I have a theory: Some of the better Big Ten men's basketball squads got burned out in February. And some of the second-division teams felt free from the chains of anyone's expectations and started getting a little confidence and having some fun.
When you see three teams that have all spent time in the national Top 10 this season taking bumps, you wonder. Is the league loaded, or is it simply filled with competence? I think it's a good league, but not a great one. I don't see a lot of NBA stars-in-the-making in the Big Ten. But I don't think there is such a thing as a great league this season, so the Big Ten could be as apt to make trouble in the NCAA tourney as any other conference.
If you don't think Wichita State could have played a Big Ten schedule and battled for the league's regular-season championship, you haven't watched the Shockers play. But I don't think the second-place team in the Missouri Valley Conference would be in the Big Ten's top eight or nine.
Michigan State has lost at home to Nebraska and Illinois since Feb. 16. That was inconceivable not too many weeks ago. Ohio State has fallen twice to Penn State, most recently last Thursday. Iowa's defense was shredded in consecutive games at Minnesota and Indiana last week, and the Hawkeyes had a white-knuckler at home Sunday against Purdue, one of the league's three worst teams. The same Purdue, by the way, that took Michigan to overtime last Tuesday.
Up is down, and down is up. Illinois has suddenly become a road beast with triumphs at Minnesota and Michigan State sandwiching a home win over Nebraska. Indiana, which was sputtering, beat Iowa and Ohio State at home in a 4-day period, and won the second of those two games without center Noah Vonleh.
Nebraska is tied with Iowa for fourth place on March 3! In a preseason poll of Big Ten basketball writers, the Cornhuskers were picked for 12th place.
All season long we've been told to just wait until Michigan State gets completely healthy. Well, what if that doesn't happen? Senior guard Keith Appling was having a brilliant season until he injured a wrist. He hasn't been right since. The Spartans should still be a potent postseason club as Brenden Dawson works his way back to health from a broken hand, and Gary Harris and Adreian Payne are possible first-round NBA draftees in June. But is it a special team? It has lost five of its last eight games, coinciding with Appling's injury.
Yet, I'd pick Michigan State to win the Big Ten tourney before I'd pick any other. Which is probably nuts, since the Spartans have lost twice to Michigan.
League-champion Michigan (with one more win, it claims the outright title) is getting great play not only out of guard Nik Stauskas, but fellow backcourt player Caris LeVert.
"Who is playing better than LeVert right now?" Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery posed Sunday. "Very few people."
Still, if I'm Iowa I'd rather be in the 4/5 game on the same side of the Big Ten tourney bracket with No. 1 Michigan than with Nos. 2/3 Michigan State/Wisconsin. Or Wisconsin/Michigan State.
But the way Indiana and Illinois have come on lately, who knows what will happen on Thursday and Friday at Indianapolis? And maybe Ohio State will wake up in Indy, which wouldn't be a great thing for Iowa if the Buckeyes and Hawkeyes land in the 4/5 game on Friday.
You know, if the NCAA tournament only took conference-champions, this would mostly be a week of drudgery in Big Ten land. But there are Big Ten tourney seedings to worry about, NCAA tourney seedings, NCAA bubbles for teams like Minnesota and Nebraska, and maybe Indiana and Illinois if they stay hot.
For nuttiness, though, look at the latest of Joe Lunardi's ever-changing NCAA brackets. He's got Iowa playing the Minnesota-Tennessee winner in the second round, and has a potential Iowa-Iowa State third-round clash after that, in San Antonio.If that came to fruition -- and it absolutely, positively won't -- it would be awesome, baby!