Battling in the Big Ten

The Big Ten is always competitive. But this season the depth of talented teams is on another level.

Who's going to win the Big Ten?

It's early yet, but that's the question at the forefront following a wild weekend in conference play. It's a question because there are many potential answers.

Ohio State legitimized it's claim as best in show after knocking off previously unbeaten Michigan.

Indiana remained unbeaten in conference play after surviving a late charge from Minnesota Saturday. Michigan State, now 3-1, looked shaky in a home win over lowly Nebraska.

And after a less than stellar November and December, Wisconsin is now tied for the top spot after a dominating blowout victory over Illinois.

What does it all mean? At the moment, there are several teams positioned for a run at the Big Ten crown.

It also means there aren't many nights off on the slate, where anything less than a team's best effort and execution can lead to a loss.

"I think it's as deep as I've ever seen it," Illinois coach John Groce said earlier this season. "I've said that before."

The Illini know the lay of the land better than most. A road loss at Purdue to open the conference was trumped by an outstanding showing against the Buckeyes.

But the feel good story was only a sentence long. A sound defeat to Minnesota at Assembly Hall and that thorough beating at the hands of the Badgers quickly dampened spirits and have the Illini mired in a tie for eighth in the conference.

"I think that, you know, you play one way one game that doesn't mean it's automatically going to happen the next game," Groce said. "It's not. It's just the way it is."

With the toughness of the top two-thirds of the conference in mind, Illinois' next two games are imperative. Northwestern and Nebraska are next up, providing a chance for the Illini to get back on solid footing and to regain conference standing. The Wildcats and Cornhuskers are a combined 19-15 on the year, with one conference win between the two teams in seven tries.

Groce said this after the win over Ohio State: "I've said all along we're not going to define our season by one game, win or lose and the guys have not done that."

That statement seemingly means more now than it ever could on Jan. 5. Replacing a big win with an embarrassing loss, the Illini need that same each-game-only-counts-once logic to apply to the current situation.

Mid-January isn't exactly time for make or break statements, but lofty goals in March are presently at stake.

Ohio State coach Thad Matta has shown the blueprint. His Buckeyes recovered from the slip-up in Champaign, winning at Purdue and upsetting the Wolverines.

"No question about it, what you have to keep your eye on is that you're making the right steps…," he said following the loss to the Illini. "(Losing is) going to happen. The focus has got to be on what we have to do to play our best basketball."

That's good advice, sentiment that Groce and the Illini should pay heed to while battling in a conference that's up for grabs.

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