January 7, 2013 at 3:25 pm

Matt Charboneau

Early returns: Big Ten basketball full of tough tests

Illinois' start to the Big Ten campaign has seen the team beat conference-power Ohio State while falling to the likes Purdue. (Darrell Hoemann/Associated Press)

A season ago, three teams shared the Big Ten championship.

Michigan State, Ohio State and Michigan all lost five games yet stood atop the conference standings. It was the most losses for a Big Ten champion since 2002.

Folks, we just might be in store for the same thing this year and it's for one simple reason — there are no easy nights in the Big Ten.

Few will doubt that, top to bottom, the Big Ten is the best conference in the country. At week's end, six teams were ranked in the Top 25 and for a great example of how this season will likely go, just take a look at the week Illinois had.

The Illini entered Big Ten play with just one non-conference loss and were ranked No. 11 in the country … and then they promptly lost to a .500 Purdue team. Yes, the same Purdue team that lost at Eastern Michigan this year.

Overrated, right?

Well, as Lee Corso might say, "not so fast, my friend."

The Illini bounced back and thrashed No. 8 Ohio State on Saturday.

"I don't know why, but people got crazy after our last loss," said Illinois guard Brandon Paul, who scored 19 points and grabbed seven rebounds. "It's one game."

Expect more craziness, Mr. Paul, because going through this gantlet unscathed will be impossible.

The point is simple, take a night off in this conference, and you're cooked.

"We can't get too low or too high," Illinois coach John Groce said. "Today the guys responded. We showed more toughness and grit and passion."

It will take that sort of grit to win on a consistent basis this year in the Big Ten, especially on the road.

Winning at Indiana, or Illinois, or Michigan State is tough enough in most seasons. But throw in trips to Williams Arena, where Minnesota is as good as anyone, or a jaunt over to Madison, Wis., where trying to beat the Badgers, in any year, is no simple task.

The heavyweights will certainly take their shots at each other, but outside of maybe three teams — sorry Nebraska, Penn State and Northwestern — earning a victory in the Big Ten will be no small feat.

"Every night is going to be a tough team in the Big Ten," Ohio State's Deshaun Thomas said, "so we've got to be ready to play each and every night."

The Buckeyes were not ready Saturday, but they'll quickly get a shot at proving they are not overrated by traveling Tuesday to Purdue and hosting Michigan on Sunday.

Early in the week, the Illinois faithful were panicking. Today, it's likely the Ohio State folks.

That is likely to change, and then change back, and then change again.

We're only one week in, but strap in, folks, this conference race is just getting started.

The highs and lows will be felt by all 12 teams, but whichever is standing in March will know there hasn't been a single test they haven't passed.

Tough road ahead

Speaking of tested, many of the conference's teams already have gotten a taste of what the season has in store.

Just ask Iowa, which was lucky enough to draw No. 5 Indiana, No. 2 Michigan and No. 18 Michigan State in its first three games.

But at least one team that has eased into conference play will soon get its first test, not only in Big Ten play but maybe the entire season.

After Michigan caps its early schedule with Nebraska on Wednesday, it travels to Ohio State on Sunday. It's the first of nine games against ranked opponents in the final 15 games for the Wolverines.

Michigan is better than Ohio State, but as we've already seen, count on nothing in the Big Ten.

It will be a tough environment for the young, talented Wolverines, and how they come out of Columbus could give us a true sense of whether this team has what it takes to be playing deep into March.

Big games this week

No. 9 Minnesota at No. 11 Illinois, Tuesday: This should be as entertaining as they come this season. Watching Andre Hollins and Paul battle it out should be special. A win for the Gophers here could be huge, but the Illini also recaptured their confidence and have no intention of dropping a game at Assembly Hall.

No.18 Michigan State at Iowa, Thursday: Not exactly a marquee game, but it will be key for the Spartans to pick up an early road win against a team that took Indiana to the wire. And don't forget Michigan State's last trip to Iowa City resulted in a 20-point loss two years ago.

No. 9 Minnesota at No. 5 Indiana, Saturday: The culmination of a big week for the Gophers. Split the two games, and they are right where they need to be. Pull off two wins, and the sky's the limit. Drop them both and doubt starts to creep in. For the Hoosiers, a home game is a must-win against a talented opponent.

No. 2 Michigan at No. 8 Ohio State, Sunday: The first real test for the Wolverines comes in a place that makes their blood boil. The Wolverines have weapon after weapon on offense and should simply overmatch the Buckeyes. However, if Ohio State expects to remain a factor in this race, a win here would be a huge step.