While several conferences, such as the Big 12 and the Atlantic Coast Conference, have emerged among the elite conferences in college basketball, the Big Ten has faltered throughout the first half of the season.
With only two teams in the latest AP Top 25 rankings, it seems that the conference's only hope at a Final Four appearance lies in the hands of the Associated Press' No. 9 Illinois.
The Fighting Illini are playing far below their talent level and have already suffered two upsets in conference play to Wisconsin and Purdue. Head Coach Bill Self may have the most talented team in Champaign since former Illini Head Coach Lou Henson's 1989 Final Four squad.
Although the Illini have all the talent to perform in the tournament, their success down the stretch will hinge on the inside presence of Damir Krupalija and Lucas Johnson, who are both recovering from injury.
Self explained this week that while Johnson and Krupalija are back it would be \... two weeks away from ... being a rotation.""
The only other Big Ten team ranking in the AP Top 25 is Head Coach Jim O'Brien's Ohio State Buckeyes, who sit atop the Big Ten with a 5-0 record.
Once again, O'Brien's team has taken the conference by surprise with a 14-2 overall record as the Buckeyes continue to play well beyond expectations.
Two other teams that have spent time in the Top 25 this year but have struggled of late are Iowa and Michigan State. Iowa is under .500 in conference play and has had trouble finding a replacement for former point guard and floor general Dean Oliver.
The Spartans are in 2-4 in Big Ten play and sit near the conference cellar. Head Coach Tom Izzo's team is talented, but youth and inexperience has slowed down Michigan State.
Question: Who is the Big Ten scoring leader? Answer: It's not senior guards Luke Recker or Frank Williams, nor is it sophomore forward Jared Jeffries. Rather, it is Purdue's junior guard Willie Deane.
Although the transfer from Boston College is averaging over 18 points a game, the Boilermakers are 10-11 overall and are currently in last place in the conference, with their only Big Ten win coming over Illinois and Northwestern.
Illinois @ Indiana, Saturday Jan. 26
The nationally televised game will be a battle for second place in the conference behind the Buckeyes. Indiana, whose only Big Ten loss came to Ohio State, has been inspired by the play of Jeffries. The sophomore has stepped into a leadership role and is averaging 17 points a game.
Illinois will look to take advantage of the Hoosiers' lack of size in the frontcourt. Indiana will need strong shooting performances from Tom Coverdale and Jeffries, along with lockdown defensive play from Dane Fife as he guards Williams.
Ohio State'Undefeated in conference play so far. The Buckeyes are a rising team in the basketball rankings and should crack the Top 25 in both polls after this week.
Illinois'Is anyone more important to his team than Frank Williams? It might be senior forward Lucas Johnson, who gives the Illini added depth at the forward spot.
Iowa'Too much talent to finish below .500 in Big Ten play. Expect them to finish with 9-10 victories in conference play.
Indiana'Jared Jeffries is a legitimate candidate for Big Ten Player of the Year.
Wisconsin'A second road victory is still needed to help its low RPI ranking (75) and impress the NCAA Selection Committee.
Minnesota'Stumbled lately but still in the hunt for tourney bid.
Michigan'Lavell Blanchard is the best pro prospect in the Big Ten.
Northwestern'Upset win over Iowa keeps Wildcats' long-shot hopes for NCAA bid alive and well.
Michigan State'Loss of forward Adam Wolfe for the year depletes an already thin bench for Head Coach Tom Izzo.
Penn State'Five victories is not going to make anybody's watch list.
Purdue'Too many youngsters and too many losses in conference despite Wednesday's victory over Northwestern.