1. MICHIGAN (17-1, 4-1)
Wolverines bounced back from their first loss in impressive fashion, winning at The Barn behind the 1-2 punch of Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. But more notable is the fact Michigan ranks third in the Big Ten in scoring defense during league play. That’s the end of the floor that determines how good this team can be.
2. INDIANA (16-2, 4-1)
The trials that will reveal the true nature of the Hoosiers lie just ahead. So far, they’ve gone about business largely as expected, including a loss to Wisconsin, which just has IU’s number. Bench productivity, whether that takes the form of offense, defense, rebounding or whatever, is the question mark for the Hoosiers, who need more than five players moving forward.
3. MICHIGAN STATE (17-3, 6-1)
You wouldn’t think the Spartans could sneak up on anybody, but somehow they have, sitting atop the league. Unimpressive at times, but somehow winners of 12 of their last 13 games, Michigan State is getting increased frontline production and clutch play from point guard Keith Appling.
4. WISCONSIN (13-6, 4-2)
Speaking of sneaking up, the Badgers officially threw their hat in the Big Ten title ring with last week’s win in Bloomington. This isn’t quite the same Wisconsin team as in recent years, but there’s a balance of young and old that’s been working quite nicely. Still, the Badgers aren’t bulletproof, as two straight losses show.
5. MINNESOTA (15-3, 3-2)
The Gophers came away down but not out after losses to Indiana and Michigan. In both cases, they dug too deep a hole to completely crawl out of. Still, a pair of single-digit losses indicate that Minnesota isn’t far off the pace. Righting the ship tonight at Northwestern, then finding a way to win at Wisconsin could put the Gophers right back in the race.
6. OHIO STATE (14-4, 4-2)
The Buckeyes finally got a quality win with an upset of Michigan, then couldn’t quite finish a nip-and-tuck affair at Michigan State. The problem is that as Deshaun Thomas (21 ppg) goes, so goes the Buckeye offense. However, the defense appears capable enough, allowing just under 60 points per game in the last three.
7. ILLINOIS (15-5, 2-4)
If you thought the Illini’s hot start was a bit of a mirage, it looks like you were right. Illinois did have a solid response on the road at Nebraska Tuesday night, one that indicates that perhaps the strong start won’t go for naught. Now can the Illini find some consistency?
8. IOWA (13-6, 2-4)
The Hawkeyes, once the trendy dark horse pick of the Big Ten, fell off the radar after a ragged start. But since a narrow, three-point home loss to Michigan State, Iowa has gotten untracked, including the big win over Wisconsin. Sustaining success may remain a difficult task, but expect more upsets along the way.
9. PURDUE (10-8, 3-2)
The Boilermakers are shaping up to be one of the most improved teams in the league through over the course of the last month. That’s thanks in large part to a defense that has held three straight opponents under 34 percent shooting. The confidence is carrying over to offense, too, as revealed by 49 percent shooting in a rout of West Virginia.
10. NORTHWESTERN (11-8, 2-4)
The Wildcats have shown that the lower tier of the Big Ten is not without teeth. After punishing Illinois, Northwestern was resilient against Indiana at home. But the Wildcats have to make shots to be successful, otherwise they lack the firepower to keep pace with the big boys.
11. NEBRASKA (10-10, 1-6)
The Cornhuskers won the battle for the cellar with last Saturday’s victory at Penn State. The return of Brandon Ubel was instrumental, as was a career game from freshman Shavon Shields (29 points). They fell back to earth a bit in Tuesday’s loss to Illinois, but have a winnable game with Northwestern on Saturday.
12. PENN STATE (8-10, 0-6)
The Nittany Lions are pretty much who we thought they were without Tim Frazier. D.J. Newbill and Jermaine Marshall are both capable scorers, but getting them both going at the same time has been elusive. They’ll bite somebody, but with Indiana and Ohio State due up, that first Big Ten win will have to wait.