Thrilling finishes, upsets fuel Big 10

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The Big Ten may well be the best league in the nation. It has certainly been one of the most fun to watch this season.


The depth of the conference – which has three top 10 teams, five in the Top 25 and eight with at least 15 wins – has led to dozens of high-profile matchups and the most entertaining season in recent memory. It’s all whetted the appetite for what should be a fascinating stretch run.


“There’s a buzz. You stop at the grocery store or fill up your car with gas, everybody is talking about it.” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said.


The buzz is backed up by the numbers.


The Big Ten is on pace to lead the nation in attendance for the 37th year in a row, easily topping the other high-major leagues with an average home crowd of 12,704. The league’s BTN network said January was its highest-rated month ever in prime time, a bump it credited largely to high-profile basketball games.


The league has certainly offered some thrilling programming – and last week featured some unforgettable games.


Michigan knocked off 13th-ranked Ohio State on Tuesday when Tim Hardaway Jr. blocked Aaron Craft’s shot under the basket in overtime. The following night, Wisconsin won in double-overtime against Iowa, 74-70.


The Badgers and Wolverines hooked up Saturday, and Wisconsin won in OT after Ben Brust’s 45-foot heave tied things up at the end of regulation.


Unranked Illinois stunned top-ranked Indiana on an inbounds pass with less than a second left. The Illini then beat Minnesota in Minneapolis and received 26 points in the latest AP poll despite a 4-7 league record.


Oh, and Indiana bounced back with an 81-68 thrashing of No. 13 Ohio State Sunday to keep its No. 1 ranking.


“It’s always been an entertaining league,” Purdue coach Matt Painter. “I think getting some upsets and having some wins on the road makes it even a more entertaining league.”


With the exception of winless Penn State and perhaps 3-8 Nebraska, every team in the league has enough talent to be considered dangerous every time out. Seven of the 12 Big Ten teams are 31st or higher in RPI, and only the Nittany Lions have a losing overall record.


“I think the league gets branded as the best league in the country for a lot of different reasons. But I think one of the key components of it … the execution that goes on in this league is really, really strong,” Indiana coach Tom Crean said.


With a month to go, five clear title contenders have emerged in Indiana, Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State and Wisconsin. Lurking below that group are Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa, Purdue and Northwestern, any of which can have a huge say in who captures the league crown.


The Gophers were ranked No. 18 before a pair of losses last week, and Iowa’s seven defeats in the Big Ten have come against the league’s top seven teams.


The youthful Boilermakers are a surprising 5-6 in conference, and Northwestern is 4-7 with four games left against the Big Ten’s top five teams.


According to Ohio State coach Thad Matta, the league’s depth starts at the top. With the exception of Illinois first-year coach John Groce, all the coaches in the group below the lead pack have been at their school for at least three years.


“Guys can really, really coach in this league. I think from that perspective, you see guys really doing a good job of putting their players in a position to be successful,” Matta said.


Though it will be nearly impossible to match last week’s drama, there should be plenty to see in the Big Ten this week.


Michigan State hosts Michigan on Tuesday night in a matchup with major title ramifications for both teams. Ohio State will seek a huge road win at Wisconsin on Sunday, while Minnesota plays an Iowa team in desperate need of wins.


The race for the Big Ten title should remain murky for weeks. But according to Izzo, the question over which league is the best is very clear.


“If anybody wants to argue that top to bottom this isn’t the best by far, I wouldn’t even argue,” Izzo said. “It wouldn’t be worth the argument.”


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