If last Saturday was one to forget for the Big Ten, then this Saturday was one to remember come tournament time.
The strength of the Big Ten conference was in significant question following not only a mediocre performance in the marquee games of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge but also last weekend's string of defeats, chances to make statements for many Big Ten teams that ended mainly in missed opportunities.
But this weekend was a different story, particularly Saturday, when four teams finally made those statements in the waning days of non-conference play.
You might wonder why top-ranked teams like Ohio State and Michigan State need statement wins at this point in the season, but getting those wins could make quite a difference in where these teams — and the rest of conference — are seeded in March.
The Buckeyes are one of a dwindling number of undefeateds, and it looked like they'd be part of that dwindling throughout much of Saturday's game against Notre Dame. Ohio State trailed by eight points with 50 seconds left in the contest yet improbably pulled out a 64-61 win at Madison Square Garden. The Irish have been a thorn in the side of the Big Ten throughout the non-conference portion of the schedule, taking Iowa to the brink and defeating Indiana before Saturday's game vs. the Buckeyes.
Ohio State, meanwhile, earned another win over a quality opponent. Unlike some other teams at the top of the rankings, the Buckeyes' schedule has not been jam-packed with top-notch competition. But throw this win over Notre Dame in with Ohio State's win over Marquette, and you've got some good wins on the resume.
Michigan State is different, having defeated Kentucky for their marquee win of the season. But after the Spartans' home loss to North Carolina in the Challenge and a scare against Oakland last weekend, Tom Izzo's crew was in need of a reaffirmation of just how good it is. And boy did the Spartans get one. Sparty pounded Texas in Austin by a score of 92-78. The Longhorns entered Saturday's contest with a one-loss record and seven wins in Austin, but the Spartans turned on the afterburners in the second half, outscoring Texas by 16 in the final 20 minutes, powered by the 33 points of Adreian Payne.
Then there were the teams in desperate need of a statement non-conference win.
Illinois had a pair of opportunities before their annual matchup with Missouri to get their marquee wins, with second-half leads against Georgia Tech and Oregon away from Champaign. But the Illini blew both those leads and didn't have the confidence of the college-basketball world going into the Braggin' Rights game against a ranked Mizzou team. But Illinois played the Tigers extremely tough on Saturday, and a thrilling game ended with a pair of Tracy Abrams free throws — two of his team-high 22 points — to give the Illini the win, their first in the series in five years.
Despite playing well for the majority of the season, the Illini have failed to gain national appreciation, mainly due to their lack of quality wins. But this win is as quality as they come, and the Illini will surely get some love going forward.
Finally there's Michigan, a team that has paid for its challenging schedule with losses to top-ranked teams Iowa State, Duke and Arizona. A win over Florida State has proven to be the Wolverines' best, though Saturday's win over Stanford in Brooklyn certainly adds another impressive victory to the list. Nik Stauskas led the way with 19 points and continues to score extremely well. Michigan, with its four losses, will need to play well in conference play if it wants to get back to the top of the rankings, where it was in the preseason. The win over Stanford is a good step.
And this weekend looks like it will be a strong step for the conference as a whole. It was probably the last chance to do so in the non-conference portion of the schedule. Big Ten play begins on New Year's Eve.