Big Ten Playbook: Sparty, Gophers elbow their way into the mix

No worries if you missed the first week of conference play in Big Ten basketball, which sneaked in during the most wonderful, crowded time of the year. I’ve got you covered.

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It was very enlightening and very entertaining, that first week. Based on the initial ups and downs, I would advise you to catch it when you can. This should be a very interesting league—much more so than we would have expected before the Midwestern behemoths started elbowing each other.

The biggest point to emerge from the opening week. . . Reports of Michigan State's demise are greatly exaggerated. And Minnesota, Nebraska and Iowa have a chance to be much better than advertised.[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]

THE HEAVYWEIGHT CONTENDERS

1. WISCONSIN (No. 1 in previous ranking), 12-2, 1-0: A 20-point win over Rutgers told us. . . nothing. Trips to Indiana and Purdue this week will tell us. . . a lot.

2. MICHIGAN STATE (No. 4), 10-5, 2-0: Ordinarily, wins at Minnesota and vs. Northwestern would not excite. But the Gophers and Wildcats are very solid. Keep an eye (or two) on Michigan State's Nick Ward. This 6-8, 250-pound freshman is a load who’s going to be a stud. And with Miles Bridges, Sparty’s 6-7 monster freshman, expected back soon—possibly Wednesday—from a month-long ankle injury, Michigan State is poised for a big year despite its nonconference woes.

3. PURDUE (No. 2), 12-3, 1-1: Give credit to Minnesota for its impressive 91-82 win at Purdue, rather than fretting about the Boilermakers. Yup, Purdue needs to iron out some kinks. But led by 6-9, 250-pound sophomore All-America candidate Caleb Swanigan (18.5 points and 13 rebounds), the Boilermakers will be fine. The pieces need to mesh better. But they are there.

4. INDIANA (No. 3), 10-4, 0-1: The loss to Louisville in Indy was no big deal. But the home loss to Nebraska is a sign that IU, which already has mega-wins over Kansas and North Carolina, once again is going to be a roller-coaster team.

If the Big Ten continues to have the quality depth it’s showing, the Hoosiers need to get their act together.

WELTER-WEIGHT AND SEE

5. MINNESOTA (No. 12), 13-2, 1-1: As gritty as Nebraska has been, I expect the Gophers to enjoy more sustained success. Because Richard Pitino has dealt himself quite an impressive hand.

After a disappointing finish in a very winnable game vs. Michigan State, Minnesota went to Purdue and punched the very rugged Boilermakers in the mouth. Whoa!

The Gophers have waves of talent, and it comes in all shapes and sizes. Little guard Nate Mason can take over a game, 6-9 freshman Eric Curry oozes potential—and Minnesota seems to have a lot of tough players with decent size. They’re going to be the surprise team in the Big Ten.

6. NEBRASKA (No. 11), 8-6, 2-0: Opening wins at Indiana and Maryland after a loss to Gardner-Webb? Who knew that the Cornhuskers were going to show this kind of skill and toughness?

I don’t expect this to continue. Then again, I never expected a 2-0 start. Hats off to Tai Webster (39) and Glynn Watson Jr. (43) for pouring in 82 points in the last two games. Impressive. Let’s see more.

7. NORTHWESTERN (No. 8), 12-3, 1-1: The pieces are in place, but the competition for post-season resumes is going to be serious in this Big Ten. The next two games, vs. Minnesota and at Nebraska, will tell a lot about NU’s chances for ending its NCAA drought.

SPARRING PARTNERS

8. IOWA (No. 10), 9-6, 1-1: Peter Jok (19 ppg in first two Big Ten games) is getting help from rapidly-maturing freshmen Jordan Bohannon, Tyler Cook, Cordell Pemsl and Isaiah Moss. They’ll be fun to watch this year, and an increasingly tough out, especially at home.

9. MICHIGAN (No. 7), 10-4, 0-1: The Wolverines, who lead the Big Ten in three-point attempts and fewest turnovers, have some shooters. The problem is, opponents are shooting a Big-Ten-worst 44.4 percent. That's not a good path to success.

SHADOW BOXING

10. MARYLAND (No. 6), 13-2, 1-1: Blowing out Illinois was a good thing. Losing at home to Nebraska is not a harbinger of good things.

11. ILLINOIS (No. 9), 11-4, 1-1: Kudos for winning a must-win game, at home vs. Ohio State. But the Illini play a bit like their old-school uniforms, which harken back to the day when the Big Ten was longer on brawn than skill and quickness. Time will tell if their bigs will hold up in conference play, and if they have enough scorers.

Most troubling are Illinois’ uh-oh moments. They were disappointing no-shows in blowout losses to West Virginia and Maryland, and they stubbed their toe against Winthrop. That’s too many missteps for a veteran team.

12. OHIO STATE (No. 5), 10-4, 0-1: Thad Matta has had a lot of good teams at Ohio State. This is not one of them.

HUMAN PUNCHING BAGS

13. PENN STATE (No. 13), 9-6, 1-1: Maybe the young Nittany Lions will get better. But this is not a good year to try doing that in the Big Ten.

14. RUTGERS (NO. 14), 11-4, 0-2: Back in my days at Wisconsin, when the Badgers were not very good, we used to go to watch the other teams—and hope for the occasional upset. That’s the approach I suggest for Rutgers followers.[/membership]

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