The Buckeyes started the year 1-3 in conference and losing at Madison, Ann Arbor and Minneapolis, mostly a product of playing without Evan Turner (back) for four weeks. Without its best player, Ohio State stayed the course and ended up dominating the conference slate. When Turner got back, much like the Badgers are experiencing now with Jon Leuer, Ohio State found a groove, winning 10 of its last 11 games to win a share of the conference title.
"Each championship that you win, it's all about the next one," Ohio State Coach Thad Matta said. "To go back to where this team started with Evan going down on December 5 and not knowing his fate of when he was going to coming back, and opening up the Big Ten with four of five games on the road and a couple of them without him, I couldn't be more proud of this team and how they are playing."
Moving Turner from the forward to point guard was smart, as the conference's Player of the Year leads Ohio State in points (19.5), rebounds (9.8), assists (5.8) and blocks (0.9). Jon Diebler is a three-point assassin, hitting seven threes against Illinois and sophomore William Buford (14.3 ppg) has scored in double figures five straight games.
The Buckeyes are heading for the NCAAs as a likely two seed, no matter the outcome this weekend.
2) Purdue (26-4, 14-4 Big Ten)
My, how things have changed for the Boilermakers. Yes, eight true road wins and winning a share of their first conference title since 1996 isn't something to hang its head about, but Purdue wanted more.
Three weeks ago, Purdue was a near lock for a number one seed in the NCAA Tournament, a resume stacked full of solid wins, a 14-game winning streak to start the season and a 10-game win streak after the Boilers lost three straight nail biters in the conference. Then junior Robbie Hummel went down and the world stopped revolving.
Hummel tore his ACL in his right knee on a drive to the lane at the Gophers. Purdue survived by one, but were disjointed against the Spartans four days later, scoring just 16 second-half points that wrecked its chance to win the conference out right. Hummel's 15.7 points, 6.9 rebounds understate his value to the Boilermakers, as he was the team's heartbeat.
Without him, it's essential that Purdue's offense focus in on leading-scorer E'Twaun Moore (16.7 ppg) and second-leading scorer and leading rebounder JaJuan Johnson (14.9 points, 7.2 rebounds). The Boilers will also need Chris Kramer (Purdue's all-time steals leader) and Keaton Grant (6.8 points per game) to step up their performance offensively and defensively to account for Hummel's absence.
"We still have two guys (Moore and Johnson) to circle the wagon around offensively, and that's what we'll do," Painter said. "But the other guys have to step up and pick their spots and take the open shots when they're there. When you lose a guy like Rob, rebounding the ball for us at this point has to be the No. 1 item."
Purdue is still a team that has enough weapons to make the Sweet 16, but it'll be a long shot to get to Indianapolis a Final Four, something that seemed like a real possibility at full strength. The committee has been known to alter team's seeds due to a late season injury (see Cincinnati and Kenyon Martin in 2000). Since Purdue hasn't beat top competition since Hummel went out, the BTT will be key for them in proving its worth.
3) Michigan State (24-7, 14-4 Big Ten)
Michigan State didn't have a bad loss on its resume, but it didn't have very many good wins either, as the victory over Gonzaga and the Badgers were the lone gems in the win column. That changed somewhat by gritting out a victory over a wounded Purdue team, a victory that helped the Spartans get into position to win a piece of the conference title for the second straight season.
Sparty won their first nine conference games before getting destroyed in Madison and receiving a double whammy when Kalin Lucas' high-ankle sprain kept him out in a loss to the Illini and limited him somewhat in a home loss to Purdue. Since then, MSU has been OK, but not great, especially when it had to hang on to beat the Nittany Lions at home, which means they'll need to make a statement in Indianapolis.
"I've been disappointed the way we played the last couple of games," Izzo said before the Purdue game. "We're a pretty good team. We're not a great team, yet, because we haven't played great yet … I don't think we have (the chemistry) as well as it needs to be for a championship team."
The Spartans have five players that score in double figures, including Raymar Morgan's 11.1 points, 6.2 rebounds and Draymond Green's 10.1 points, 7.8 rebounds, but Kalin Lucas is the straw the stirs the drink, leading the team with 14.8 points and 3.9 assists per game. Michigan State is in, but needs to impress the committee by winning at least one game in Indianapolis. The crystal ball says Sparty is a four seed when the brackets are announced, although they don't seem like a championship team like they were last year.
4) Wisconsin (23-7, 13-5 Big Ten)
The Badgers are kicking themselves for letting a couple wins slip away (at Purdue, home against Illini) to finish just one game out of first place, but the fact of the matter is that few predicted Wisconsin will be in the position they are in.
A lock for the NCAA Tournament and finishing at fourth place or higher every year under Head Coach Bo Ryan (nine years), Wisconsin is one of five teams in the country to have defeated three teams ranked in the AP top 10 this season (No. 6 Duke, No. 4 Purdue and No.5 Michigan State). Throw in quality wins over Marquette, Maryland and Ohio State and the Badgers are in good shape to be a four seed, or maybe a three if they can get into the tournament finals.
With the recent success Wisconsin has had, how can one bet against the Badgers early in both tournaments? The Badgers have held 13 teams to 50 or fewer points, the most of any team in the nation. Eight of those defensive efforts have come against Big Ten teams. Imagine the headaches a team that hasn't played against UW is going to face.
Bohannon is averaged 17.4 points while shooting 61 percent from the floor in his last eight games (excluding Illinois). Since struggling with his shot (2-of-12, four points) in his return to Minnesota, Leuer has averaged 15.5 points, 5.0 rebounds and 2.5 blocks in the past four games, as the Badgers look more and more like a cohesive unit with him shaking off the rust.
The Badgers have a ton of depth, and that is going to serve them well down the stretch.
5) Illinois (18-13, 10-8 Big Ten)
Now we come to the NIT portion of our breakdown, starting with the lack-of-Fighting Illini. After falling at Ohio State Tuesday, Illinois lost four of five games, including two losses to the Buckeyes by an average of 17 points and a home-loss debacle to the Gophers. The latest loss to the Bucks prompted this golden nugget from Bruce Weber.
"The shark got one leg, now it's got another," Weber said. "It's pulling us under. We'll see if we can get away."
Not so much, as Illinois further extending its problems by not showing much fight down the stretch in a 15-point loss to Wisconsin at home on Senior Day. If you can't get excited for that, you don't belong in the dance, especially with the mediocre profile they have.
Illinois has only four wins against the RPI top-50, beating UW and MSU along with a home victory over Vanderbilt and a road victory over Clemson. The Illini should be kicking themselves for blowing the game against Gonzaga at the United Center in early January, losing by two in overtime.
Thirteen of Illinois' 18 victories have come against teams that are ranked over No.100 in the RPI ratings, and back-to-back losses against Utah and Bradley in November are going to stick out more than the Illini's 6-4 record in true road games.
6) Minnesota (18-12, 9-9 Big Ten)
The Gophers were slated for the National Invitational until they beat Wisconsin by 16 in the barn. Suddenly, Tubby Smith's squad had renewed energy, thumping Indiana, registering an upset at Champaign and nearly upending a Hummel-less Purdue in the barn.
The came the clunker – a 28-point blowout loss at Michigan, ending any chances of the Gophers finishing above .500 in league play and having to play in the dreaded quarterfinals, where few teams advance further than the semifinals. Worse yet, the Gophers resume is devoid of quality wins despite closing the season 4-4, beating only Butler and having just two combined wins over the top four teams in the Big Ten.
Minnesota has weapons – dunk-master Lawrence Westbrook, three-point shooter Blake Hoffarber and improving-center Ralph Sampson III – to make a run in the postseason, but odds are high that it won't be in the tournament that matters.
7) Northwestern (19-12, 7-11 Big Ten)
Oh what could have been if Kevin Coble wasn't lost before the season. Have him, and the Wildcats probably would be dancing for the first time. Winners of 10 of its first 11, including a win over Notre Dame, the Wildcats lost steam in the Big Ten, losing winnable games against Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan State and Minnesota. Regardless, it was its two losses against Penn State and games against Indiana and Iowa popped NU's bubble.
The Wildcats have a good core of players on their roster. Sophomore John Churna is an All-Big Ten selection with his 18.1 points per game, junior Michael Thompson (13.5 points, 4.0 assists) has improved dramatically at the guard position and guard Drew Crawford (10.1 points) was a lock for the All-Freshman Team.
Even so, short of a miracle run to a Big Ten Tournament championship, the Wildcats will make yet another frustrating NIT appearance.
8) Michigan (14-16, 7-11 Big Ten)
Now we come to the home for the summer section.
Michigan, much like Minnesota, had high hopes entering the season of making the push to the NCAA Tournament after ending a lengthy NCAA drought the year before. But after losing 4-of-5 and 6-of-9 (including a loss at Indiana) to end the 2009 calendar year, the Wolverines chances were put on life support.
Michigan registered a decent win over Connecticut but just as soon as the Huskies had their implosion, the Wolverines had theirs, losing 5-of-6 and letting missed chances at Wisconsin and at home against Michigan State pop their bubble.
Junior Manny Harris (17.7 points) and senior DeShawn Sims (16.9 points) is one of the best one-two punch in the conference, but the problem is the Wolverines don't have a lot of scoring talent surrounding them, one of the main reasons they have they record they do.
9) Iowa (10-21, 4-14 Big Ten)
How mad do you think Hawkeye fans are in retrospect for running Steve Alford out of town? Alford got Iowa a Big Ten Tournament championship, a couple trips to the dance and some competitive squads, and is using that same recipe to make New Mexico a tough match-up in the NCAA Tournament.
The Hawkeyes are a young, inexperienced team that have had plenty of growing pains this season, a tone that was set by losing their first two games to Texas-San Antonio and Duquesne, both at home.
"I did anticipate that there would be difficulties along the way just because the competition level that we're at, and it's new for so many of them," said Iowa coach Todd Lickliter after the UTSA loss. "It's new for this team. We're not a veteran team."
The Hawkeyes have a potential young star in sophomore Matt Gatens, leading the Hawks with 12.4 points per, but need to find a way to beat teams not named Indiana, Northwestern or Penn State to be competitive in the conference.
10) Indiana (10-20, 4-14 Big Ten)
It's never a good sign when a team is scoring 66.5 points per game but giving up 71.4 per contest. The Hoosiers, losers of 11 straight conference games before upending the Wildcats in overtime on Senior Day, have taken baby steps in the second season of the Tom Crean era, but have a lot of work to do with their young roster that, at times, has showcased a lack of toughness.
Losing freshman guard Maurice Cheeks (16.8 points per game) for the entire conference season after breaking his left leg in the final non-conference tune-up. From that point, too much of the offensive burden landed on Verdell Jones (14.8 points) and Christian Watford (12.1 points) and Indiana never really recovered.
Crean brought in a solid 2009 recruiting class, don't expect the Hoosiers to be one of the laughing stocks of the conference for too many more seasons.
11) Penn State (11-19, 3-15 Big Ten)
One knew that Penn State Coach Ed DeChellis was going to have some growing pains without a senior class of Jamelle Cornley and Stanley Pringle that helped the Nittany Lions with the NIT Championship last season. Although Talor Battle (18.8 ppg) is an All-Big Ten player, his teammates didn't get him much of a lift in crunch time.
The Nittany Lions lost nine games by six points or less, eight of which came in Big Ten play and not including the eight-point overtime loss at Wisconsin. In that UW game, Penn State led by as many as 16 points in the second half before a 15-0 Wisconsin run ended its good feelings.
"I don't think we're bad," DeChellis said after the game. "And I know you guys are all laughing at me, '[The] guy hasn't won a game in the league and doesn't think he's bad.' I just don't think we're bad. We just have been snakebitten, constantly."
The snake bit against on Thursday, as the Nittany Lions fell by two at Michigan State, and on Sunday, missing a chance to tie with less than 20 seconds left and falling to Purdue by four. The good news for Penn State is that it has no seniors on its roster and has gained valuable experience that will pay dividends next year. The bad news is that Penn State will not defend its NIT crown.