Here’s my attempt at ranking the wacky Big Ten:
1. Michigan State: The Spartans hadn’t lost since mid-November. And while it’s somewhat surprising that their first L since those season-opening losses to Duke and North Carolina came against Northwestern, it’s not surprising that they found themselves in a Big Ten battle on the road. Most of the league’s top-tier squads have lost within the past week, so they’re not alone.
2. Ohio State: The Buckeyes looked like one of the best teams in the country when they crushed Indiana 80-63 on Sunday in Columbus. They played like a team bent on avenging its New Year’s Eve loss to the Hoosiers. Illinois needed a once-in-a-decade performance from Brandon Paul to beat the Bucks in Champaign last week. I think Ohio State is ready to surge back to the top of the league for good, but it has to bring its home mojo on the road.
3. Illinois: These are power rankings, not a top-25 poll. Illinois’ 79-74 victory win over the Buckeyes on Tuesday was a huge win for the program. The Illini have failed to follow up on impressive wins in the recent past. But they’re certainly skilled enough to make a charge up the Big Ten standings. It’s just hard to assume anything about this team until we see more consistent performances.
4. Indiana: The Hoosiers fell back to earth this week. Yes, they’re still a contender in the Big Ten. But they were cold in their loss to Minnesota on Thursday. And they ran into an angry Ohio State squad Sunday. Tom Crean will face his toughest challenge of the year in the coming weeks. The Hoosiers are still learning how to win. But they can’t let their recent struggles bleed into the rest of their season and fall back into bad habits from past years.
5. Michigan: The Wolverines’ loss to Iowa on Saturday communicated two things about that program. First, it was proof that this is the nation’s deepest conference. The Hawkeyes have become a factor. Two, the Wolverines aren’t going to win many games if Tim Hardaway Jr. (2-for-13) is off the way he was in that game.
6. Wisconsin: This is where this league gets even cloudier. You could put a variety of squads in this slot right now. The Badgers are riding a two-game winning streak. And for this league, that means something. Again, Nos. 6 through 9 in this league seem interchangeable right now. But the Badgers were tough in their Thursday win at Purdue.
7. Purdue: The Boilermakers’ victories over Iowa (road), Illinois and Minnesota attained more weight this week. But a 20-point loss at Penn State and this week’s home loss to Wisconsin were additional proof that this conference is hard to decipher. Plus, someone has to fill the No. 7 slot in this confusing league.
8. Iowa: Settle down, Hawkeyes fans. Yes, I know your favorite squad has a road win against Wisconsin and that it just defeated Michigan. But I’m not convinced, yet, that the Hawkeyes are higher than eighth in this league. Let's keep in mind that Michigan win was preceded by a 95-61 loss to Michigan State. The good news is that the Big Ten is certainly capable of sending eight teams to March Madness. So this isn’t a bad place to be. Hawkeyes could wind up in the mix at the end of the season if this continues.
9. Northwestern: The Wildcats’ upset victory against Michigan State on Saturday made me take a closer look at their losses. One-point loss to Illinois. Overtime loss to Michigan. Nothing to be ashamed of. The Wildcats are feisty. But they have to build on this win to gain more street cred in the Big Ten. The MSU win was impressive. It’s still tough, however, to know what to expect from this squad the rest of the way.
10. Minnesota: I’ve followed this Gophers squad for years. I know what they’re capable of with Tubby Smith’s crippling D. But I was still shocked by its road win at Indiana on Thursday. But the Gophers will have to do more to rise up these rankings and erase the memory of their 0-4 start. This week’s road victories over the Hoosiers and Penn State were great starts.
11. Nebraska: The Huskers have suffered a pair of five-point losses in league play. But the bottom-feeders in this league manage to make things interesting most seasons. Unless the Huskers can turn tight losses into victories, and fast, they’ll stay here the rest of the way.
12. Penn State: Tough year for the Nittany Lions. I might vote for Talor Battle as league MVP just based on the impact his departure has had on the program. At least Tim Frazier (18.1 ppg) is doing his best Battle impersonation this season.