Big Ten: Midseason Report

At the de facto halfway point of the Big Ten season, things are, surprisingly, holding fairly close to preseason prognostications. Ohio State leads the conference by a ½ game over Michigan State. Wisconsin and Michigan are a game back while Purdue is two games out of the conference lead. The teams in the sixth, seventh and eighth range are teams Indiana, Illinois and Minnesota - that were projected to be in this position before the season. Iowa, Nebraska and Penn State, as expected, are playing for pride and the desire not to be the first team in conference history to finish in 12th place.

MAJOR SURPRISE: Michigan State. Losing seniors Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers was supposed to almost immobilize MSU’s offense, forcing Tom Izzo to rely solely on his defense in this “rebuilding” season. Much to Izzo’s excitement, this might be one of MSU’s best offensive teams in recent memory. The Spartans currently rank 9th in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency (116.2) but have backed that number with superb defense (86.3, which ranks 6th). On the fringe of the Top 25 to start the season, the Spartans have quietly moved into the Top 10 with big-time road wins (Gonzaga and Wisconsin) while playing ACC thoroughbreds North Carolina and Duke close in back-to-back losses to open the season.

MAJOR DISAPPOINTMENT: Northwestern. Let’s be clear on this point: This writer has never fallen for the “This is Northwestern’s year” talk. The Wildcats are good enough to get 20 wins but aren’t good enough to sustain 18 Big Ten games each season. Yes, the Wildcats will beat good teams (see a January 14th win against Michigan State). However, over the course of the season, Northwestern’s flash-in-the-pan success equates to a NIT team. I’ll call Northwestern a disappointment because a 2-6 conference record was not the start anyone envisioned. Northwestern lost home games to Illinois and Purdue by a combined three points. Those are the games that, in the end, will likely keep the Wildcats from making the NCAA Tournament. The second half of the slate is more favorable with home games against Nebraska and Minnesota, two games against Iowa and a revenge home game against Michigan (Northwestern blew a late lead and lost by two in OT at Michigan in early January).

BRACKETOGRAPHY: I'll have a weekly bracket released each Friday. In my first edition of Bracketography 2012, released this past Friday, eight Big Ten teams made the field. Ohio State (No. 2) headlined the group with Michigan State (No. 3) right behind. Indiana (No. 4) and Wisconsin (No. 4) were also protected seeds. Michigan (No. 5) was the best fifth seed and finished off the conference's teams favored to win at least one game in the tournament. Illinois (No. 9) is the only other Big Ten team "safely" in the field. Purdue (No. 12) and Minnesota (No. 13 and slotted in a "First Four"game) are both in precarious territory. It's safe to say both teams will either play their respective ways in or out of the final bracket.

The biggest thing to take away from the bracket is, at the current moment, the Big Ten is sending eight of its 12 teams to the NCAA Tournament with Northwestern squarely on the bubble as a possible ninth. That equates to 2/3 of the conference playing in the Big Dance. Percentage-wise, that would be on par with the Big East's 11/16 teams in last year's Field of 68.

Below is a snapshot at where Big Ten teams stack in Ken Pomeroy's rankings. Per Mr. Pomeroy himself, expect Ohio State to stay No. 1 for the rest of the season, barring a complete collapse. The same can be expected for Wisconsin to stay in the Top 5. Michigan State has been a steady Top 10 team for the past six weeks while Indiana is actually sliding down due to its horrendous defense.

THE WEEK THAT WAS: There wasn’t a “shocker” in last week’s Big Ten games, but there were a few games that note special attention. While other conferences saw heavyweights falter (Iowa State over Kansas and Colorado State over San Diego State were the biggest two shockers), the Big Ten stayed pretty true to form.

Michigan 66, Purdue 64: Mackey Arena used to be a place no one could win in. The Boilermakers are completely reversing that trend this season. Michigan controlled most of the game and while it was always close, it was Purdue who needed to hit big shots to get back in the game. For a team who had won just one road game all season (at Oakland), this was a huge win for Michigan and another puzzling loss for Purdue.

Wisconsin 57, Indiana 50: The Badgers were favored in this game so it shouldn’t be a surprise that Wisconsin held serve at the Kohl Center. However, Indiana will look at this game as one that got away. Wisconsin wasn’t hitting its threes but Indiana kept the Badgers in the game with thoughtless turnovers. This game was the perfect example of two teams heading in opposite directions.

Minnesota 77, Illinois 72 (OT): At the Barn, Minnesota needed a last-second layup plus an inexcusable foul by Illinois to send the game into overtime. There, Minnesota took control and stole a victory against the Jeckyl and Hyde Illini. This was a game between two teams that are destined, if either makes the NCAA Tournament, to be in that 10-, 11-, or 12-seed range; Both teams have hot and cold spells, making both squads completely average.

Ohio State 64, Michigan 49: The one thing people should take out of this game is how Ohio State can win at any pace. Even when Jared Sullinger is negated (and, for the sake of this argument, we’ll call 13 points – more than 20 percent of his team’s production – being negated), Ohio State can still win fairly easily. Yes, the game was a battle for the most part. Nevertheless, even when Michigan jumped out to a 5-0 lead, did anyone really think Michigan was going to win? Don’t read too much into this game for the Wolverines as Michigan will be a tournament team capable of a deep run because of solid outside shooting and tactically annoying-but-effective zone defenses. For the Buckeyes, just know this game shows Ohio State can win a game scoring 80 or can win a game that’s played in the 40s or 50s.

THE WEEK AHEAD: Expect the Big Ten to really take form this week. There are five games worth watching this week and I would expect all of them to be great. The outcomes will likely partition the Big Ten into four groups: Title contenders, Playing for NCAA seeds, Bubblicious, and NIT or bust.

Tuesday, 1/31: Michigan State @ Illinois – I told a friend this will be an ugly, 63-60 game (if the offensive Gods have a heart) between two teams known for defense. Michigan State has already shown the ability to win on the road, but for the Spartans to be considered an Elite Eight or Final Four team, this is the kind of road game that should be a small speed bump, not a difficult hurdle.

Wednesday, 2/1: Indiana @ Michigan – Most people say the Hoosiers have to prove one thing: They are a team that can win on the road. I say that’s item 1B. Indiana’s biggest problem is defense and its inability to stop people. Much is being made that Indiana topped 100 points in a 103-89 victory against Iowa on Sunday. But Indiana gave up nearly 90 points to a below-average Iowa team, allowing the Hawkeyes to make 19 of 24 field goals in the second half. That is more alarming than not winning on the road because porous defense follows a team wherever it plays. That should be the biggest talking point in this game.

Saturday, 2/4: Ohio State @ Wisconsin – Ohio State has already lost two conference road games (at Indiana and at Illinois). This should be the toughest test to date and arguably the toughest for the rest of the season. (NOTE: Ohio State finishes conference play with a road game at Michigan State. Interestingly enough, that is MSU’s senior day which also coincides with Draymond Green’s – MSU’s senior Mr. Everything's – birthday). If the Buckeyes want to be considered serious threats to win the championship, dictating the style of play in this game is huge. Wisconsin will want to play slow but Ohio State will need to exert its will and use its athleticism to play a game in the 70s.

Saturday, 2/4: Indiana @ Purdue – If Indiana is to get a huge road victory, this might be the place. Mackey Arena will be jacked up for the state battle and Purdue has slowly drifted toward the wrong side of the bubble in recent weeks. Expect a great game that, unfortunately, one team will have to lose.

Sunday, 2/5: Michigan @ Michigan State – The Wolverines have beaten MSU three straight games. That hadn’t happened since 1998. After playing poorly for most of the previous meeting and gagging away a chance to win, Michigan State has more than revenge on its mind. MSU was out-toughed in the final 4:07 in the first meeting, a 60-59 Michigan victory. In the final 4:07, Michigan State held the ball for 3:27 to Michigan’s 40 seconds. It was Michigan, however, that scored three baskets in that span while Michigan State’s only two points came on free throws. Expect that to change as MSU keeps its hopes for a Big Ten Championship alive.