By Chris Emma-
(CBS) The madness of March is around the corner, when college basketball’s best collide.
This was supposed to be another season in which the Big Ten flexed its muscles as the game’s best, most competitive league. At the halfway point of conference play, the results haven’t reached the hype.
Michigan and Michigan State are far and above the top two teams in the Big Ten, each with an 8-1 conference record and strong season credentials. Iowa has met expectations through three months of action. It would take a great collapse to keep the Hawkeyes from their first NCAA Tournament berth since 2006. But beyond that, the conference has been a disappointment.
In fourth place sits a Northwestern team that has surprised just about everybody. The Wildcats were once buried in the Big Ten basement but have since risen above Wisconsin and Ohio State, two teams that went from being ranked in the top five to unranked.
Both Nebraska and Penn State have largely overachieved, wreaking havoc throughout the conference standings. Illinois and Purdue have continued to free fall and each need a miracle to reach the NCAA Tournament. Meanwhile, Minnesota and Indiana are largely unattractive bubble candidates.
Only three teams have an above .500 mark in conference play — Michigan, Michigan State and Iowa. The preseason talk was that the Big Ten could get as many as nine teams in the tournament. Now, it will be lucky to have more than five teams dancing.
Emma’s Big Ten Power Rankings
1.) Michigan (16-5, 8-1) – The Wolverines have weathered the storm throughout this season, but they weren’t going to be perfect in Big Ten play. Still, John Beilein’s team has proven to be the league’s best.
2.) Michigan State (19-3, 8-1) – Credit the Spartans for playing a tough nonconference game in the middle of their Big Ten slate, but the loss to Georgetown isn’t a good look. The Spartans must regroup against Penn State before a date with Wisconsin in the Kohl Center.
3.) Iowa (17-5, 6-3) – Close losses tell the tale for the Hawkeyes, and a home loss against Michigan State is one they would like to have back. Even so, Iowa is undoubtedly one of the Big Ten’s top teams.
4.) Northwestern (12-11, 5-5) – It seemed impossible to imagine Northwestern sitting in fourth place a month ago. Chris Collins has the Wildcats playing some tough basketball.
5.) Ohio State (17-5, 4-5) – So, Ohio State loses at home to Penn State, but wins at the Kohl Center against Wisconsin? That sums up how this Big Ten season has gone.
6.) Nebraska (11-9, 3-5) – Both Minnesota and Indiana have better records than the Cornhuskers, but Nebraska beat them both. Tim Miles has his team playing really good basketball at the new Pinnacle Bank Arena. A road win at Michigan would go a long way for this team.
7.) Minnesota (15-7, 4-5) – The Golden Gophers failed to protect their home court against upstart Northwestern, taking a dip in the Big Ten standings. Without Andre Hollins in the lineup, Minnesota is in trouble.
8.) Indiana (14-8, 4-5) – Just as Indiana’s season appeared to be heading south, it pulled off an upset of Michigan. Perhaps the young Hoosiers have potential to make a run in the month of February.
9.) Wisconsin (17-5, 4-5) – The Badgers’ record doesn’t speak for their recent run, having lost five of their last six games. Wisconsin’s offense is struggling, and that 16-0 start seems like it was years ago.
10.) Penn State (12-10, 3-6) – Wins against Ohio State and Purdue put Penn State’s season in the right direction. Pat Chambers has two of the league’s best players in Tim Frazier and D.J. Newbill. Now, the Nittany Lions are beginning to play better basketball.
11.) Purdue (13-9, 3-6) –The Boilermakers were on the verge of a four-game winning streak before unraveling against Northwestern. Instead, it became a four-game skid as Matt Painter’s nightmares continue on. Purdue’s turnaround season will have to wait until next year as the Boilermakers’ misery drags forward.
12.) Illinois (13-9, 2-7) – The Fighting Illini remain a total mess, losing their last seven games. A season with high hopes has become a total disaster. Barring a miraculous run, Illinois will be looking ahead to next year.
Player of the Week: D.J. Newbill, Penn State junior guard
The Nittany Lions’ key scorer led the way for two big Penn State wins. Newbill hit the game-tying and game-winning shots against Ohio State, part of his 25-point performance, then he tallied 19 points on 8-of-10 shooting in a win over Purdue.
Team of the week: Northwestern
A pair of impressive road wins brought the Wildcats into the national spotlight. Suddenly, the discussions of postseason play appear to be more relevant. Two great wins away from Welsh-Ryan Arena have Northwestern’s season looking promising.
Chris Collins for Big Ten Coach of the Year: In terms of pure coaching success, there’s nobody in the Big Ten more deserving of Coach of the Year honors than Northwestern’s Collins. The Wildcats’ turnaround has been remarkable, winning five of their last seven games after an 0-3 start. It all starts with the first-year head coach and his new philosophies.
Bill Carmody brought in character kids to the Northwestern program, players who have bought in to the program’s new direction. Collins has done a terrific job coaching them up. There are other deserving candidates for the award, but Collins is by far the best.
Hoosiers could get hot: An unexpected win over Michigan was just what the doctor ordered for Indiana. Now, things are looking up for the Hoosiers. Eight of IU’s next nine games are against teams with records at or below .500 in the Big Ten.
Tom Crean’s young team finally has some seasoning, as evidenced by beating the Wolverines. There’s just too much talent on the Hoosiers’ roster to count them out. This could be a team that makes a run entering the month of March.
All bets are off for the Big Ten Tournament: In the final year of the Big Ten’s 12-team tournament format, all bets are off for what could happen. The league is filled with parity and has shown that there are no automatic wins. When the bracket is set in Indianapolis, there will be some intriguing basketball to be played.
It looks more and more like Michigan, Michigan State and Iowa are the league’s top teams. However, there are several teams in the middle that can make a run toward the top. The seeding will be interesting, too. Northwestern is currently in line for a first-round bye. So much can change, but the basketball will be interesting to watch.
Chris Emma covers college basketball for CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmmaScout.