So, how do you handicap who has the best odds of emerging as the champion in the nation's deepest, most competitive league? You turn to the Las Vegas experts.
For this one, we asked the team at the SuperBook at the LVH (formerly known as the Las Vegas Hilton) to set the numbers. Sports book director Jay Kornegay's shop is not taking bets on the race for the Big Ten title, but he and his guys kindly took the time to create fictional odds for The Dagger. We'll simply expand on them.
So, here is who, as of right now, is a real contender, and who's, well, not.
Ohio State (15-2 overall, 3-1 Big Ten) — 3:5
No surprise here. Indiana tripped the Buckeyes up and took a four-point win in Bloomington on New Year's Eve, but in three wins over teams from the league's bottom half, Ohio State prevailed by an average margin of 31 points. Plus, the team's upcoming schedule sets up nicely over the next three weeks, with an opportunity to build some momentum. If Jared Sullinger stays healthy, Ohio State remains the class of the league.
Michigan State (14-2 overall, 3-0 Big Ten) — 4:1
One of college basketball's best stories, Michigan State hasn't lost since an 0-2 start that included losses to North Carolina and Duke. Plus, having already defeated Indiana despite surrendering a 25-2 run and edged Wisconsin on the road in overtime, the Spartans are proving to be arguably the toughest out in the conference. To beat them, you'll have to bury them.
Wisconsin (12-5 overall, 1-3 Big Ten) — 4:1
OK, take a breath before freaking out at the tight odds on the struggling Badgers. Yes, they've lost two in a row, including a pair of rare home setbacks. But the schedule ahead actually lays out nice for Wisconsin. Bo Ryan's club only has four remaining games against league teams currently in the Top 25. Indiana is the only other league team who has that few left on its slate, and those two will meet … in Madison on Jan. 26. At the end of the day, Wisconsin is still talented and tough, and has the league's best lead guard in Jordan Taylor. The LVH guys are banking on it all coming together for Bucky at some point soon. Pay attention.
Indiana (15-1 overall, 3-1 Big Ten) — 7:1
In terms of the fictional odds, this is the first team you might look at and think 'value' in terms of their number. But the buyer should beware. With an 88-82 win at Penn State on Sunday, Indiana snapped a 16-game road losing streak in Big Ten play. As mentioned above, the Hoosiers only have four league games left against current Top 25 teams, but three of them — Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan — are on the road. They also play at Purdue and Minnesota still. Yes, Tom Crean's team is one of college basketball's best stories so far, but until it proves it can be consistently strong on the road, it might not be long for this race.
Illinois (14-3 overall, 3-1 Big Ten) — 10:1
While Wisconsin and Indiana have the fewest games left against Top 25 league competition, Illinois — along with Purdue — has the most, with eight of its 14 coming against the Big Ten's upper crust. That, combined with the Illini's schizophrenic tendencies in conference play in recent years, makes for a very tough road ahead.
Michigan (13-3 overall, 3-1 Big Ten) — 12:1
Another instance where you might do a double-take, wondering how the odds are greater against Michigan than they are against Illinois. But, again, it makes sense when you look closer. With a 59-41 thrashing of Wisconsin on Sunday, the Wolverines showed just how dangerous they are at Crisler Arena. But they only play there six times the rest of the way, and will play eight road games (along with an odd non-conference road game at Arkansas on Jan. 21 before games at Purdue and at Ohio State). And in two true road games this season, Michigan is 0-2. Like Indiana, Michigan has a lot to prove away from its home floor. Again, though, good fictional value here.
Purdue (13-4 overall, 3-1 Big Ten) — 14:1
The Boilermakers are one shocking 20-point loss at Penn State away from a 4-0 start in conference play. Oddly, that was followed up with a 13-point win at Minnesota on Sunday. That said, they're the ultimate wild card in this race. The defensive prowess from the last few seasons isn't there this year, but Purdue can also score big. They might have trouble contending for a regular season title, but they'll likely be pretty fun to watch the rest of the way … and highly unpredictable.
Minnesota (12-5 overall, 0-4 Big Ten) — 18:1
Any potential steam the Gophers were going to have heading into the meat of their Big Ten schedule vanished with back-to-back home losses last week to Iowa and Purdue, making them one of two winless teams in the league to this point. The talent is there for a potential turnaround, but the schedule is pretty unfriendly, especially at the back end. In its final six games of the year, Minnesota faces Wisconsin twice, then has Ohio State, Michigan State and Indiana all at home.
Penn State (9-8 overall, 1-3 Big Ten) — 18:1
No one is mistaking Penn State as too real of a contender here, but we're seeing early on that one recent trend is still alive and well under Pat Chambers — The Nittany Lions are very tough at home. Beating Purdue by 20 and playing Indiana within six points both go down as impressive results. The only thing keeping Penn State interesting moving forward in this race? It only plays both Ohio State and Michigan State once.
Nebraska (8-7 overall, 0-4 Big Ten) — 30:1
In Nebraska's defense, it had to play Top 25 teams in three of its first four Big Ten games. The fourth? Illinois. On the road. Ouch. The Huskers played both Michigan State and Illinois pretty tough, and should win, at the very least, a handful of league games.
Iowa (10-7 overall, 2-2 Big Ten) — 40:1
Clearly, the LVH guys aren't buying into the somewhat surprising 2-2 league start. But, like Purdue, the Hawkeyes should at least be fun to watch. They are succeeding with an up-and-down style not typically preferred by Big Ten teams. The schedule moving forward isn't nearly as brutal as some others', which should also help keep them interesting.
Northwestern (11-4 overall, 1-2 Big Ten) — 50:1
An excruciating 57-56 loss to Illinois last week kept Northwestern from what could have been a 2-1 start to league play. Instead, the Wildcats are 1-2, and in three games against Top 25 competition this year, they're 0-3. Those losses came by an average margin of 23 points. John Shurna is among the league's most prolific offensive threats, but he needs help. And soon. Northwestern's next three games? At Michigan, at home against Michigan State and at Wisconsin — All Top 25 teams. In 10 days, they could be in a 1-5 hole that will be incredibly tough to get out of. Thus, the NCAA tournament drought likely continues.
Follow Ryan Greene on Twitter: @ryanmgreene