The Big Ten has been criticized all season by the national media for being weak, for having a down year. Within the conference, the coaches see things differently, particularly Purdue head coach Matt Painter, whose Boilermakers are on the bubble. “People that are saying we are a three- or four-bid league are not really taking a look at the actual teams in [the Big Ten],” Painter said. “We have a lot of teams that are very worthy of a bid.”The Big Ten, which looks to get five to six teams in the big dance this year despite its soft label, currently has a very intriguing matchup brewing in the state of Michigan. Both the Spartans and Wolverines are in the middle of the pack, sitting at 7-6 and 6-6 respectively in the Big Ten.Formerly ranked Indiana sits in third at 7-5. Close behind are Illinois, Iowa and Michigan State at 7-6. If that’s not enough, Michigan and Purdue are just a game back of third at 6-6. With the middle so jumbled, the race to an NCAA bid in the Big Ten will be a dogfight down the stretch.The problem for many of these teams has been consistency.Since losing a tough couple of road games at Wisconsin and Michigan over a month ago, Painter’s senior-laden ball club has strung together a competitive couple of weeks that should be looked upon favorably come tournament selection time. While Purdue’s 3-2 mark in its past five games may not look great at first glance, further inspection reveals that two of the losses have come at the hands of powerhouse Ohio State.Their most recent game might be the best indication of how much the Boilermakers have improved. Last Thursday they upended then-nationally ranked Indiana at home 81-68. The blowout has given Painter’s players a lot of confidence, something they will surely need to close out a relatively easy end to the season — and, more importantly, to secure an NCAA bid.Indiana head coach Kelvin Sampson blames his team’s losses on its lack of big-play ability toward the end of games.”In every one of those games, we had some kind of lead in the second half, and we just had some breakdowns,” Sampson said in a Big Ten teleconference Monday. “Winning on the road is tough, and you have to make plays and make shots and string together baskets and defensive stops. That’s been our biggest inconsistency.”After remaining ranked for a couple of weeks, the Hoosiers have fallen on hard times. Sampson believes the reason is that his players are showing signs of fatigue. Since its big home win over rival Illinois in Bloomington, Indiana has had trouble on the road. Most recently it lost to Michigan 58-55.Sampson cited senior guard Earl Calloway’s absence from the Michigan game as a reason the offensive rhythm of the team was off. According to the Hoosier coach, his presence is felt more in the 27 minutes per game he logs than his scoring average, which hovers around 10 points per contest, indicates.The Wolverines used big games from guards Deon Harris and Jarret Smith to finally get a win that will look good come March when the 65-team field for the NCAA Tournament is announced. Head coach Tommy Amaker credited the play of the sophomore Smith as a big reason for the win on Saturday.”We certainly need his guard play, his ability to pass and create plays for others,” Amaker said.Despite the big win against Indiana, Michigan has fallen on tough times of late, losing five of its past seven. The struggles could spell the end for Amaker in Michigan.With two road games this week at Illinois — where a raucous crowd will be on hand to not only send off their seniors, but also their mascot of 85 years, Chief Illiniwek — and Minnesota, Michigan will look to build momentum before playing its last two home games against their two biggest rivals, Michigan State and Ohio State.Certainly the Big Ten teams have had their ups and downs, but Painter, Sampson and Amaker remain positive their teams can pull through down the stretch.