With a 6-1 record, Michigan State sits alone atop the Big Ten standings. Just 10 days ago, though, the Spartans almost lost to a team near the bottom.
At home, no less.
Nebraska -- which hasn't been to the NCAA tournament in 15 years -- trailed Michigan State by only 1 point in the game's waning minutes on Jan. 13 in East Lansing. Even after some clutch free throw shooting helped the Spartans escape with a 10-point win, the Breslin Center crowd seemed stunned that the game had been so close.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo was hardly surprised.
"After debating this for a while," Izzo said Monday, "I don't think there's any question that the league is better than it's ever been, top to bottom."
Those may seem like bold words from a coach who has spent the last 30 seasons in the Big Ten, both as an MSU assistant and head coach. But no one is arguing the point.
Five league schools are ranked among the top 14 in this week's Associated Press poll, and as many as eight could earn NCAA tournament bids. That doesn't include programs such as Purdue, which is still a threat during a rebuilding year, or Northwestern and upstart Nebraska, who are capable of upsetting nearly every team they play.
Still, as justified as it may be, any praise surrounding the Big Ten's success must be couched with a question: Will it matter?
On April 8 -- as confetti dances from the rafters at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta -- will it be a Big Ten team on the court hoisting a championship trophy? Or someone else?
History suggests the latter.
For more than two decades, the Big Ten had failed at an alarming rate in its quest for college basketball's most coveted crown. Michigan State's victory over Florida in 2000 marked the league's only NCAA title in the last 23 years. Eight Big Ten teams have reached the Final Four since that time. Four lost in the semifinals, the others in the championship game.
"It's a surprising statistic considering how good our league has been," said Purdue coach Matt Painter, whose team has been to six straight NCAA tournaments but never advanced past the Sweet 16. "A lot of it is probably just coincidence."
Perhaps to an extent. A certain amount of luck and good fortune is often involved in a successful NCAA tournament run. But conference coaches also agree that other factors could be causing teams to come up short during March Madness.
One of the more lopsided NCAA title games in recent memory occurred in 2009, when North Carolina beat Michigan State 89-72 in Detroit. The Tar Heels led by as many as 28 in the first half, and their 21-point cushion at intermission was the largest in tournament history.
"I thought we were playing the Lakers," Izzo said.
Indeed, North Carolina featured three first-round NBA draft picks in its starting lineup and brought two more off the bench. Not one Spartan became a first-round pick.
"At the end of the day," Izzo said, "the team with the best players usually wins. If everything else is equal, that's usually the case. You're not going to win the Kentucky Derby with a bunch of mules."
Izzo certainly didn't mean that as a slight to that team's players, who obviously did a lot of things right to make it to the championship game. In terms of talent, though, the Big Ten has lagged behind the nation's other top leagues for more than a decade.
Since 2000 -- the year the league last won an NCAA title -- the Big Ten has produced 28 first-round NBA draft picks. That number ranks last among Big Six conferences such as the ACC, which has had nearly twice as many players (51) selected in the first round (see chart).
Another telling stat: The Big Ten also ranks sixth among the power conferences in active NBA players with 25. The next-closest conference is the Big 12, which currently boasts 42 players on NBA rosters. The ACC has 63.
"When you look at teams in the Final Four," Painter said, "you always ask, 'How many pros do they have?' That's not to say you can't make it there if you don't have many NBA guys. There are exceptions [such as Butler and VCU].
"But generally speaking, you've got to have two or three NBA guys to have a good shot to win the title."
Big Ten schools have had those types of players in the past, but their opponents have usually had more. Bruce Weber's 2005 Illinois squad featured current NBA All-Star Deron Williams. But the Illini lost to a North Carolina team that featured first-round draft picks Raymond Felton, Sean May, Marvin Williams and Rashad McCants.
In 2007, an Ohio State squad with Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr. fell to a Florida team that featured three lottery picks in Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer.
Izzo said the talent gap is narrowing between the Big Ten and other conferences. Players such as DeShaun Thomas of Ohio State, Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo at Indiana, Trey Burke and Glenn Robinson at Michigan and Branden Dawson and Adreian Payne at Michigan State have all been projected as potential first-rounders either this summer or next.
"Our league has better players now," Izzo said. "Hopefully that will pay off for one of us when it matters most."
2. Style of play/stigmas
Whether it's fair or not, the Big Ten is known as a physical league with excellent coaches who emphasize defense above everything else.
That often leads to slow-paced games with final scores in the 50s and low 60s, which isn't very attractive to high-profile recruits hoping to showcase their skills for a season or two in college before moving on to the NBA.
A study of ESPN.com's recent recruiting rankings revealed that, in the last five years, Big Ten schools have signed 27 prospects ranked among the nation's top 50. That's an average of 5.4 per season, a small number for one of the nation's more powerful leagues.
"It's a blue-collar league," one former Big Ten head coach said. "Most guys -- or at least the really, really good ones -- don't want to play that style. Even if your team doesn't play it, other teams do, so you're still going to have to face it. It's not fun."
More and more, however, that trend seems to be reversing. Indiana ranks second in the nation in scoring with 84.4 points per game thanks to Tom Crean, who was hired from Marquette in 2008. Former West Virginia coach John Beilein has transformed Michigan into an offensive power. The Wolverines are scoring 79.4 points per contest and feature the nation's top point guard in Trey Burke.
Eight of the conference's 12 teams average more than 70 points, although that number dips to three schools (Indiana, Michigan and Minnesota) in league play.
"It's all about showing a recruit what you do," Crean said. "You don't recruit to your league. You recruit to your school. Just because some teams play a certain way doesn't mean you have to. Players are smart enough to see that.
"At the end of the day, we want to be able to win playing all different ways, because that's what the NCAA tournament is about."
Indeed, the hope is that the influx of new styles and systems brought on by coaching turnover could change the overall perception of the Big Ten. Seven new coaches have been hired by conference schools since 2007. As their success continues, the chances of NBA-caliber players signing with Big Ten schools increase.
"Are you signing NBA players or are you developing NBA players?" Painter said. "Most people would tell you their goal is to do both."
3. Getting "beat up"
Kansas is all but a lock to win the Big 12 title, and Florida looks well on its way to winning the SEC. The Pac-12 and ACC races involve only three teams. Then there's the Big Ten.
"It's ridiculous," Izzo said. "It's bad for my health."
Although this season is on another level, parity almost always exists within the Big Ten. With that comes close, intense games, and after a grueling 18-game schedule defined by emotional games, teams can feel physically and mentally worn out by the time the NCAA tournament begins.
"There's never a moment when you can say, 'We may struggle with this team, but we'll be better once we get to this team.'" Crean said. "I think every team in this league can win on any given night. You hear that quote from coaches every year, but it couldn't be more true this season."
Coaches in the Big East complained for years that the same scenario was hurting their league in March. Schools such as Syracuse could win a conference title with a 15-3 record but then run out of gas a few weeks later. But that all changed in 2011, when the parity was so strong that 11 teams made the NCAA tournament.
Connecticut -- which finished ninth in the conference standings -- ended up winning the national title.
4. Bad breaks
One year after that trouncing by North Carolina in the 2009 title game, Michigan State returned to the Final Four. The Spartans' semifinal opponent (Butler) featured a future first-rounder in Gordon Hayward, but the Bulldogs certainly appeared beatable.
But there were several problems.
Point guard Kalin Lucas was out after injuring his Achilles two games earlier, Raymar Morgan wasn't 100 percent and Delvon Roe was playing with a torn knee ligament that was "causing him so much pain that we could barely put him out there," Izzo said.
Still, the Spartans lost only 52-50.
"There's no question we could've won it that year if we were healthy," Izzo said. "That's what people forget. There are a million things that can happen to change the course of a game, of a season.
"Injuries, a call by the zebras, a guy who gets hot from the 3-point line. You just never know."
That's why coaches such as Crean sound a bit defensive about criticisms of the Big Ten and its NCAA title drought. Talent may be a huge factor in winning a title, he said, but the conference has put itself in position multiple times to emerge with the crown and fallen just short.
The league could be condemned for losing, but it could also be complimented for being there in the first place. The eight Final Four appearances by Big Ten schools since 2000 are just as many as the ACC and the Big East and one more than the Big 12.
"Sometimes it's very easy to only talk about the definitive champion, and rightfully so," Crean said. "But there's something to be said for being in the ballpark.
"So many things have to go right to win it all. It's not easy -- no matter what league you're in."
A: Michael Carter-Williams -- I got my first live look at Syracuse's standout sophomore during the Orange's victory at Louisville on Saturday. Wow! Even after an eight-turnover performance, I couldn't have been more impressed. I love players with a short memory, and Carter-Williams certainly has one. His subpar play in the first half didn't affect him after intermission, when he accounted for Syracuse's final 13 points in the come-from-behind win. He also had two steals and a huge defensive rebound in the final 29 seconds to clinch the victory. Carter-Williams and Michigan's Trey Burke are the top two point guards in the country, hands down.
B: Oregon and Iowa's conference schedules -- Talk about catching a break. Oregon is 5-0 in the Pac-12 with wins over UCLA and Arizona, the league's other top two teams. And get this: The Ducks don't have to play either school again because of imbalanced scheduling. Oregon has no excuse not to win the conference title. Iowa, meanwhile, only has to play Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State and Illinois once. The first three schools are currently ranked, and Illinois has been in the top 25 for most of the season. With such a light league slate, I won't be surprised if the Hawkeyes post a winning Big Ten record en route to earning their first NCAA tournament berth since 2006.
C: Jeff Bzdelik -- I'm not ready to start a campaign for the Wake Forest coach to keep his job. But the man who appeared to be on one of the hottest seats in America just a few weeks ago appears to be turning things around in Winston-Salem. The Demon Deacons improved to 3-3 in the ACC on Tuesday by battling back from a 16-point deficit to defeat No. 18 North Carolina State. It was the program's first win against a ranked opponent in nearly three years. Wake Forest has also defeated Virginia and Boston College, with a one-point loss at Virginia Tech. Maybe Bzdelik deserves more time, after all.
D: Kentucky's NCAA tournament hopes -- Could the Wildcats really be on the verge of not making the Big Dance one season after winning the NCAA title? You bet. John Calipari's squad is 12-6 with zero wins against top 50 RPI teams and only two wins against RPI top 100 teams (Maryland and Tennessee). At this point it's tough to imagine Kentucky winning road games at Ole Miss and Florida or even home games against Missouri and Florida. Joe Lunardi had UK as a No. 10 seed in the bracket he released Tuesday -- and that was before the Wildcats' loss at Alabama later that evening.
F: Missouri -- Coach Frank Haith may be on the verge of getting fired because of alleged NCAA violations that occurred under his watch at Miami. Phil Pressey is playing like an honorable-mention All-SEC point guard instead of a Cousy Award finalist and leading scorer Laurence Bowers missed his fourth straight game Tuesday with a knee injury. Typical Missouri. Just when things appear to be going well, something happens to screw it all up.
THIS WEEK'S POLL
Ranking the best conferences in college basketball, in order of total points, with number of first-place votes in parentheses (voters: Eamonn Brennan, Andy Katz, Myron Medcalf, Dana O'Neil and me).
1. Big Ten -- 50 (5)
2. Big East -- 44
3. Mountain West -- 39
4. ACC -- 34
5. Big 12 -- 32
6. Pac-12 -- 26
7. Atlantic 10 -- 19
8. SEC -- 15
9. Missouri Valley -- 10
10. West Coast -- 5
Also receiving votes: Horizon League, 1
THOUGHTS FROM PRESS ROW
1. The hiring of Lon Kruger before last season is certainly the biggest factor in Oklahoma's resurgence. But a large of amount of credit should also be given to power forward Romero Osby, who is quietly having one of the better seasons of any player in the Big 12.
Osby scored 29 points and grabbed 8 rebounds in Monday's 73-67 victory over Texas and is averaging 19.2 points and 7.2 rebounds in his last five games. A senior, Osby transferred to OU in 2010 after spending two seasons as a role player at Mississippi State.
"I want to make it to the tournament," he said. "I got to go when I was at Mississippi State but I wasn't a significant part of that team.
"I've been trying to go hard every day in practice. I went hard all summer, working harder than I've ever worked in my life. Things have just been clicking for me."
Osby, who is averaging 14.5 points and 6.5 boards on the season, said some changes to his diet have helped enhance his game. He said he's sworn off Kool-Aid and fried foods (at least for now) and instead opts for healthier options.
"I mainly drink water and Gatorade," he said. "In Mississippi, all we eat is fried food. But I can't do that right now. I went from 245 to 227 over the summer and it's made a big difference. I'm just spending more time in the gym running and getting up shots and ball-handling."
Oklahoma is 13-4 overall and 4-1 in Big 12 play. The Sooners' next two games are road tilts against Kansas and Baylor.
"We're trying to take it one day at a time," Osby said. "People are patting us on our back and telling us we're doing well. But we have 14 games left. The storm is about to hit. We've got to go to Kansas and we've got to go to Baylor. We know we can't rest on our laurels."
2. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo is pleased with his team's 17-3 record, but sometimes he's not sure how the Spartans got there.
"At times I look at us and I don't feel like we're a 16-3 team," Izzo told me about 24 hours before Tuesday's win over Wisconsin. "We have one of the better inside-out [attacks] we've ever had, but the last three games our outside guys haven't shot the ball well at all.
"[Keith] Appling and Gary Harris have sort of hit a wall. If we get those guys going, I'll really like our pieces. The whole thing hasn't come together yet, but we're starting to make some progress."
Michigan State leads the Big Ten with a 6-1 record.
3. Although many of them weren't pleased about it, the USC Trojans have responded well to last week's firing of Kevin O'Neill, who may be the only coach in history to be canned two days after a 17-point road win (over Utah).
In its first game without O'Neill, the Trojans dropped a 76-74 decision to league leader Oregon. USC had a point-blank look at the basket in the final seconds that would've forced overtime, but 7-foot center Dewayne Dedmon couldn't convert. Two nights later, interim coach Bob Cantu led the Trojans to a 69-68 victory over Oregon State to even their Pac-12 record at 3-3. USC is 8-11 overall heading into Thursday's game at Arizona State.
"For the most part we're just focused on winning one game at a time instead of focusing on one big goal," point guard Jio Fontan said by phone Tuesday. "We had a big change last week. We've been taking it real slow."
Fontan said players reacted to O'Neill's firing in a variety of ways.
"We all had different opinions," he said. "I was definitely bothered by it. I built a strong relationship with K.O. and I'd planned on finishing what I started here with him.
"I talked to [O'Neill] and he said to not let it distract me. He could tell I was hurt by it because I got a little emotional on the phone. He just told me to enjoy these last few months of college and to try to have fun."
Winning will certainly help in that regard, and one player who can help is guard J.T. Terrell. A Wake Forest transfer, Terrell had fallen out of favor with O'Neill in the weeks before his firing. But the Trojans' most talented player appears to have found new life under Cantu, a longtime USC assistant.
"He's got a lot more confidence now," Fontan said. "He's getting the chance to play through his mistakes. Cantu has given him the freedom to just go out and play his game. I think he's a lot more comfortable. When he's playing well it's definitely huge for us."
Terrell is averaging 10.1 points on the season and 16.5 points in his last two games.
4. Random thought here, but the race for National Coach of the Year is going to be an interesting one. Lots of good candidates but no hands-down favorites. At least not yet. Here are some guys who may be considered: Dana Altman (Oregon), Brad Stevens (Butler), Bruce Weber (Kansas State), Tubby Smith (Minnesota), Gregg Marshall (Wichita State), Larry Shyatt (Wyoming) and Larry Eustachy (Colorado State).
And for the record, I tend to favor coaches who have surpassed expectations set forth during the preseason, which tends to put guys like Mike Krzyzewski and Bill Self at a disadvantage. But I would have no problem if the coach of a top-five-caliber team ended up winning the award. Staying at the top is often as difficult as getting there.
5. One of the more underrated wins of the conference season thus far occurred Monday when Georgetown -- which was fresh off a loss to South Florida -- defeated Notre Dame 63-47 at the Joyce Center. The Fighting Irish had won 21 of their last 23 Big East home games before Georgetown upset them in South Bend.
"Once the game started, I could sense our fire and intensity and focus," Hoyas coach John Thompson III told me via phone on Tuesday.
Even more impressive about the win that was it came without the services of 6-foot-8 forward Greg Whittington. Georgetown's second-leading scorer and rebounder, Whittington has been declared academically ineligible. Most analysts predicted gloom and doom for the Hoyas once Whittington was lost last week, and the USF defeat seemed to confirm as much.
Instead, it appears the head coach has rallied his players amid adversity.
"Even with Greg, we were a young team," Thompson III said. "Without him, we're even younger and less talented. That being said, we have the pieces here if everyone steps up and does their job.
"As it relates to Greg, we've taken the approach of 'No one person is going to fill the void. Everyone just has to step up and do better at their job.' We've got to be that much more focused, that much more ready."
All-Big East candidate Otto Porter (14.6 PPG, 7.7 RPG) has been steady all season for the Hoyas. But Thompson III said he's also been impressed with the leadership of point guard Markel Starks and forward Nate Lubick, both of whom are juniors.
"They're going to have to continue to make their presence felt," JT3 said. "They're going to have to be consistent. Not just scoring points, but hustle plays and defensive intensity and setting our defense."
Perhaps the biggest improvement Georgetown has made has involved its offense. It was just a few weeks ago when the Hoyas scored 45 points in a loss to Pittsburgh and 48 in a setback against Marquette.
"We definitely have adjusted a few things," Thompson III said, "although I probably shouldn't talk about them. We've made some strategic changes, without a doubt. But as the season has gone on we've also had some young guys that have simply gotten more comfortable."
At 13-4 overall and 3-3 in Big East play, Georgetown is very much in the hunt for an NCAA tournament berth for the fourth straight year.
Each week, I'll pick the top five players -- and three reserves -- to play for a high-profile coach. Disagree with my selections? Let me hear about it.
Wisconsin's All-Bo Ryan team
PG: Jordan Taylor -- Averaged 18.1 points and 4.7 assists as a junior in 2010-11
SG: Devin Harris -- 2nd team All-American in 2003-04; No. 5 overall pick in NBA draft
SF: Alando Tucker -- First-team All-American and Big Ten Player of the Year in 2006-07
PF: Jon Leuer -- Efficient post player averaged 18.3 points, 7.2 rebounds in 2010-11
C: Mike Wilkinson -- Became the second Badger to record 1,500 points and 800 boards
PG: Trevon Hughes -- Averaged double figures three straight years from 2007-10
SG: Kirk Penney -- Played in 2000 Final Four and member of All-Big Ten team in 2002 and '03
PF: Marcus Landry -- Averaged 10.8 points, 5.4 rebounds for 2008 Big Ten champions
Not that bad after all: Purdue
Not that good after all: Notre Dame
Historic league start (good edition): Ole Miss
Historic league start (bad edition): Texas
Overlooked team: Colorado State
Overlooked player: C.J. Wilcox, Washington
Mid-major not talked about enough: Middle Tennessee
Mid-major talked about too much: Northern Iowa
Low-major you should pay attention to: Stephen F. Austin
Low-major you should pray for: Grambling (nation's only winless team)
Rough week: Steve Fisher, San Diego State
Rougher week: Frank Haith, Missouri
Did you know we're leading our league? Miami and Oregon
Did you know we're not leading our league? Duke and Arizona
When does football start? Georgia, LSU, just about the entire SEC
When does baseball start? South Carolina, Mississippi State, just about the entire SEC
Arizona 74, vs. UCLA 68: The Bruins don't defend well enough to beat the Wildcats in Tucson. Also, Arizona leads the Pac-12 in rebounding margin while UCLA ranks ninth.
Duke 71, vs. Maryland 56: It's going to be tough for one of the ACC's most offensively challenged teams to score enough points to keep it close in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Butler 55, vs. Temple 51: In some ways the Owls are every bit as dangerous as Gonzaga. Fran Dunphy's squads have a knack for pulling upsets.
Iowa State 60, vs. Kansas State 57: So much for Hilton Magic. K-State has won five of its last six games in Ames. Each of the past five contests was decided by four points or less.
Minnesota 59, at Wisconsin 58: The Gophers were 0-2 against Wisconsin last season, but with Trevor Mbakwe in the mix, Tubby Smith's squad is much tougher in 2012-13.
New Mexico 58, at San Diego State 55: I have a hard time picking any team to win a game that scored nine points in an entire half, which is what San Diego State did in a loss at Wyoming on Saturday. So New Mexico gets the nod here.
NC State 74, vs. North Carolina 67: The Tar Heels should be on a three-game winning streak when they take the court Saturday. But the momentum won't be enough to stop a Wolfpack squad that boasts superior talent, depth and experience.
Indiana 73, vs. Michigan State 65: The Hoosiers will re-energize themselves with a victory at Penn State on Wednesday and be back on track by the time the Spartans roll into town this weekend.
Papalino's, Louisville: So strong was my craving for New York-style pizza after Saturday's Syracuse-Louisville game that I almost made the 80-minute drive to Lexington for a slice at one of my favorite spots, Good Fellas. But then someone told me about Papalino's. Located on Baxter in the heart of Louisville's nightlife district, Papalino's serves up made-to-order slices with the exact type of crispy crust that I love. Intending to purchase an entire pie, I figured I'd call in my order while I was on my way. "Trust me," an employee said over the phone, "each slice is one-fourth of a pizza. That's all you'll need." Bless his soul. He clearly didn't know who he was talking to. "Just to be safe, go ahead and give me two of them," I said, choosing a pepperoni-sausage-mushroom slice as well as one with jalapeno and beef. I got them both down, crust and all. It was so good that next time I might even try for a third.
Nuts on Clark, Chicago: A sincere King's Court salute goes out to the friendly Southwest Airlines flight attendant who gave me "special permission" to deboard the plane during a quick pit stop in the Windy City on Friday. I noticed we had pulled into Gate B-1 at Chicago's Midway Airport, and any experienced traveler knows that B-1 is also the location for Nuts on Clark, which sells what may be the best popcorn in the history of America. I tried to behave, but the smell of the freshly popped kernels danced down the runway and onto the plane. "This is torture," I told her. "I'll be gone five minutes, tops." Feeling my pain, she sent me on my way. For just under three bones, I came back with a huge bag of hot popcorn (some folks go for cheese or caramel or a mixture of the two, but I'm a straight butter guy) and an ice-cold Diet Coke, both of which were gone by the time we reached Louisville. I thanked the flight attendant several times -- but never offered her any of my popcorn.