COLUMBUS, Ohio – Over to you, Wisconsin.
The Badgers have been handed the dubious title of Hot Big Ten Team, thanks to their current two-game winning streak. It is the longest active streak in the conference.
The previous Hot Big Ten Team was Ohio State, which had won a whopping three in a row going into Tuesday night. Then the Buckeyes got pasted here 70-60 by Michigan, which had not won in Columbus since 2003. The Wolverines were coming off an 18-point rout at Iowa, which at the time was rebounding from a loss to none other than Ohio State.
“Obviously,” said Buckeyes point guard Aaron Craft, “you can’t get comfortable.”
Comfort is a foreign concept in a league where the likes of Penn State and Nebraska have had their moments, while kingpins like Wisconsin and Ohio State have struggled through ugly losing streaks. No Big Ten team is any hotter than the weather – and the weather is frigid. When the Michigan bus pulled away from the Schottenstein Center just before midnight, the temperature outside was a lovely 2 degrees.
This is the current state of the nation’s most competitive league. It is a nightly test of feeble momentum and fickle emotion, and a weekly war of attrition. The only given is that there will be losses.
With its impressive comeback victory here, Michigan has nudged half a game ahead in the standings at 10-2. Michigan State, playing through injury-related flux for several weeks, is right behind at 9-2. Then there is Iowa at 7-4, followed by the huddled masses yearning to break free: six teams have either five or six league defeats.
The middle class may be disappearing in American society, but it is alive and well and sprawling in Big Ten basketball.
Last year, Indiana won the league with four losses. The year before, three teams tied for first with five losses. Expect 14-4 to be the magic record again this time around.
But not even that most reliable college basketball variable – homecourt – has meant jack this season in the Big Ten. Michigan (5-0) is the only Big Ten team undefeated in league home games. And everyone has won at least one league game on the road.
“That is unusual in this league,” Michigan coach John Beilein said.
The Wolverines owe their current pole position to three sit-up-and-take-notice road victories: at Wisconsin on Jan. 18, at Michigan State on Jan. 25, and here against Ohio State. The Buckeyes had just established their road credentials with consecutive wins at Wisconsin and Iowa – but suffered a 10-point home loss to Iowa and a shocking upset loss to Penn State.
There simply is no predictability, no reliable outcome, no games where you can half-step to victory.
“John and I were talking before the game, every night is a war,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. “What you see is a bad three-minute stretch or four-minute stretch in a game can cost you.”
Matta’s team certainly had one of those stretches at an inopportune time against Michigan. The Buckeyes led for 26½ straight minutes, from 4-3 to 43-42 – but when they hit an offensive wall, the Wolverines blew past.
A 12-0 run sent Michigan from six down to six up with 9:16 to play, and the Wolverines tenaciously clung to the lead the rest of the way after trailing by double digits in the first half. They hammered the offensive glass and got a great all-around game from freshman point guard Derrick Walton Jr. (13 points, 10 rebounds, six assists). In summary, they looked nothing like the team that was routed in Iowa City three days earlier.
Beilein said his staff had an extended film session with the team after that game, spending 45 or 50 minutes going over errors and corrections. Beyond Xs and Os, there was some time spent on effort and focus as well.
“We came in here with great commitment,” Beilein said. “I didn’t know if we’d win the game, but we were going to be in it for 40 minutes.”
That appeared dubious at first, as Ohio State sprinted up and down the floor to a quick and at times seemingly commanding lead. But despite significant personnel losses from last year’s national runner-up team – guards Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. are in the NBA and center Mitch McGary is out with a bad back – Michigan still has the same competitive DNA.
“We love getting road wins,” said center Jordan Morgan.
As the road upsets pile up and the active winning streaks shrink, here is the concern for the Big Ten: are the teams bludgeoning each other into lower seeding in the NCAA tournament?
The league has had a No. 1 seed each of the past three years, but at present most bracket projections do not have a Big Ten team on the top seed line. (The most popular foursome: Syracuse, Arizona, Florida and Wichita State). And if the bracket were filled today, Michigan State, Michigan and Iowa might be the only league teams with the top 16 overall seeds. Everyone else may be battling underdog odds to reach the second weekend of the tourney.
Last year there were four Big Ten teams with top-four seeds, and in 2012 there were five. But with Wisconsin having lost five out of six in one stretch and Ohio State having lost six of its last 10, it’s not easy to accord them favorable seeding status.
Although collateral damage is a concern when it comes to NCAA seeding, it spikes anticipation for the Big Ten tournament. In a conference where anything can happen, throwing all these teams together on a neutral court – with widely varying motivation levels – could create an absolutely wild four days in Indianapolis.
Even if it seems like nobody could be capable of winning three or four straight games in America’s deepest league.