Sheehey planted his face into a Gopher elbow and flopped. Crean, according to ESPN analyst Dan Dakich, then screamed at the referees to check the monitor for a flagrant elbow foul.
So, yeah. It would be really, really hard to make this brilliant IU team unlikable … but that sort of thing would be a good place to start. David Stern was probably furious to learn he had no power to fine Crean. Maybe someday.
2. Wisconsin. The Badgers' move to No. 2 this week isn't really an indictment of Michigan State. I still think the Spartans are just as capable of a deep tournament run as Indiana or any other team in this league. It's more an acknowledgement of just how well Wisconsin has played in February, and how good the Badgers really are. With the exception of an OT loss at Minnesota, Wisconsin is unbeaten in the month. Their defense keeps tightening the screws. It's now the No. 3-ranked unit in the country in adjusted efficiency, behind only Louisville and Florida, and what's better is its scoring is starting to flow a bit too. In their past three games, the Badgers have scored 71 points in 60 possessions against Ohio State, 69 in 55 against Northwestern, and 77 in 64 against Nebraska. Those last two may not impress you much, but when you consider that Wisconsin has spent the entire Big Ten season playing even inferior foes to drastically close, tight defensive games, seeing its offense pick up against any competition is an incredibly promising sign.
3. Michigan State. Two straight losses for the Spartans! Mass hysteria! Don't panic, people. It'll be fine. OK, sure: If I'm a Michigan State fan, would I like to see my team play a bit better at Ohio State in advance of Sunday's massive trip to Michigan? Of course! Would I prefer that Keith Appling not have his two worst games of the season in late February? Obviously. But the Spartans are still a balanced team with a bunch of great bigs -- something no other team in the Big Ten can claim -- and a coach who knows a thing or two about winning in March. They'll be fine.
4. Michigan. Michigan, on the other hand -- can we be so sure Michigan will be fine? In one sense this is a silly question, because when you tell me you have Trey Burke running your show, I am inclined to sign on, sight unseen, and trust you totally going forward. But Burke can't do everything, particularly on the defensive end, and that's where Michigan is legitimately struggling these days. That's how they lost to Penn State this week and how Penn State pushed Michigan in Ann Arbor just 10 days prior. It's the one trait that will hold back the Wolverines in March, provided they can't come up with something to mitigate it soon. Otherwise they have to hope for historic offensive efficiency from Burke and everyone else in March, and "Meh, we'll just outscore everyone" is probably not the best way to approach a single-elimination basketball tournament. (I wrote in much greater detail about Michigan's defense Wednesday night.)
5. Ohio State. When you are a struggling Big Ten point guard coming off one of the most disappointing performances of your career, you do not want to see Aaron Craft in Columbus. You just don't. That's what happened to Michigan State's Keith Appling Sunday, and it was bad: 1-of-6 from the field, 3 points, 1 assist, 3 turnovers. More than any other quality, and despite their various offensive flaws, that is what could make the Buckeyes dangerous in March: Their ability to swarm the opposing perimeter. We talk endlessly about the importance of guard play in March, and with good reason. But then, shouldn't the inverse -- the ability to make opposing guards miserable -- be just as important?
6. Minnesota. I'll bump Minnesota up one spot for two reasons: (1) It just beat No. 1 Indiana at home, and (2) I actually think the Gophers are a lot better than their 3-8 record from Jan. 12 through Feb. 20. A lot better. I also think it's kind of ridiculous for a team led by a sixth-year senior such as Trevor Mbakwe to just go AWOL for more than a month. How does that happen? How can I watch you lose 72-51 at Iowa and see you slap your opponents' butts and help guys up off the floor as you put up 45 points in 69 possessions at Ohio State … and then come out pounding your chest against Indiana a few days later? Are we all supposed to forget how much your team has stunk for the past five weeks? Are we supposed to assume you're the plucky underdog now? And why on earth is Tubby Smith's record in February at Minnesota so bad?
I have my theories. It would almost be easier if Minnesota had gotten punked Tuesday, because then we could start to acknowledge that they're just not that good after all. Nice November, lots of promise, another disappointing season. But Minnesota is good. They're big, physical, deep, balanced and good. I think Iowa is really underrated, but you can't tell me the team we saw Tuesday night is 19 points worse than Iowa. Or seven points worse than Northwestern. It just isn't. Which means one thing: They've underachieved. The effort hasn't been there.
If I were a fan I'd rather my team was just bad.
7. Illinois. Illinois lost at Michigan Sunday, but oh well: Michigan is a bad matchup for the Illini, and besides, the Illini's five-game February winning streak (including that turnaround home upset over Indiana) basically made the rest of the regular season a play for seeding, not selection. What a difference a few weeks make.
8. Iowa. Iowa had been one of the more intriguing fringe bubble teams in the country for weeks. Forget RPI: Could a team that finished .500 in this Big Ten really not get a tournament look? Alas, that ended when the Hawks fell at Nebraska 64-60 last Saturday, sending every Iowa fan I know into a mild depression. Time was, at moments like these, Kirk Ferentz would be standing there, open arms beckoning, offering Iowa fans the promise of exciting football in just a few months' time. Now Iowa football is bad too, and the way this winter is going there will be snow on the highways until mid-May. Ugh.
9. Purdue. It has been a rebuilding year, which has meant a lot of disappointment with only rare glimpses of hope. Sunday's blowout win over Northwestern was the latter; Wednesday's 48 points in 61 possessions at Iowa was the former.
10. Northwestern. Iowa, Ohio State, Illinois, Wisconsin, Purdue, Ohio State. Those are the Wildcats' last six fixtures, all losses, and with all the injuries this team has suffered the prevailing emotion here is pity.
11. Penn State. Nittany Lions! I don't know that Penn State is actually a better team than Nebraska, but it's close enough that beating Michigan at home and breaking your Big Ten winless mark -- Penn State was 0-14 and moving dangerously close to hanging a rare winless major-conference season -- is definitely worth a reprieve of last place, a hearty back-slap and a genuine cheers.
In related news, Penn State later released this image of Pat Chambers after the victory.
12. Nebraska. I'm as confident as ever Tim Miles will get this thing turned around, and fast, but for now the most notable thing about the Cornhuskers' season is still the Harlem Shake.