February 4, 2013 at 1:30 pm

Matt Charboneau

Indiana emerges as Big Ten team to beat

Before the start of each basketball season, a handful of reporters around the Big Ten are asked to predict which teams will finish 1-2-3 in the race for the conference championship.

Indiana, which was the preseason No. 1 in the nation, was the popular choice to edge out Michigan for the Big Ten title, followed closely by Michigan State and Ohio State.

Well, after nine games and an impressive past six days by the Hoosiers, things seem to be falling in line.

Granted, plenty can happen in the next few weeks, but Indiana has established itself as the leader and everyone else is chasing.

Sure, the Hoosiers benefitted over the past two weekends by playing both Michigan and Michigan State at home, but they proved they are the best, something many believed was the case well before they lost to Butler and even when they dropped the ball at home against Wisconsin.

The victories over Michigan State and Michigan were the most telling. In the biggest games against the best competition, it was Indiana that rose to the occasion, and nothing seems to tell that story like the play of sophomore Cody Zeller against Michigan State.

The Hoosiers were able to get by against the Spartans with Zeller being mostly contained. Heading into the final two minutes, he had only one field goal. But the Hoosiers' clinching shot came from Zeller, a driving layup over Derrick Nix. He then drew an offensive foul on Adreian Payne with 14 seconds to go.

On Wednesday against Purdue, Zeller started heating up, going 6-for-14 and scoring 19 points. Against U-M, he was the difference, going 8-for-10 from the field, and finishing with 19 points and 10 rebounds, none more important than the loose ball he chased down in the final minutes against the Wolverines.

Zeller was asked if the pace a week earlier against Michigan State helped against Michigan.

"I think every game in the Big Ten has kind of prepared us for this just because every team is good," he said.

Nothing is guaranteed at this point as Indiana travels to Illinois and Ohio State this week and still has road games against both Michigan State and Michigan. But odds are the Hoosiers will be ranked No. 1 again today.

"You know we started there, we had a hard road to get back here," Victor Oladipo said. "We're just going to continue to keep working."

It's exactly what coach Tom Crean wants to hear, though the rest of the Big Ten might not feel as great about it.

Again, plenty will be told over the final nine games, but you can get pretty good odds Indiana will be playing for the title.

"Let's hope we're all playing again at the end of the season for something really big," Crean said.

Gophers not for real

We were all quick to write off Minnesota after four straight losses, but the Gophers bounced back with wins this week over Nebraska and Iowa.

So, the Gophers are back in the mix, right? Sorry, I'm not buying it.

A win at home against Nebraska does nothing to change perception and anyone watching Iowa do everything it could to lose at Minnesota on Sunday should tell you one thing, or actually two.

The first is the Hawkeyes, a team many thought had a shot to make the NCAA Tournament, have no business playing in anything bigger than the NIT, and the Gophers still look nothing like the team that was 15-1 at one point and ranked in the top 10.

Key games this week

No. 11 Ohio State at No. 1 Michigan, Tuesday: The Wolverines will get a shot to bounce back from the Indiana loss by attempting to avenge its only other loss of the season. The Buckeyes did a solid job of slowing the Wolverines in Columbus, but playing at the Crisler Center will likely provide a big boost for the Wolverines.

No. 23 Minnesota at No. 13 Michigan State, Wednesday: The Gophers are clinging to life in the Big Ten race while the Spartans hope to take advantage of a six-day break. They hope to have guards Gary Harris (back) and Travis Trice (head) back, though both will be evaluated over the next two days.

No. 3 Indiana at No. 11 Ohio State, Sunday: The Hoosiers will have a tough task early in the week at Illinois but will likely head into another weekend showdown against a top-15 team. Ohio State caps off an even tougher week and it is almost imperative the Buckeyes come out with at least one victory.

mcharboneau@detnews.com

twitter.com/mattcharboneau

Tom Crean’s Hoosiers likely will be ranked No. 1 today in the AP poll. They’ll face tough games this week against Illinois and Ohio State. / Andy Lyons/Getty Images
See Also