It’s supposed to be the most boring basketball league in the country. Its offenses are less exciting than the Princeton offense and its defenses grind through slow-paced games. The only people more bored than the fans may be the players, who see tremendous individual talent limited by pedestrian basketball.

But this year, the Big Ten seems to be breaking out of this familiar mold.

It’s not just the plethora of top-25 teams in the league — Ohio State, Michigan State, Indiana, Michigan and Illinois — or the NBA prospects, like Jared Sullinger, Draymond Green or Cody Zeller. It’s also a style of play that is surprisingly up-tempo.

Bo Ryan, the Wisconsin head coach who has always been an exemplar of the Big Ten’s slow-paced style, has guided the Badgers to only one performance of less than 50 points all season. And some games, like Illinois’ 78-73 victory over Ohio State, could even be considered high-scoring, especially compared to last season’s Big Ten box scores.

This isn’t to say that the Midwest’s conference is suddenly full of run-and-gun teams. Indiana, the league’s highest-scoring team, averages 80.8 points per game and is ranked ninth in the country in scoring. Conferences like the SEC, with Kentucky and Florida, and the ACC, with North Carolina and Duke, put up many more baskets each night. But it is a marked improvement from last season.

Part of this can be simply explained by improved shooting. Even cellar-dwellers like Minnesota and Nebraska have field goal percentages above 40 percent; elite teams boast long-range deadeyes like Indiana junior Jordan Hulls, whose trey at the buzzer against Kentucky put the only blemish on the Wildcats’ season.

Indiana, one of this season’s biggest surprises — not just in the Big Ten but also in the entire country — has done so well on the strength of both its post and perimeter games. The Hoosiers boast a 45 percent mark from three-point range while diaper dandy center Cody Zeller, has averaged 15.6 points per game on more than 65 percent shooting from the field. Those sort of phenomenal numbers have made Tom Crean’s team difficult to defend.

It takes passing to facilitate that sort of inside-outside game and that has always been one of the hallmarks of the Big Ten’s “slow” style: passing, lots and lots of passing. It should be no surprise then that four Big Ten teams — Ohio State, Michigan State, Northwestern and Minnesota — are among the nation’s leaders in assists.

With so much passing, people have often decried the Big Ten as being less physical than the other power conferences. While hard to quantify, this seems a bit exaggerated. Physicality in basketball is nearly impossible to define, but we always seem to know it when we see it.

Nobody who has seen any of the Big Ten’s marquee matchups would say that they haven’t been physical. Post play in Big Ten games doesn’t always look like the scrum it is in the Big East, but league referees are at least partially responsible for that.

Given all this and the prowess that Big Ten teams have shown all season against their rivals in other conferences — including domination of the ACC teams in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge — 2011-2012 seems to be the season where the Big Ten finally matches up to the Big East as the nation’s premier basketball league.

And what does the postseason picture look like for the Big Ten? There are at least seven teams with compelling arguments for NCAA tournament bids (and although this sounds like a lot, remember that the Big Ten actually has 12 teams thanks to realignment).

While Jared Sullinger and Ohio State tend to hoard the national spotlight, the smart money is on Tom Izzo’s Michigan State squad, which is perenially dangerous in March. The resurgent Hoosier squad also has enough heart to go the distance. But regardless of which of these teams come out on top in the conference, they’ve all played a part in making Big Ten basketball an exciting and watchable product — and that really is an achievement.

Evan Hollander is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service. TOP OF THE KEY appears every Friday.

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