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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Tuesday, January 31, 2012 at 12:00 AM

We’re not ready to concede that the Big Ten is the best basketball league in the country, and its best teams are going to go on a tear in the Big Dance. This conference has been embarrassed too many times for that. But, we’re happy to admit that the Big Ten has one of the most compelling races in the nation right now…and that race should get even more compelling this week when many of the top teams play each other.

Tonight: Michigan State at Illinois

Wednesday: Indiana at Michigan

Saturday: Ohio State at Wisconsin, Indiana at Purdue

Sunday: Michigan at Michigan State

Here’s a quick look at the Big Ten standings through this past weekend’s games.


Ohio State 7-2

Michigan State 6-2

Wisconsin 6-3

Michigan 6-3

Purdue 5-4

Indiana 5-5

Illinois 4-4

Minnesota 4-5

Nebraska 3-6

Iowa 3-6

Northwestern 2-6

Penn State 2-7

Remember how great Indiana was playing a few weeks ago? They’re only 5-5 in Big Ten play right now! That gives you a sense of how tough this conference is…or maybe how little distance there is between the top teams in the rankings and the rest of the pack. Indiana has victories over both Ohio State and Kentucky, yet is currently tied for sixth in its own conference.

That’s a nice profile of a competitive conference…with even two of the near cellar dwellers at 3-6, and nobody as good as 8-1 or as bad as 1-8. We can expect to see some good games this week and the rest of the season. You’d think somebody from the Big Ten is going to sneak through to the deeper rounds of the Dance even if it turns out the league is overrated once again. Michigan State sure has a knack for doing that…and Tom Izzo’s young team has come a long way quickly this year.

Here’s how Joe Lunardi of ESPN has the Big Ten sitting in his current bracket projections.

1 seed: Ohio State

3 seed: Michigan State

4 seed: Michigan

5 seed: Wisconsin

5 seed: Indiana

9 seed: Purdue

10 seed: Illinois

11 seed: Minnesota

Yes, that’s EIGHT of the 12 teams in the conference getting berths! The bottom four in the current standings are longshots…needing to win the conference tournament to steal a bid. Minnesota is the closest thing to a bubble team at the moment…but they have they have some leeway at the moment.

Let’s focus on those eight teams and run some quick notes to help you handicap the marquee meetings on the schedule the next few days…

OHIO STATE: The Buckeyes have been on fire in league play for the most part, going 7-2 ATS in addition to 7-2 straight up. They did lose at Indiana, but avenged that loss with a 17-point home win. The other loss was a stunner at Illinois. What we’re seeing this year is pretty common for this coaching regime. Ohio State kills a lot of teams on the way to a great ranking…but then lays a monster egg once every few weeks in a way that reminds you they’ll be vulnerable in the Big Dance. They play so few close games that they completely lose their composure when they do.

MICHIGAN STATE: Michigan State has also covered every game they’ve won, and failed to cover in their two losses. There have been a lot of blowouts in the Big Ten so far. State’s losses came at Northwestern and Michigan on the same road trip. They did win earlier at Wisconsin though, so it’s not like the team has serious road issues. Tonight’s game at Illinois will be a good test for what the Spartans have learned in their recent road outings. We usually like this team even when we don’t like the Big Ten because Izzo emphasizes defense and rebounding so much.

MICHIGAN: The Wolverines faded badly in the second half at Ohio State this past Sunday, which is a bad sign moving forward. Also, the team is 3-1 in nailbiter finishes…which suggest they’ve been a bit lucky. It’s tough to win 75% of your nailbiters on purpose. Note that Michigan is 0-3 ATS as favorites in league play because they have trouble putting distance between themselves and lesser lights. The Wolverines are 4-1 ATS as dogs though, even with the non-cover at Columbus.

WISCONSIN: The Badgers have recovered from a well-publicized losing streak to win five games in a row. And, there were road wins at Purdue and Illinois in that resurgence…which means it wasn’t just cleaning up against bad teams. This team can still be a bit pricey as favorites because of market respect, so be careful asking for too much.

INDIANA: The Hoosiers are just 1-4 ATS on the road in Big Ten play. And, the cover was by one point in a seven-point loss at Wisconsin. Clearly you want to look for spots to back these guys at home. Be careful on the road. And, therefore, be careful on neutral sites in March. Teams who struggle on the road don’t have a great postseason history in this sport. It’s great that Indiana has come so far so quickly after a couple of dead seasons. They consistency still isn’t there yet. Note that the Hoosiers failed to cover five straight games after upsetting Ohio State before recently righting the ship.

PURDUE: The disappointing Boilermakers are 3-6 ATS in Big Ten play, and one of the covers came in a 2-point win as a 1-point underdog at Northwestern this past weekend. They needed to cover a coin flip ending just to get back to 33% versus the number. That 3-6 mark includes a 1-5 ATS record as favorites. It’s okay to think of this team as feisty underdogs…but chalk is not their friend.

ILLINOIS: The Illini haven’t covered a game since upsetting Ohio State. But, one of those non-covers was an overtime hose job as an underdog. This is a real tweener team, capable of beating anybody but also capable of struggling vs. teams you expect them to control. They were lucky to beat Northwestern, and didn’t impress as big home favorites against Nebraska. The team has split overtime games with Minnesota, suggesting those teams are close to even. How will the selection committee separate them if they tie in the standings and split overtime meetings?

MINNESOTA: The Gophers were way off the radar after an 0-4 straight up start in Big Ten play. But, a road upset at Indiana turned things around…and the team has won four of five since the awful start. We’re skeptical at the moment that this is really a tournament team. The Gophers haven’t played Ohio State or Wisconsin yet, and lost by 13 and 16 to Purdue and Michigan State. The win at Indiana looks like a fluky outlier rather than a sign of a team arriving once you adjust for schedule strength. Home games next week against Ohio State and Wisconsin will help pin down exactly where this team sits in the big picture.

We’re looking forward to a huge week of basketball leading up to Sunday’s Super Bowl. It’s very likely that we’ll be involved with at least one of the marquee games in the Big Ten this week. Be sure you’re building your bankrolls every day with BIG JUICY WINNERS that can be purchased with your credit card right here at the website. Picks go up a few hours before tipoff every single day. If you have any questions, or if you want to build a combination package with basketball and the Super Bowl, call our office at 1-800-323-4453.

Basketball coverage continues tomorrow in the NOTEBOOK with another WILD WEDNESDAY. We’ll touch base with both college and pro basketball between now and the weekend. Our official stat preview for the Super Bowl will go up late Saturday so you can study overnight and on game day as you make your final decisions. This is the most important week of the year in Las Vegas. BE SURE YOU SPEND IT WITH JIM HURLEY’S NETWORK!

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