February 4, 2014 at 1:00 am

Matt Charboneau

Big Ten Notebook: Conference showing just how tough it is on nightly basis

"There are a lot of variables involved but what makes this such a great league is every night is a challenge," Illinois coach John Groce said. "You're not getting anything easy." (Michael Hickey / Getty Images)

When comparing strengths of various conferences, the play of teams that routinely live near the bottom of the standings is often examined.

And when those teams start winning games, the debate usually follows — is it an indication of a deep, talented conference or that the teams near the top of the standing aren’t quite as good?

Whatever the conclusion might be, the Big Ten is proving the perfect case study this season.

As preseason favorites like Wisconsin and Ohio State continue to tumble, Northwestern, Penn State and Nebraska are slowly starting to build some momentum.

The Wildcats have won four of their last five, including a victory on the road against Wisconsin last week. The Nittany Lions have three straight victories, a one-point overtime win at Ohio State the big one. And the Cornhuskers have three victories in their last four games and are set to play Michigan on Wednesday, a team they lost to by just one point early in conference play.

“Our league is tough,” said Illinois coach John Groce, whose team has lost seven straight after cracking the Top 25 when Big Ten play began. “There are a lot of variables involved but what makes this such a great league is every night is a challenge. You’re not getting anything easy.

“There are no gimmes. You have to play well on that night and it doesn’t matter what you have done before or what you’re ranked, you have to play well that night to win the game.”

For Northwestern and first-year coach Chris Collins, the recent surge has come after losing five of its first six conference games. Since then, the Wildcats have lost just once.

“Being able to find a way to come out and get a couple of wins was tremendous for our team,” Collins said. “I’m really proud of how the guys have responded the last couple of weeks. Our guys are gaining a lot of confidence and are playing some good basketball. We’ve found a way to win some close games, which is big in this league. You look around and every game seems to come down to the last four minutes.”

Nebraska’s last six games have been decided by six points or fewer and Penn State has finally found a way to win the close games. After losing to Minnesota, Indiana and Purdue by a total of seven points, the Nittany Lions beat Nebraska by four and Ohio State by one in overtime before avenging the loss to Purdue.

“Our team is playing a lot better,” Penn State coach Patrick Chambers said. “There is a lot more cohesion on the floor and we have a better understanding of what we’re trying to do.”

It’s a totally different story for some teams that were near the top of the standings. Wisconsin has won just one game in its last six, Illinois has lost seven straight and Ohio State has won only two of its last seven, though the Buckeyes are feeling a bit better after beating the Badgers in overtime over the weekend when a last-second shot from Wisconsin missed. That came days after Penn State beat Ohio State on a last-second shot.

“From what we went through last week,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said, “when that shot hit off the back of the rim, there was a sense of relief. A couple of nights earlier that shot went in, so it was definitely a very, very good feeling.”

While the Badgers will certainly rebound, the Illini also have shown signs of turning things around, despite the losses piling up. The latest sign was overcoming a 20-point deficit before falling short against Iowa.

“I only kick fannies if I think there is no toughness or a lack of effort or we get physically manhandled and don’t compete,” Groce said. “That has only been one time during the seven (losses). The other six, we take great pride in our effort outside of the results.”

Resting at Northwestern

Northwestern now is 5-5 in conference and the schedule is favorable the rest of the way as Collins tries to get the Wildcats into the NCAA Tournament for the first time.

To do that, he will get plenty of rest for some of his most important players this week, including Alex Olah and JerShon Cobb, who have been battling a sore ankle and knee, respectively. But the one player who Collins will be more than happy to give a break is senior Drew Crawford, who leads the team in scoring (16.3 ppg) and rebounds (6.8) after missing most of last season with a shoulder injury.

“Anytime I can get rest for Drew Crawford it is a good thing,” Collins said. “I don’t only ask him to be our leading scorer, I ask him to be our leading rebounder and do all the leadership stuff. So anytime I can get extra rest for him I’m good with that.”

Hollins Saturday?

Minnesota has been another team struggling, losing four of its last six games. But the Gophers have been without leading scorer Andre Hollins for the last three and coach Richard Pitino said on Monday he doesn’t expect Hollins to play Wednesday against Purdue.

“We anticipate him not playing just because he has not practiced,” Pitino said. “We need him back. We need him back healthy because he’s one of the better guards in our conference.”

Hollins is averaging 15.4 points a game and sprained his left ankle on Jan. 22 against Wisconsin. Pitino said there is a chance Hollins will play Saturday against Indiana.

“Who knows with Indiana?” Pitino said. “He’s got to get back into Andre Hollins shape, and it’s going to take a while. We can’t just rely on Andre coming back and us becoming a good team. We’ve got to figure out what the issues are right now.”