COLUMBUS, Ohio -- One Big Ten coach is so disdainful of NCAA tournament projections that he all but closes his eyes and puts his fingers in his ears whenever some expert starts making predictions.
"I don't watch television, or listen to the radio or read the newspaper," he said. "I've always said it drives me insane in February to hear how ‘this team's on the bubble' or ‘this win is a must win.' To discount what guys are doing or teams are doing throughout the country would be a shame to me."
The coach who said that doesn't need to worry. Thad Matta of unbeaten and top-ranked Ohio State is assured of an NCAA berth and is drawing closer and closer to a No. 1 seed.
Some of his other conference brethren aren't nearly so fortunate.
With just three teams (Ohio State, Purdue and Wisconsin) above .500 in the Big Ten heading into this week's play, the final four weeks of the regular season figure to be a free-for-all in terms of wins, position in the standings and postseason hopes.
"We had six teams at one time in the Top 25," said Iowa coach Fran McCaffery, in his first year in the league. "Then we start knocking each other off, and the next thing you know there's a couple of us out. Still, there's some premier teams in this league."
Ohio State (24-0, 11-0) is the nation's premier team so far. The last unbeaten in Division I, the Buckeyes have been a unanimous choice for No.1 the past two weeks. And they hold a three-game lead in the Big Ten over Purdue and Wisconsin.
But Matt Painter, coach of the No. 14th Boilermakers, isn't conceding anything.
"(You) battle and hang in there, because you never know what's going to happen," he said. "We're in the same position we were last year at this time. This was our record. And we were able to battle and put ourself in position to tie for a league championship (with Michigan State and Ohio State)."
The Big Ten is second to the Big East among the country's best basketball conferences, according to most observers. But Bo Ryan, coach at Wisconsin (17-5, 7-3) believes that most people will take a quick look at the top of the standings and fail to realize how good everybody else is.
"I knew it'd be tough to win on the road and, heck, it's not like it's easy winning at home," he said. "But if you're beating up on each other and if you look at other conferences, I think some of the same things are going on where you have maybe a team or two or three that have put themselves in a position to be somewhat above."
Ryan's No. 13 Badgers host Ohio State on Saturday in one of the biggest games this season.
Despite what the teams at the top have done, the biggest news in the Big Ten this season has been the downturn at Michigan State.
After making it to the Final Four six times in the last 12 years, many are wondering if coach Tom Izzo has run out of late-season magic. His Spartans (13-10, 5-6), plagued by injuries and discordant play, have lost five out of their last six.
"There was a variety of things and they all hit in about a five-month period," Izzo said. "It's hard for me to complain about it. I've had a lot of years that have gone just the other way. So I've got to work my way out of this. It's something that we as a team have to do. Nobody should give us any slack and nobody should make any excuses."
A fan of former Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, Izzo was asked what Lombardi would say to his team.
"It wouldn't be (fit) for public radio," he said.
Odds are, however, that at least a couple more teams will make some noise. And they are likely to come from that middle tier, which features Illinois (15-8, 5-5), Minnesota (16-7, 5-6), Michigan State and Penn State (12-10, 5-6).
"It's a big week," Nittany Lions coach Ed DeChellis said of his team's games at Michigan State and vs. Northwestern. "We're still in the middle of the race, with five wins and some losses. But February is critical for everybody in our league."
Northwestern needs a strong finish to make the NCAA tournament, and erase decades of frustration. Back in 1939, the school hosted the inaugural NCAA tournament -- but that's as close as the Wildcats have ever come to being on the college game's biggest stage.
Wildcats coach Bill Carmody admits his team (14-8, 4-7) must win and win soon if it wants to make history.
"Every kid's thinking about the NCAA tournament. That's in the back (of their minds)," Carmody said "But we really can't think about it too much except that there is an urgency there and if you want to get there, you have to start winning. That starts this week."
Certainly, Northwestern isn't alone.
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