It's officially February, which means it's officially time to start the bubble watch. And for Illini fans, this is nothing new. Five of the last seven seasons we've had to sweat it out on Selection Sunday in hopes that Illinois would go dancing, and this year is no different. With nine games remaining, Groce's guys would have to win at least five or six of them in order to stay in the hunt for a tourney bid. But the Illini are not the only ones in this petrifying position. You can also expect Iowa and Wisconsin to be on the bubble come March; each team has racked up some quality wins (Wisconsin over Indiana, Iowa over Iowa State), but they've both struggled too (Virginia over Wisconsin, Purdue over Iowa).
The Wolverines' and the Hoosiers' biggest concern isn't if they will make the tournament, but where they will be seeded. Realistically, Michigan could be a #1 seed, and Indiana a #2 seed (or the other way around based on the result Saturday night). Both teams execute every facet of the game pretty well; they take and make 3's, draw fouls, have good ball movement, and are great defensively. Trey Burke could easily win the Naismith Award for best player of the year, and Indiana is such a deep team that I don't even know which player to look at first (Watford, Oladipo, Ferrel, Hulls, Zeller). As a side note, if Victor Oladipo had finished that oop-dunk in the second half against the Wolverines Saturday, that might have been the best dunk I've ever seen.
A clearer picture of where everybody belongs in the conference standings is finally coming into view. The top four teams: Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State. The Spartans struggled at home against Illinois on Thursday, but showed great resilience in the second half. They have a lot of leaders on their team (Keith Appling, Adrien Payne, etc.) and could make some noise in the tournament. The Buckeyes didn't really "impress" me this week; they won the games they should've won. That's about it. Aaron Craft is really impressive and called one of the best defenders in college basketball, but you question how fantastic his defense really is. When asked about this by Dan Dakich, Craft responded, "I foul on every possession. Absolutely. But they can't call it every time, right?" I guess he relies more on home cooking by Ed Hightower than he does on his actual defensive effort.
Quite frankly, Minnesota has stumped me. They start off the season looking like Elite Eight contenders, then lose 3 in a row including one to Northwestern. Now they've sort of righted the ship by beating lowly Nebraska (by the way, if you want a chuckle, look at the last two sentences; they would apply to the Illini perfectly). Are they still Big Ten title contenders? Or are they slowly falling in the standings for good? Only time will tell. Below are my tiers and rankings:
Elite: (1) Indiana
Good, not flawless: (3) Michigan State
(4) Ohio State
Inconsistent: (5) Minnesota
Bubble watch: (7) Iowa
Yeah, they suck: (10) Purdue
(12) Penn State
Which team is the best in the Big Ten?
Indiana (beat #1 Michigan at home) (2 votes)
Michigan (lost to #3 Indiana on the road) (2 votes)
Michigan State (beat Illinois at home) (0 votes)
Ohio State (beat Wisconsin and Nebraska at home) (0 votes)
Minnesota (beat Iowa at home) (0 votes)
Other (Wisconsin?) (0 votes)
4 total votes