1. INDIANA (21-3, 9-2)
If the Hoosiers hadn’t gone brain dead down the stretch at Illinois, they’d be sitting alone atop the Big Ten standings. But that doesn’t keep me from putting them there after an impressive road win at Ohio State. A more dominant Cody Zeller like the one we saw against the Buckeyes will keep them first.
2. MICHIGAN STATE (20-4, 9-2)
Somehow the Spartans just keep winning, even with injuries hampering them. But they’ll be tested against Michigan this week in what should be the latest in a litany of classic Big Ten games. Point guard Keith Appling needs to show up big against Trey Burke if the Spartans are going to keep pace with IU.
3. MICHIGAN (21-3, 8-3)
Overtime was a split for the Wolverines, who won against Ohio State, then lost at Wisconsin last week. They’ve become heavily reliant on Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. Big man Mitch McGary is also emerging, but fellow standout freshmen Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III seem to have hit the freshman wall.
4. WISCONSIN (17-7, 8-3)
The Badgers have played 14 games this season decided by 10 points or less, including eight straight. While they’ve won eight of those, it’s a fine line the Badgers are walking. But after a trip to Minnesota and a home game with Ohio State this week, the schedule tilts in their favor for a while.
5. OHIO STATE (17-6, 7-4)
The Buckeyes took two tough losses against Indiana and Michigan last week. They are not out of contention just yet, but have slipped to the fringes of the discussion with no margin for error. The supporting cast for Aaron Craft and Deshaun Thomas remains a work in progress offensively, but the defense is also capable of carrying them at times.
6. ILLINOIS (17-8, 4-7)
It was a good week for the Illini, who resurrected NCAA hopes with wins over Indiana and Minnesota. The streakiness of Illinois makes the future hard to predict, but with the next three games against Purdue, Northwestern and Penn State, regaining momentum appears likely.
7. MINNESOTA (17-7, 5-6)
Subbing in as the freefall team of the week is Minnesota, which has fallen onto the bubble even as Illinois played its way off. The Gophers lost to Illinois Sunday without Rodney Williams, but the offense is also missing, averaging just 58 points in the last six games.
8. PURDUE (12-12, 5-6)
Road games at Illinois and Indiana this week could tell us how much the Boilermakers have regressed or progressed. They beat the Illini back on Jan. 2 in Mackey, but lost to the Hoosiers by 37. After a road win at Penn State last week, we’ll see if this young Purdue squad has matured away from home.
9. IOWA (15-9, 4-7)
After plenty of struggles through the first half of the Big Ten campaign, maybe the worm turns over the next few weeks. The Hawkeyes have just one game against a ranked team left — at Indiana. It may be too late for an NCAA Tournament run, but Iowa could make it interesting with a big winning streak.
10. NORTHWESTERN (13-11, 4-7)
It continues to be one step forward, two steps back for the Wildcats. Recent losses to Nebraska and Iowa show a lack of consistency, and the remaining schedule is likely to continue that trend. Four games against top 25 teams remain, and just making the NIT may be a challenge.
11. NEBRASKA (12-12, 3-8)
The Cornhuskers at least know they can beat Penn State, having done so twice. And they added a win over Northwestern, too. A signature win in coach Tim Miles’ first season remains elusive, but Nebraska will get its chance with games against Indiana, Michigan State, Illinois and Minnesota.
12. PENN STATE (8-15, 0-11)
The Nittany Lions continue to firmly cement their place in the cellar, and only a few more losses will make the residence permanent. This week’s home game against Iowa is the most winnable one remaining.
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