With less than seven minutes to go in a defensive battle between No. 3 Ohio State and No. 11 Michigan State last Saturday at Value City Arena in Columbus, the Buckeyes finally appeared to be crawling out of a gamelong hole. They hadn't lost at home since sophomore forward Jared Sullinger began wearing an Ohio State uniform, and the 6' 9", 265-pound All-America wasn't about to let the streak die now. Frustrated all night by Michigan State's smothering defense in the paint, Sullinger moved out to the right side, stepped back and buried a 15-foot jumper to narrow the margin to 44--40. The red-and-gray-clad crowd of 18,800 roared its approval, sensing a favorable momentum shift. The Buckeyes' 39-game home winning streak was still salvageable. Separation in the conference standings was still possible.
But that was the last field goal Ohio State would make for the next five minutes. As the Buckeyes clanged one shot after another, the crowd grew quiet. Michigan State, which had outrun, outshot and outrebounded the Buckeyes all night, pulled away to win 58--48 and move into a tie with Ohio State for first place. "The way we defended, it was a great team effort," said Spartans senior forward Draymond Green.
In a season that was supposed to be dominated by stars—recall the preseason hyperventilating about the return of lottery locks such as Sullinger, Baylor's Perry Jones III and North Carolina's Harrison Barnes and the return to predictable dominance that was supposed to follow—teamwork has ruled. No squad is a better example of that teamwork than No. 2 Syracuse (page 40), which has no players among the top 17 in scoring in the Big East. And no conference has been better at that than the Big Ten, a league that emphasizes execution, efficiency, toughness, physicality and hard-nosed half-court D. How many other places will you hear players talk about the need to avoid selfishness on defense?
"We do get a little selfish sometimes on the defensive end," said Sullinger last week. "When somebody's player gets hot, [that defender doesn't] help as much and so another player gets hot. We have to understand that if you stop the whole team as a team, we'll make that step from a good team to a great team."
By almost any measure—rankings; strength of schedule; RPI; possible NCAA tournament bids (analyst Jerry Palm predicts nine); the advanced metrics of stats guru Ken Pomeroy, who has four Big Ten teams in his top 11, including Ohio State at No. 1—the Big Ten is the best conference in the land. Every team in the bottom half of the standings has beaten at least one team in the top half. Eight teams are within four games of first place. "The competitiveness of the teams one through 12 is as strong as I can remember," says Wisconsin's Bo Ryan, who's in his 11th season as the Badgers' coach.
Pomeroy's three most efficient defensive teams in the country are from the Big Ten: Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan State. Even with Saturday night's uncharacteristically sloppy game (15 turnovers), the Buckeyes are turning the ball over only 11.6 times a game. Impressive as it is, that number puts them just fifth in the Big Ten. That's one reason winning in the conference is so difficult, says Illinois coach Bruce Weber: "You don't get those easy transition baskets. When you have the defensive emphasis, when you have systems where they take care of the basketball and they're not coming down and throwing up quick shots and stuff like that, it all adds up to making it difficult to win and to be consistent. To win a championship, you really have to earn it."
There are other reasons this conference's gantlet is like no other. Every team plays a different style. "Some teams run, some teams walk it up," says first-year Penn State coach Patrick Chambers. "Bo Ryan makes it a possession game. Northwestern plays a Princeton style. You really see every possible style of play within 12 teams."
And then there's the fan base. With the exception of private Northwestern, which regularly packs its 8,117-seat Welsh-Ryan Arena, the Big Ten features big public universities, big arenas and big crowds. With 2.48 million spectators last year, the conference led the country in attendance for the 35th straight season.
Conference student sections—which boast colorful names like the Orange Krush (Illinois), the Izzone (Michigan State), the Paint Crew (Purdue) as well as the Grateful Red (Wisconsin)—typically number in the thousands. (Indiana's Crimson Guard, at 7,600 strong, would burst the capacity of Stanford's 7,233-seat Maples Pavilion.) Chambers credits Ohio State's 2,000-member Buckeye Nuthouse—located directly behind the benches—for his distressed vocal cords, if not, entirely, for his team's 78--54 loss in Columbus on Jan. 25. "In that environment, you can't think straight," he says. "That's why my voice is cracked. It's not because I'm yelling at my team, it's because on the road they can't hear me."
The Big Ten road may be unmatched in its hostility, but as Ohio State learned last Saturday, no home team is safe. Consider: After losing its best player, forward Trevor Mbakwe, to a tear of his right ACL in late November, Minnesota got off to an 0--4 conference start, then went into Indiana's Assembly Hall and beat the No. 7 Hoosiers 77--74 on Jan. 12. Wisconsin, which is rumored to be constitutionally bound to never lose at home, has lost three conference games at the Kohl Center this season. One of the teams that surprised the Badgers at Kohl was Iowa, which hasn't had a winning season since 2006--07. The Hawkeyes have shown signs of life under second-year coach Fran McCaffery, who stirred memories of Bob Knight when he slammed a chair to the court while yelling at his players in the midst of a 95--61 blowout loss to Michigan State on Jan. 10. His team responded, beating then 13th-ranked Michigan 75--59 at home four days later.