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Is the Big Ten the nation’s best college basketball conference?

Wisconshead coach Bo Ryan watches during second half an NCAA college basketball game against IndianTuesday Jan. 15 2013 BloomingtInd. Wisconsdefeated

Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan watches during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Indiana Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2013, in Bloomington, Ind. Wisconsin defeated Indiana 64-59. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

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Who has the nation's best conference this season?

Updated: February 26, 2013 6:42AM

Wisconsin goes to No. 2 Indiana and takes down the Hoosiers, then goes to Iowa, which might be No. 2 in the Hawkeye State, and gets nailed.

Illinois wins the Maui Invitational and rises to No. 10 in the nation by starting 12-0, but three consecutive double-digit losses leave it with an uphill battle to reach the NCAA tournament.

Northwestern knocks off No. 12 Minnesota, its second victory over a ranked opponent in three games. And yet NU, which nearly made it three wins in a row over ranked opponents vs. Indiana, would need a miracle to end its NCAA drought.

What’s going on here? Life in the Big Ten.

We’re always quick to pounce on the Midwestern behemoths when they’re struggling. So it’s only fair to say it when things are going well.

Two facts are compelling about Big Ten basketball:

1. It’s unencumbered by Legends and Leaders.

2. It’s living up to its billing as the best league in America.

Five teams — No. 2 Michigan, No. 7 Indiana, No. 12 Minnesota, No. 13 Michigan State and No. 14 Ohio State — are ranked. And despite a heartbreaking loss to Michigan State on Tuesday, Wisconsin might be the nation’s best unranked team.

There will be times when the league doesn’t look so good. There already have been. Just chalk that up to a league that has so much quality depth that bottom-feeders who make shots will frustrate contenders who don’t.

“You have to make shots to win in this league,’’ IU coach Tom Crean said, “and they’re hard to come by. You have to try to get your tempo, your pace. But even when you can’t, you have to have the maturity and discipline and energy to keep doing what it takes, especially on the defensive end.

“But at the end of the day, you have to make shots consistently if you’re going to win consistently.’’

Nobody knows that better than Illinois, which made only eight three-pointers during its discouraging three-game skid against Minnesota, Wisconsin and Northwestern. Considering that his teammates were 1-for-13 from beyond the arc, if D.J. Richardson doesn’t make a career-high six treys at Nebraska, the Illini might have added to their woes.

Echoing Crean, John Groce was as enthusiastic about Illinois’ defense and determination as he was about Richardson’s aerial show.

“We came out really ­aggressive. That was the point of emphasis,’’ Groce said. “It’s a great league. Great coaches. Great players. Everybody wants the same thing. Everybody’s fighting tooth and nail to improve this time of year and grind out games.’’

It should come as no surprise that despite being overshadowed by resurgent Indiana and Michigan, plus dark horses Minnesota and Wisconsin, Michigan State is in the thick of things. In a league of accomplished coaches, no one is more accomplished than the Spartans’ Tom Izzo, who has gone to six Final Fours and won seven Big Ten titles.

Even though MSU once again doesn’t show great interest in jump shots, it is thriving with athleticism and toughness.

“I don’t always feel like were a [17-3] team, but we’re finding ways to win,’’ Izzo said. “I’ve been debating. In my 30 years, has the league ever been better? I don’t think there’s any question. It’s the best it’s been top to bottom. Which is going to lead to some incredible games.’’

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