With just over a month in the books and most teams having played about half their conference schedule, let's check out the big boys of the midwest. We're seeing a slight upheaval when it comes to traditional powers, as Indiana and Wisconsin sit in the bottom third of the standings, Northwestern is respectable, and Penn State is in the mix toward the top.
At this point, the conference is very balanced, and much stronger than it has been in recent years. They have a shot at seven bids for the Big Dance, but six is the more likely number.
Most Suprising Team
It's gotta be Penn State, even though there have been quite a few surprises. The Nittany Lions have been one of the league's doormats for the past half-decade, but now they are a team to be reckoned with. They still have a bit of work to do on their tourney resume, as their non-conference strength of schedule was awful, but I like their chances. They need to get these next two games against Michigan and Wisconsin before a rough patch in the schedule (at Purdue, vs. Minnesota, at Illinois, at Ohio State). Runner-up: Northwestern.
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Most Disappointing Team
It's not even close. Wisconsin has always been a tourney team under Bo Ryan, and they always win consistently. The Badgers hadn't even lost four straight conference games since 1998, but they currently sit with a six-game skid -- after beginning conference play 3-0. Sure, they've played a tough schedule, but do they have any really impressive wins? Beating Penn State at home or winning at Virginia Tech were the best wins, and they both went right down the wire. Runner-up: Michigan.
Player of the Year
Talor Battle of Penn State leads the conference in scoring, assists (he's tied), three-pointers (he's tied), is third in assist-to-turnover ratio, and is tied for eighth in steals. He carried them for stretches in their big win -- at Michigan State -- and has proven he can hit the clutch shot when needed. Runner-up: Kalin Lucas.
Coach of the Year
I may have given this to Tubby Smith, but the Gophers were just summarily dismantled due to the wrath of the Spartans Wednesday night. I may have given this to Ed DeChellis, but he's been failing at Penn State for quite a while to all of a sudden become a genius. Instead, I'm going with Bruce Weber. Illinois was awful last season, to the point that many believed he may have survived only on the talent left by Bill Self in his first few years. This year he's doing it with youth and balanced scoring. This is easily a better coaching job than his national runner-up, as they were obscenely talented then. Runner-up: Smith.
We'll do this in the form of an NCAA Tournament watch. I'll use the NFL injury report scale to illustrate the team's likelihood of playing in the Dance (playing, probable, questionable, doubtful, and out).
1. Michigan State (playing) - They are playing for seeding.
2. Purdue (playing) - When Robbie Hummel comes back, you'll see the loss at Ohio State was an aberration.
3. Illinois (playing) - Not many weaknesses here.
4. Minnesota (playing) - Strong RPI, and they'll win at least 11 conference games.
5. Ohio State (probable) - They are finding their way without David Lighty.
6. Penn State (questionable) - That RPI is still scary-low for an at-large bid.
7. Michigan (questionable) - Above Northwestern based upon early victories over Duke and UCLA.
8. Northwestern (questionable) - They still have work to do, but they have the potential to sneak into their first bid ever.
9. Wisconsin (doubtful) - It's possible for them to right the ship, but I'm not seeing it.
10. Iowa (out) - Still a year or two away.
11. Indiana (out) - We knew this was a throw-away year, but there is hope.