What is going on in college basketball, specifically the Big Ten right now? Be it football or basketball, the Big Ten is rarely considered the best these days. Yet suddenly, everybody is talking about how the Big Ten is the best basketball conference in the country and could have as many as nine teams playing in the tournament come March.

The hype the Big Ten has been receiving lately seems strange – almost oxymoronic. For years the Big Ten has been made fun of for its lack of scoring and “boring” defensive contests. Take, for instance, the two Tuesday night matchups earlier this week of Illinois versus Michigan State and Wisconsin versus Penn State.

Illinois served No. 9 Michigan State a 42-41 loss on the road in Champaign, Ill. and No. 19 Wisconsin overcame an ice cold shooting hand in a 17-point first half to earn its sixth straight conference victory at State College, beating the Nittany Lions 52-46.

Arguably, in any other season, analysts would have been droning on and on about how terrible Big Ten basketball is. So what is the difference in 2011-12 that has the Leaders and Legends flying so high in the eyes of so many college basketball experts?

First and foremost, it seems the defensive prowess of the Big Ten is finally getting some of the respect it deserves. The Big Ten boasts four teams in the NCAA top 50 in points allowed per game, two in the top 10.

Wisconsin, boasting the top-ranked defense in all of college basketball, is the only team to allow fewer than 50 points per game (49.6 ppg). The Badgers also lead the country in field goal percentage defense at 36.3 percent. Ohio State is ranked seventh at 55.6 ppg, Michigan State sits at No. 32 with 60.2 and Michigan falls in at No. 44 at 61.1.

People can complain about lack of offense all they want, but Big Ten players don’t lack the offensive talent that conferences like the Big 12 and ACC are known for. The work Big Ten players put in on the defensive end of the floor simply surpasses that of any other league, forcing offensive players to play against the best defenses in the nation.

Perhaps the increased amount of respect also has to do with the fact Big Ten teams aren’t just holding other Big Ten teams to impressively low scoring lines. There is a notable list of offensive juggernauts that have had their offenses suffocated by Big Ten defenses.

To name a few, No. 7 Duke, ranked 11th in scoring at 80.3 ppg, managed just 63 in a loss to Ohio State. Wisconsin severely frustrated the offenses of No. 11 UNLV, which is ranked ninth at 80.6 ppg, and No. 5 North Carolina, which is the top ranked offense in the country at 84.9 ppg, allowimg just 62 and 60 points, respectively, in both games.

Although the timeless adage of “defense wins championships” lives on, Big Ten defense has long outshone other conferences, so it seems fair to assume that the caliber of defense isn’t the only reason the conference is garnering increased national attention.

In Joe Lunardi’s most recent ESPN.com bracketology update, eight Big Ten teams would be included in the Big Dance in March, including (in order of projected seeding): Ohio State (1), Michigan State (3), Michigan (4), Wisconsin (5), Indiana (5), Purdue (9), Illinois (10) and Minnesota (11).

It’s not just the defense – the Big Ten is winning! And winning against quality competition.

All eight teams have six or fewer overall losses, which is incredible due to the average strength of schedule for the eight schools: 27.75 (Sum of each team’s strength of schedule divided by eight projected bids). If Northwestern can pull any sort of late season turnaround and get into the tournament, the Big Ten’s resume would look even more impressive, as the Wildcats are ranked No. 8 in strength of schedule but have thus far failed to capture enough important victories.

Eight projected bids was only second to the perennial frontrunner Big East’s nine, but a quality 16-team league is bound to receive more bids.

Comparing the combined overall records by conference also reveals the top-to-bottom strength of the Big Ten. Out of the six major basketball conferences, the Big Ten is nearly running away from the pack. The Big Ten boasts a .679 overall win percentage; the only conference comparatively close is the Big 12 at .674. The winning percentages of the four other leagues, the ACC (.629), Big East (.653), Pac-12 (.565) and SEC (.660), prove that top to bottom, no conference can match the depth of talent in the Big Ten.

The improvement by the Big Ten compared to rival conferences is unprecedented. Since 2000, there have only been three seasons where seven Big Ten teams were called on Selection Sunday, the current Big Ten record for NCAA tournament bids in one season. If current projections follow through, a minimum of eight selections, the Big Ten has a great opportunity to set a new record.

When Selection Sunday does finally arrive, don’t write off the Big Ten teams as you fill out your brackets. In 2012, the conference’s high intensity defenses and sometimes slow and methodical offenses know how to win and are capable of beating the best. March Madness is what Leaders and Legends are made of.

Brett is a senior majoring in journalism. Do you think the Big Ten will pull off a record number of bids in the tournament, or will the Big Ten falter? Let Brett know at [email protected] or tweet him at @BAsportswriter.