The Big Ten is now 12, and even if new member Nebraska isn't poised to take the conference by storm, the league appears to have plenty of teams set to make noise nationally.
For other posts in this series, visit the Bracketology 101 Exam Week 2011-12 section.
Records are accurate as of 12/14/2011.
Ohio State Buckeyes (8-1)
After grabbing eight straight home wins, the most noteworthy over Florida and Duke, the Buckeyes hit the road for the first time Saturday, when they lost at Kansas, while star big man Jared Sullinger sat out with back spasm. Even with that loss, Ohio State's profile could very well be top seed worthy when all is said and don. It would be a major shock if Thad Matta's team dropped any of its final four non-conference games, with Saturday's trip to woeful South Carolina the only road contest on the slate. Plus, they should be able to get off to a flying start in the Big Ten, as a home-and-home with Indiana and trip to Illinois look like their toughest games in the first month of the slate.
Indiana Hoosiers (9-0)
The Hoosiers used a relatively soft home slate, complemented by a thrilling last-second home win over Kentucky, Hoosier Invitational home triumph over a down Butler team, and road win over N.C. State in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, to get off to a 9-0 start. Of Indiana's final four non-conference games (they host North Carolina Central in late February), Saturday's Crossroads Classic tilt with Notre Dame is the most difficult on paper, but considering how the Fighting Irish have struggled since Tim Abromaitis' injury, a win there would hardly fit in the quality category. After Saturday's last second win, people are taking Tom Crean's team far more seriously. IU will need to take advantage of home-and-home series against Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State, a trip to Wisconsin, and a visit from Illinois to keep it that way.
Michigan State Spartans (8-2)
The Spartans played their two most difficult games right out of the gate, dropping back-to-back decisions on different coasts to North Carolina and Duke. Since then, they've yet to lose and look like a far more improved unit over last year's version, which as you well know, just stumbled into the NCAA field. Michigan State's best two wins are over Florida State at home and at Gonzaga. However, danger may await, as the Big Ten schedule is unforgiving, as it features home-and-homes with Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Purdue, so in the unlikely event Tom Izzo's team struggles again, this winter could be just as difficult as last year's.
Wisconsin Badgers (9-2)
Wisconsin certainly looks like a threat for a protected seed, even if they may need to wait until the Big Ten season to add to their quality win total. As it stands now, a close loss at North Carolina and home defeat at the hands of Marquette look like missed opportunities. Still, victories over BYU (in the Chicago suburbs) and UNLV, who happened to take care of those same Tar Heels, are nothing to sneeze at. Neither is Tuesday night's win at Horizon contender Milwaukee. The Badgers will need more performances like that the rest of the way, as they haven't been the most consistent on their travels in recent seasons.
Purdue Boilermakers (9-2)
Here in mid-December, two games from Purdue's season stand out for me. The first was their 91-90 victory over Iona in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off quarterfinals, an unexpected offensive battle that we may not see the likes of during the rest of the season. The other, well that was December 3rd's collapse at home against Xavier. As it stands now, wins over Iona, Temple (also in San Juan), and Miami are the Boilermakers' best, and it would take an always possible, yet somewhat unlikely Butler resurgence to make a win in Saturday's Crossroads Classic matchup matter much later in the season. Of course, Purdue will have its chances in the Big Ten, though they only get to play Ohio State and Wisconsin once each, with the game against the Buckeyes in Columbus.
Michigan Wolverines (8-2, 7-2 vs. Division I)
The optimism resulting from Michigan's 2-1 trip to Maui must be tempered by the fact that they only got one quality win out of the three days (Memphis). Plus, the Big Ten/ACC Challenge loss at Virginia has to be considered a bit of a disappointment, even if the Cavaliers are likely to compete for a bid of their own. John Beilein's team has one non-league contest left against a Power Six opponent, a trip to Arkansas on January 21st. Given the Razorbacks' early inconsistency, that game may not be much of a help. In conference, the Wolverines play Ohio State twice, while they welcome Wisconsin to Crisler on January 8th.
Illinois Fighting Illini (10-0)
In the next week, we'll have a better idea as to how real the Illini are after a 10-0 start, as they play UNLV in Chicago on Saturday and head down to St. Louis on the following Thursday for the Braggin' Rights game with Missouri. Right now, Illinois' best results were two wins in Cancun over Richmond and Illinois State and a nine-point win at Maryland in the Challenge. Of course, the Big Ten schedule will be a completely different challenge, especially after last year's disappointing 9-9 run through league play. Making matters worse, the Illini have to play Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Purdue twice this time around.
Northwestern Wildcats (7-1)
The Wildcats, champions of the Charleston Classic, got a rude awakening from Baylor in their last game, losing by 28 in a game that showed they still have a ways to go until they earn their first-ever NCAA bid. Once again, Northwestern finds itself in need of putting together a respectable Big Ten record, though a win at Creighton on December 22nd would be a profile booster. In the league, Bill Carmody's club plays Illinois, Michigan, Ohio State, and Purdue twice. They host Michigan State and must visit resurgent Indiana.
Minnesota Golden Gophers (11-1)
The Golden Gophers have played remarkably well since Trevor Mbakwe went down with a knee injury in the Old Spice Classic final, as they've rattled off three straight wins since dropping that game against Dayton. The streak includes victories over Virginia Tech and USC that could be helpful come late March. (The best win with Mbakwe in the lineup is an Old Spice semifinal win over Indiana State.) However, Minnesota has yet to play a true road game, and that won't happen until they open the Big Ten slate with back-to-back trips to Illinois and Michigan. Considering how the Gophers struggled in the league last season, especially after injuries and departures reduced their depth, they have a lot to prove over the conference season.
Nebraska Cornhuskers (6-3),Penn State Nittany Lions (6-5), Iowa Hawkeyes (5-5)
The three teams that look the most likely to finish in the bottom quarter of the Big Ten will all need to exceed expectations to make the NCAAs this time around. Nebraska has a road win over USC, to complement losses against Creighton, Oregon, and Wake Forest. Penn State has shown that it can both be blown out by national powers (Kentucky) and beat power conference weaklings (USF and Boston College), which means they seem destined for a disappointing finish. Iowa's best win currently is one over IPFW (though they do host Drake and Boise State before the end of 2011).