Everybody’s a player in rough, tough Big Ten

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AP

Indiana’s Nick Williams (20) shoots between Michigan State’s Goran Suton, left, and Delvon Roe during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 7, 2009, in East Lansing, Mich. Michigan State won 75-47. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

By Rusty Miller

Fans have learned several things from the Big Ten race so far: No team is invincible, there are no soft touches, there are plenty of hard fouls and the league is full of quality teams.

It all makes for an interesting final month in the battle-tested Big Ten.

The standings prove the point.

No. 9 Michigan State (19-4, 9-2) leads the way by two games, with the next eight teams separated by two games in the loss column.

No. 22 Illinois (19-5, 7-4) and No. 24 Ohio State (17-5, 7-4) are tied for second with No. 20 Purdue (17-6, 6-4) a half-game back. Then comes Minnesota (18-5, 6-5) and Penn State (17-7, 6-5), followed by Michigan (15-9, 5-6), Wisconsin (14-9, 5-6) and Northwestern (13-8, 4-6). Even undermanned Iowa (13-11, 3-8) and Indiana (6-16, 1-9) have been pushing the top teams.

As close as the standings are, the games have been just as tight.

“There’s not a game that’s easy,” Illinois coach Bruce Weber said Monday. “I guess that’s why we have a big mess in the middle (of the standings) there, because of the balance and competitiveness of the conference.”

Here’s a sign of how much parity there is: Then-No. 7 Michigan State had won its last 28 home games and its last dozen overall heading into what appeared to be a routine home game against Northwestern on Jan. 21.

The Wildcats hadn’t beaten the Spartans in the last 12 meetings.

But then Kevin Coble threw in almost every shot he took, scoring 31 points, and the Spartans couldn’t get away with just a routine effort as Northwestern pulled off a 70-63 shocker in East Lansing, Mich.

“As we’ve seen, everybody can beat everybody,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said on the Big Ten conference call on Monday.

So as the teams head down the stretch, there are no breathers. And 10 of the 11 teams have a decent shot at hitting the enchanted 20-win plateau to earn a spot in the NCAA tournament.

Big Ten Standings

1. Michigan State 9-2

2. Illinois 7-4

3. Ohio State 7-4

4. Purdue 6-4

5. Minnesota 6-5

6. Penn State 6-5

7. Michigan 5-6

8. Wisconsin 5-6

9. Northwestern 4-6

10. Iowa 3-8

11. Indiana 1-9