A LOOK AROUND THE LEAGUE
Five Big Ten observations from beat writer Amelia Rayno:
1 Ohio State is the best. Halfway through the season, the fog finally has lifted -- somewhat -- and revealed what everyone thought they knew all along: The Buckeyes are the best team in the conference. Since losing to Illinois, the Buckeyes have won four consecutive games and have looked good doing it. The Big Ten's craziness masked it for a while, but you can't keep up with a team that has a roster like that for long.
2 The rest is kind of a mess. The Badgers, behind a more comfortable Jordan Taylor, are the second-best team -- for now -- having won five in a row. But move past that and things get hard to define. There still is a lower tier, but the murky middle leaves a lot to be sorted through. "There's about five of us, all in the same boat," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "Michigan, us, Illinois, Purdue, Indiana, Minnesota -- we're all like a coin flip every game."
3 You can't do well in the Big Ten without really solid defense. There might be an even bigger emphasis on that part of the game now than in recent years, Illinois coach Bruce Weber has suggested. This is the reason Iowa -- once in the mix -- has struggled lately. "Ultimately it comes down to a matter of toughness," said Iowa coach Fran McCaffery, a self-described offensive mind. "We don't have the toughness that's necessary to defend in this league."
4 Indiana is a good team, but not a great one. After the Hoosiers lost to Minnesota on their home court, they lost three of their next four games before getting back to .500 in the league. There were some good teams in that stretch, but to lose all of those games is suspect. The Hoosiers are NCAA tournament-quality, but they're hardly elite.
5 Watch out for Nebraska. The Huskers played punching bag for much of the first half of league play, but they weren't at full strength and they were still getting adjusted to the Big Ten. Now they're getting healthy and looking a lot stronger with victories in recent weeks against Indiana and at Iowa. Teams that played the Huskers early on -- while they were figuring things out -- could be the lucky ones.