By RUSTY MILLER
AP Sports Writer
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.
It's not as if the conference that gave the world Jerry Lucas, Magic Johnson and Isaiah Thomas is more talented than ever. Sure, there are still plenty of outstanding players. But it's more that there are so many different styles of play, the home-court crowds are intimidating, and the grind of an 18-game conference slugfest wears down even elite teams.
Indiana coach Tom Crean is in his first year trying to clean up the toxic waste left behind by the NCAA-dogged tenure of the fired Kelvin Sampson. A former lieutenant of Izzo's at Michigan State, Crean spent nine successful seasons as the head coach at Marquette, where he won 190 games and took one team to the Final Four.
Having spent three years coaching in the Big East, he's now back in the Big Ten and has gained a new appreciation for the conference.
"The reality close up is that if anybody has any questions about how competitive, how tough and how skilled the players are, and how thorough and detailed the coaches are, then they haven't been watching the game," Crean said. "Being in the Big East, and with the success that other leagues have had like the ACC or the Pac-10, it's easy to maybe push (the Big Ten) down a little. (But) this is an outstanding conference."
Bring your lunch pail -- or maybe a suit of armor -- if you want to play.
In the past two weeks, flagrant fouls and violent collisions have led to a broken nose (for Purdue's Chris Kramer) and a concussion (for Kramer's teammate, Lewis Jackson), and lots of other bumps and bruises. Two players have been suspended and another ejected from a game for tossing elbows at opposing players.
"It's a contact sport and there are going to be contact plays," Iowa coach Todd Lickliter said. "What you have to try to distinguish is, are they intentional?"
Injuries not caused by intentional contact also have upset the balance of power in the conference. Purdue's Robbie Hummel is one of the Big Ten's best players, but he hasn't practiced with his teammates since December because of a stress fracture in his back. He has spent most of the past few weeks watching from the bench as the Boilermakers try to get by without him.
Same goes at Michigan State and Ohio State. Michigan State isn't the same team without star forward Raymar Morgan, still trying to fight back from walking pneumonia and a mild case of mononucleosis. The Buckeyes haven't had captain David Lighty since he broke a bone in his foot in December. He may not return to a team that doesn't have a senior on the roster.
The Buckeyes at least had time to adapt to life without Lighty before jumping into league play.
"They're the one team, going into the month of February and then on into March, that could create a lot of havoc, not only in the Big Ten but throughout the country," Crean said.
Penn State coach Ed DeChellis has his team chasing a possible NCAA berth. But to grab it, the Nittany Lions will have to finish strong.
Problem is, 10 other conference squads are in the same boat.
"We're in this thing in the sense that we're 6-5 in the league, 17-5 overall," DeChellis said. "But we've got to get some work done in these last eight games -- like all the teams. It's a critical time as we enter mid-February."