Conference play in the Big Ten begins Tuesday. Here are the five B1G-gest questions as the league schedule gets going.
1. Can Michigan State turn things around?
The Spartans don't usually have five losses at this time of year. But then the Spartans don't usually have this many injuries either. The front court has been particularly decimated, as Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter haven't seen action at all this season, and Miles Bridges has been sidelined, as well, the uber freshman missing the last five games. The fab freshmen certainly haven't been Tom Izzo's problem. Nick Ward has shone while forced into a more featured role with all the big-men injuries, averaging 15.9 points and 6.9 rebounds over the last seven games. Cassius Winston has been productive, too, averaging 11.8 points and nine assists over the past five games. But the veterans have struggled, with Eron Harris shooting just 44.8 percent from the field and Kenny Goins averaging only 3.3 points a game. Michigan State has a relatively easy start to league play and a turnaround blueprint in last season's Wisconsin team. But will the Spartans be able to rebound, or will Izzo's NCAA tournament streak finally snap after 20 years?
2. Is Indiana a contender or a pretender?
It seems strange to be questioning the legitimacy of a team that beat two teams currently ranked in the top nine of the AP poll, but the Hoosiers have been a head-scratcher so far this season. Yes, wins over current No. 3 Kansas and current No. 9 North Carolina have been as impressive as any in the country. But Indiana also has that mind-blowing loss at Fort Wayne not to mention a more recent defeat at the hands of a very good Butler team, which outplayed Tom Crean's crew every step of the way. The Hoosiers are the highest-scoring team in the Big Ten and one of the highest-scoring teams in the country, which could bode well for another run at a regular-season Big Ten title. But the defense has been nowhere near as effective, ranking ninth in the Big Ten and 69th in the country. You'd think Indiana would be a slam-dunk pick for one of the Big Ten's best shots at a national title, but it's just been too inconsistent so far to get a good handle on.
3. Will anyone emerge to challenge the top three teams?
As inconsistent as Indiana might be, there's a pretty clear-cut top three in the Big Ten, as a glance at the current top-25 rankings will show you. Wisconsin, Purdue and Indiana are the class of the conference. The thing is, there really hasn't been another team that jumps off the page. Maryland and Minnesota have better records than all three of those aforementioned squads yet haven't cracked the top 25. Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State have been underwhelming. One wonders if there's any team that can challenge those three for a league crown. The Terps would seem the best bet, talented and powered by Melo Trimble, now an upperclassman. Maybe those Spartans can turn things around and be a player. You should never count out Izzo. The Wolverines would figure to have the stuff to be up at the top with Zak Irvin, Derrick Walton Jr. and Duncan Robinson, but they've lost to unranked South Carolina and Virginia Tech teams, the second of those games coming at home. If there's going to be a challenger to the Badgers, Boilers and Hoosiers, it'll likely be a surprise.
4. Can Illinois and/or Northwestern snap tourney droughts?
Granted, the Illini's three-year stretch without an invite to the Big Dance isn't in the same galaxy as Northwestern's infinity without a tourney ticket, but both teams are exiting non-conference play riding pretty high and could be looking at trips to March Madness with decent showings in Big Ten play. Illinois is on a six-game winning streak that features victories over North Carolina State, VCU, BYU and Missouri. John Groce is getting terrific play from Malcolm Hill and Tracy Abrams and sporadically terrific play from big men Leron Black and Maverick Morgan. Northwestern, meanwhile, is 11-2 and probably should be undefeated if not for some poor play in the final seconds of losses to Butler and Notre Dame. Still, the Cats have name-brand victories over Texas, Wake Forest and Dayton and have an NCAA tournament resume unlike anything they've had in years thanks to a returned Vic Law, a sensational point guard in Bryant McIntosh and a group of other scorers like Scottie Lindsey and Nathan Taphorn. With the slots behind the Big Ten's three best teams pretty much up for grabs, there's no reason these two teams can't compete for spots in the field of 68.
5. Is Minnesota for real?
Wins over St. John's, Arkansas and Vanderbilt do not a contender make, but there's no doubt that this has been one heck of a turnaround for the Gophers, who as you might recall went 8-23 last season. Now 12-1, they have the best record of any Big Ten team. Minnesota has been powered by arguably the best defense in the conference, statistically, holding opponents to just 37.2-percent shooting and just 28.5-percent shooting from 3-point range. Offensively, the wealth is getting spread around. Freshman Amir Coffey was eye-popping early and scored 30 points in the win over St. John's, though he's slowed dramatically. Still, there are four guys averaging double figures, with two more behind averaging better than nine and better than eight. It'll take a step up in competition to test whether the Gophers can be that team that emerges from the Big Ten pack, and it'll come soon enough with Michigan State, Purdue, Northwestern and Ohio State to start out conference play.