By Brian Hamilton
February 18, 2014

Gary Harris Injury-plagued Michigan State has suffered several upsets with starters sidelined, including Sunday to Nebraska. (Duane Burleson/Getty)

On Sunday, Nebraska won at Michigan State. In the bent reality of the Big Ten this season, this was surprising but not shocking, and it did not catch Tom Izzo unawares. He said he spoke to his Spartans team at the pregame meal about the Super Bowl, about absorbing early punches and responding. In Izzo’s own way, this was a warning to a potential Final Four contender about what might come.

“You have to be ready to play all the time,” Izzo said.

It’s a consequence of the Big Ten being oppressively competitive. So that prompts a question about what the consequences are for March for this league. Will the demand for great effort nightly create a pack of teams over-prepared for win-or-go-home stakes? Or will the assault on win-loss records cause some teams to be under-seeded and face tougher NCAA tournament roads?

Anecdotal recent history suggests that a taxing path to the top of the Big Ten produces a payoff come March.

“It would appear, I guess, a win may not have as much impact, but certainly a loss won’t have as much impact either,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “Every team has really good wins and every team seems to have couple losses. To me, there’s nothing surprising. It makes our league that much more unique. Every other league has bad teams. We don’t have any bad teams. So what gonna see is exactly what you’re seeing.”

Once again, no team appears set to run away with the Big Ten title. The champion will come away with a chipped-tooth smile, with a twinkle discernible somewhere under swollen eyelids.

The 2013 regular season champion, Indiana, finished with four conference losses. Four teams in the top six finished with six-plus losses.

And the Big Ten put four teams in the Sweet 16.

The 2012 regular season resulted in a dune buggy race pileup: A three-way tie at the top between Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan, all of whom had five losses. Then followed a six-loss team, a seven-loss team and an eight-loss team to round out the top six.

And the Big Ten put four teams in the Sweet 16.

In 2011, the upper class of the Big Ten was clear: Ohio State, at 16-2. Four teams tied for fourth place with 9-9 records, rounding out the top six. It was a middling middle class.

And the Big Ten put two teams in the Sweet 16.

Recently, at least, the league has had better success in March when it has had intense races for the top spot. Five Big Ten teams are in the top 25 of the latest RPI standings. The same five are in the top 20. None are flawless and all have had their desultory moments -- or several of them. But in a college basketball landscape with no dominant teams, they're a formidable group. And that cluster has been tested over and over.

“I don’t think there’s any question it’s the best top to bottom that’s it’s been since I’ve been here,” Izzo said of the league in general. “The last couple years it was pretty good. It’s even better now.

“I’ve watched so much over the years, when the ACC had just Duke and (North) Carolina, everybody ballyhooed about them being the best league when other teams weren’t very good. Every year it seems to be different. I think we’ve beaten up each other pretty good, but I think our non-conference schedules have been good in this league. There are a lot of teams that will be deserving of getting into the tournament. Somebody’s not going to be, because people are beating each other up. That’s always what’s hard when you’re in large conferences. But right now, I’d say there are a lot of NCAA-available teams in the Big Ten.”

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