MADISON, Wis. — On a sub-zero afternoon between Lake Mendota and Lake Monona, as the rest of the nation’s sports fans watched the Carolina Panthers nearly blow a 31-point lead in an NFL playoff game, the Big Ten suddenly became the most intriguing league in America.
Here’s how it happened: With 28 seconds left in the game between No. 4 Michigan State and a reeling Wisconsin team that was 1-4 in Big Ten play just one season removed from the Final Four, Badgers junior Bronson Koenig hit a three to bring his team within a point. It was part of a career-high 27-point performance that made Michigan State’s Tom Izzo call him a "Spartan killer."
Then Michigan State inbounded and Wisconsin trapped and Michigan State’s Eron Harris stepped out of bounds — Wisconsin ball. Koenig dribbled around the arc, penetrated and winged it into freshman Ethan Happ under the basket. Happ bobbled the ball for a millisecond and then, with 10 seconds left, laid in a nifty reverse off the backboard — Wisconsin by one.
Michigan State star Denzel Valentine, in his third game back from knee surgery, brought the ball across half court, dribbled to his left, put up a pretty open three and clanked it off the iron.
Ballgame: Wisconsin 77, Michigan State 76, and a Big Ten thrown into even more uncertainty.
"It’s been a weird year," Izzo said.
Consider where we stand a few weeks into conference play:
A Michigan State team that seemed nearly unbeatable now seems slightly unhinged after two straight losses and a 3-3 start to Big Ten play. A Wisconsin team that we had left for dead — home losses to Western Illinois and UW-Milwaukee will do that — now seems re-energized, its 10-9 record not even coming close to reflecting the potential of this young team that has seven losses by six points or less.
Meanwhile, Iowa — unranked in the preseason — seems primed to crack the top 10 after a week with wins over both Michigan schools. The experienced Hawkeyes are the fourth-best team in the nation, according KenPom.com.
Indiana — hey, we left those guys for dead, too! — is on a 10-game winning streak that’ll have the Hoosiers back in the Top 25 come Monday.
Purdue swings wildly from looking like a Final Four team with an impenetrable defense to an inconsistent-scoring team that can’t figure out its point guard position. Maryland swings wildly from looking like the best team in the country, with the nation’s most cold-blooded point guard, to simply an underachieving collection of big-time talent. The Big Ten team that beat Maryland earlier this week, Michigan, did so without its injured best player, Caris LeVert. Ohio State smashed Kentucky (but lost to Louisiana Tech). Illinois beat Purdue (but lost to North Florida). And I don’t even know where to start with struggling Nebraska other than to promise you they’re going to chalk up a couple of big upsets in this inexplicable Big Ten.
Hell, even Northwestern is 15-4 and has a shot at getting the school’s first NCAA tournament bid ever.
Welcome to 2016 in the Big Ten, where nothing makes sense, where everything is in flux and where fans ought to just sit back and enjoy all the chaos.
Because it’s going to keep going, all season long.
If you’d asked me a month ago how I handicapped the Big Ten, I would have called it a two-team race between Michigan State, then the nation’s No. 1 team, and Maryland. Then Valentine missed a handful of games from minor knee surgery, and it messed with the rhythm of a Michigan State team that seemed primed to be one of the nation’s elite. Just before Sunday’s game in Madison came another bad piece of injury news: Michigan State’s starting point guard, Tum Tum Nairn — who is prized by Izzo for pushing the pace on offense and for being a pest on defense — would be out for at least that game to rest the plantar fasciitis that’s bothered him since summer. Izzo said he didn’t know when Nairn would be back. A week? A month? Done for the season?
It was disconcerting news for what had been elite team early in the season but has struggled to get its mojo back after Valentine returned from his surgery.
"My concern level is we are not playing as smart," Izzo said. "Denzel has not taken this team back over. His father had a great line when he got hurt and was trying to come back. He said, ‘Physically, you’re capable of coming back, but are you mentally ready?’ When you get an injury and you get all those accolades and everybody starts tweeting about you — even with the great kids, it’s infectious. You start worrying. ‘Am I coming back too early?’ ‘Am I coming back too late?’ I thought today was at least a day when he went in and rebounded with two hands. He hasn’t done that since he’s been back.
"He’s not the Denzel that left, but he’s definitely coming back," Izzo continued. "Denzel’s gotta be the leader on that floor. That’s the one step he’s gotta take yet. He’s gotta grab somebody and let them know what is unacceptable. That’s what great leaders do."
By my count, there are eight teams who can win the Big Ten. Here’s how I’d list them in order of best chance to worst chance: Maryland, Iowa, Michigan State and Purdue are at the top. If Valentine finds his groove and Nairn is healthy, I’d put Sparty first; if Purdue gets more consistent point guard play, the Boilermakers would rise, too. There are some dark-horse contenders who have shown us glimpses of greatness as well, like Indiana (if it becomes consistent on defense), Wisconsin (if Sunday’s game was the beginning of turning a corner) and Michigan (if LeVert gets healthy). I don’t think Ohio State has the experience to win the league (the Buckeyes have one of the youngest teams in college hoops), but hey, if you beat Kentucky, you can beat most anyone.
There’s not another league in the country that is as wide open as the Big Ten. The closest would probably be the Pac-12; as the same time Arizona is having a down year (by Sean Miller’s standards, at least), the league’s middle of the pack has upped its game.
After Wisconsin upset the fourth-ranked team in the country and further upset the balance in the dizzying Big Ten, Greg Gard wasn’t thinking about this team’s chances of winning the Big Ten. He was thinking about the next day’s practice and about the next game, against Penn State.
"It’s really changed since I’ve become a head coach: You just worry about tomorrow," said Gard, who took over for Bo Ryan in December.
But in the locker room afterward, Gard was not above shouting a bit of inspiration. "Keep on believing," he told his players.
In a league with this sort of parity and this sort of chaos, it makes it easy for any team to believe.