Nearing Conference Tourney Week, Big Ten Has Kick-Started the Madness of March

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistMarch 4, 2021

Illinois guard Da'Monte Williams (20) reacts to a play against Michigan in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Ann Arbor, Mich., Tuesday, March 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Paul Sancya/Associated Press

The entire college basketball season points to March. Nothing is more exciting than the conference and NCAA tournaments, which are beloved for buzzer-beaters, upsets and matchups of top-ranked teams.

But the Big Ten couldn't wait to get started.

During the last two weeks, the conference has created some of the most intriguing storylines of the 2020-21 men's season. Just as it appeared we had a decent understanding of the Big Ten, several teams have shattered their perceptionboth in a good or bad waywhile providing a few incredible games.

March Madness has already begun in the Midwest.

Two weeks ago, Michigan State's tournament hopes seemed buried. After a 6-0 start, the Spartans lumbered to a 4-9 record in league playincluding five losses against six ranked Big Ten teams. It would take a dramatic turnaround for MSU to rejoin the bubble, let alone earn a place in the 68-team NCAA tourney field.

Indiana had obvious flaws but stood at 12-9 with a couple of victories over Iowa. Win a few more games, and coach Archie Miller would bolster his job security while guiding the Hoosiers into March Madness.

That consensus has since vanished, and it all started with MSU's 78-71 triumph at Assembly Hall on Feb. 20.

Including that loss, IU has dropped four straight games. The Hoosiers have tumbled from a projected No. 11 seed for the NCAA tournament to the outer edge of the bubble. Miller's hot seat has risen from moderately warm to sweltering.

Michigan State followed up that victory with stunning upsets of Top Five teams Illinois and Ohio State. Following a loss to Maryland, the Spartans recovered with a second win against Indiana. After putting the "long" in long shot, MSU is unquestionably in the conversation for an NCAA bid.

In just two weeks, Indiana and Michigan State have practically switched places on the bubble.

Darron Cummings/Associated Press

The top of the Big Ten is even more interesting.

After returning from a 23-day coronavirus-related pause, Michigan put together a spectacular five-game stretch. Head coach Juwan Howard's team toppled Wisconsin and Rutgers, held off Ohio State in a Game of the Year candidate, dispatched Iowa with a dominant second half and took out Indiana.

Based on those performances, it appeared the Big Ten's hierarchy read Michigan, Ohio State, Illinois, Iowa. Ohio Statewhich has beaten Illinoishad a much stronger showing than Iowa against Michigan, then the undisputed top team.

Within a week, however, Iowa and Illinois obliterated that assessment.

Despite losing key role player Jack Nunge to a season-ending knee injury, Iowa smacked the Buckeyes 73-57 in their own building. Iowa's defense, deservedly criticized for its shaky performances, assembled its best game of the season.

Illinois star Ayo Dosunmu broke his nose in a loss to Michigan State. Without the All-American guard, however, the Illini handled Nebraska and Wisconsin before pulverizing Michigan.

Lesson learned, Big Ten.

There is no internally reworked power ranking to share, especially not with Ohio State hosting Illinois in its regular-season finale March 6. The Buckeyes could create a perfect two-week transitive circle if they upend the Illini, who beat Michigan, which crushed Iowa, which hammered Ohio State.

For unattached fans, this could hardly be more exciting.

We haven't even mentioned Purdue because it last played a top program in mid-January, but the 17-8 Boilermakers swept Ohio State this season. Wisconsin, though on a slide recently, is an NCAA tournament lock. Maryland and Rutgers are on track to play in March Madness too. They're all valuable complementary pieces of the nation's best league, per KenPom.com.

At the perfect moment, the Big Ten has begun to provide a whole lot of mayhem. Michigan remains a prime national contender, but Illinois is a strong challenger. Iowa is finally showing elite balance, and Ohio State still has great upside.

In a matter of 14 days, the conference has shifted from seemingly understood to fascinatingly unpredictable.

Yet the best part of the seasonthe real March Madnessis still to come.