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Big Ten PG: Nation's Best League?

Welcome to Big Ten Point Guard!

Rivals Michigan and Michigan State meet as ranked opponents for the first time since 1998 tonight.

Hopefully, each week I’ll have a quick read on the Big Ten basketball scene as well as what’s happening in the nation at large. Most weeks this will appear on Monday afternoon or Tuesday morning.

Without any further ado, let’s get right to it:

Big Ten Notables

* Depending on your viewpoint, you might say the Big Ten is the best conference in the country.

The Big Ten continues to lead the nation in RPI, according to RPIratings.com, entering this week ranked first among all conferences with a rating of .5956. The Big Ten leads all conferences with nine top-50 RPI teams, led by No. 6 Michigan State, No. 7 Ohio State and No. 10 Illinois.

The Spartans, Buckeyes and Illini are followed by No. 13 Indiana, No. 25 Northwestern, No. 26 Michigan, No. 39 Minnesota, No. 45 Wisconsin and No. 49 Purdue. The Big Ten is the only conference in the country with all its teams among the RPI's top 145.

The Big Ten also continues to lead the nation in the Sagarin ratings this week with an average
of 84.23. The Big Ten leads all conferences with nine teams ranked in the top 50 of the Sagarin ratings,
led by No. 2 Ohio State, No. 8 Michigan State and No. 9 Indiana.

The conference is also well represented in this week’s human polls. The Big Ten and the Big East are the only leagues with five teams ranked in the top 25. Ohio State leads that contingent at No. 6, followed by Michigan State (ninth), Indiana (11th), Michigan (20th) and Illinois (22nd).

The Big 12 has four top-25 teams, while the SEC and ACC have three each. The Mountain West has two top-25 teams, while the Ohio Valley, Missouri Valley and West Coast conferences each have one. (Amazingly, there isn’t a Pac-12 team in the top 25. The only Pac-12 entrant even listed is Stanford at 33rd in the AP voting.)

The parity in the league was on display Saturday as Iowa knocked off then-No. 13 Michigan 75-59 and Northwestern stopped then-No. 6 Michigan State 81-74.

Illinois coach Bruce Weber, whose Illini were unranked last Tuesday when they upset then-No. 5 Ohio State 79-74 at home, said the timing of the games has as much to do with the outcomes as anything.

“Ohio State is a very good team,” Weber said. “There is no doubt about that. But I think we have a lot of good teams and a lot of balance. It’s just crazy. It’s so hard to predict. It’s not who you’re playing, but more when you’re playing them. Who has that extra motivation? Who just came off a loss and who just came off a big win?

“It’s such a fine line. Who’s got that extra little mental edge? That’s the team that jumps up and makes some shots and gets a victory. You just have to go one game at a time and see what happens and hope you can hang in there.”

OSU coach Thad Matta, whose teams have won the last two conference titles, said he has come to expect the unexpected.

“That’s the sign of a great basketball conference,” Matta said. “Without a doubt, it’s never going to go the way you want it to or the way you have it scripted. I’ve always said this at the beginning of a conference season – there will be one team that gets on a roll. If they stay healthy, they will be right there to contend.

“I think this past weekend opened our guys eyes to say, ‘Wow, it’s a dog fight.’ As I’ve told the staff, you can’t get down. You just have to find ways to get better.”

Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan, whose struggling Badgers broke through for a 67-62 win at Purdue last Thursday, added, “I know it sounds like a broken record but without a doubt from one through 12 in our conference every night, it’s more of a battle than any conference I’ve seen out there. There are just too many good players and solid teams.

“That term beating up on each other really has meaning this year and this is just the beginning. I don’t know what the next two-thirds of the season will bring. But if this is any indication, hold on to your hats.”

* Indiana fell out of the top 10 this week after losses at home to Minnesota (77-74) and at Ohio State (80-63).

IU is tied with OSU for the conference lead in field goal percentage at 49.7 percent. The Hoosiers also have a commanding eight percentage point lead in three-point shooting, coming in at 45.0 percent on the season.

But between the Hoosiers’ three losses (at Michigan State Dec. 28 and the two losses this past week), IU shot a combined 43.1 percent from the floor (75 of 174) and just 30.3 percent (17 of 56) from behind the arc.

“We had a tough week in the sense that we didn’t play up to the standards we had been playing up to,” said IU coach Tom Crean. “Some of it is we just aren’t making shots like we had. When you shoot the ball at a high rate, it brings a lot of energy. The difference between being a team that’s good and one that’s better than that is whether your energy can continue to be where it needs to be on the defensive end when the shots aren’t going in.”

Against Ohio State, IU went nearly nine minutes of the first half without scoring. OSU led 35-14 at halftime and the game was all but over at that point.

“We have to continue to play through (scoring droughts),” Crean said. “If we have droughts, we have to play through them at a good pace defensively.”

* Iowa was a dismal 8-5 during the nonconference season, but has already taken down two ranked teams (Wisconsin and Michigan) in Big Ten play and won twice on the road as well (at Wisconsin and at Minnesota).

“We’ve won two games on the road,” said Iowa coach Fran McCaffery. “We know how hard it is to win on the road and we showed some toughness in both of those games. If you asked me if I would take 3-3, I’d probably still say, ‘Let’s play the games.’ ”

With such an up-and-down season, McCaffery was asked if coaches know when their team will excel and when they may lay an egg.

“You have a sense moreso when you’re going to play well than when you’re not going to play well,” he said. “Over the years, that’s something I’ve been able to assess and say, ‘We’re going to play well today.’ I thought we would play well against Michigan. It stood to reason because we had played so poorly against the two previous teams.”

Purdue coach Matt Painter and his team will host Iowa tonight. They played previously on Dec. 28 with the Boilers taking a 79-76 win at Iowa City. Painter was asked if he prepares his team to play “the good Iowa or the bad Iowa.”

“We prepare for the good Iowa,” he said. “I think that’s how you prepare for every game. They’re going to compete hard and get after it.”

* Speaking of laying eggs, Painter’s Boilers laid one at home against Wisconsin last Thursday. The Badgers jumped out to a 22-4 lead to start the game and were up 34-22 at halftime on their way to a 67-62 road win.

“We have to do a better job of starting the game and being ready to play,” Painter said. “Wisconsin did a good job of coming on the road and knocking down shots early in the game.”

* McCaffery made news last Tuesday when he was spotted slamming a chair to the floor during a timeout. He had just been assessed a technical foul with his team trailing host Michigan State 69-41. (MSU went on to win the game 95-61.)

Iowa athletic director Gary Barta said the Big Ten had been in contact with the school regarding McCaffery’s behavior but did not sanction him.

"I love his passion, his style of play, his recruiting, his work ethic, and his love for his guys," Barta said in a statement. "It's important his passion doesn't cross a line that distracts from our greater goals. That's what happened last week and that was the focus of our conversation."

* Illinois’ Weber is curious how his team will respond Thursday at Penn State. The Fighting Illini will have had nine days off since their home win over Ohio State, which was marked by Brandon Paul’s 43-point outburst.

“If anything, the break helped us come down to earth a little bit,” Weber said. “We were flying pretty high. Brandon had a once-in-a-lifetime performance. Just watching all the scores this weekend, I think it got everybody’s attention. We took two days off and some guys went home. I think in the long haul to get some freshness, I hope it’s a good thing.”

Paul only played in one game during the week, but he still earned Big Ten Player of the Week after his career night against the Buckeyes. His 43-point game against Ohio State was the most by a Big Ten player since Purdue's Glenn Robinson had 44 against Kansas in the NCAA tournament in 1994 and the most in Big Ten play since Robinson had 49 against Illinois in the final game of the regular season in 1994.

Brandon Paul had the night of a lifetime,” Weber said. “It was a special night with 43 points. He really didn’t start the game well with three or four turnovers early and he air-balled his first shot. He banked in his second shot and then he got going.

“We had a good team effort. We had four guys in double figures and did a good job defensively down the stretch.”

Weber said he is hoping to have point guard Sam Maniscalco back in action. He has missed the last three games with a sore left ankle.

“He got back involved Wednesday and Thursday,” Weber said. “He probably was involved in a quarter of the practice (Sunday). He said he felt fine. We’ll hope he makes some progress. Our goal would be to have him for 10 or 15 minutes (on Thursday).”

* The marquee game in the league tonight as at Ann Arbor as Michigan hosts instate rival Michigan State.

“I think any time it’s Purdue-Indiana, Michigan-Michigan State or Duke-North Carolina, any time you have two teams from the same state that are 50 or 60 miles from each other there is always an extra incentive and an extra rivalry,” said MSU coach Tom Izzo. “At the end of the day, you have to make sure you keep that in check in basketball as compared to football because you still have to play the game, make shots and do the things you have to do.

“For most of my guys who are from the state of Michigan, it means more whether you like it or not.”

Michigan coach John Beilein also talked about the significance of this rivalry.

“There are two huge fan bases for Michigan and Michigan State and there is always huge interest in that game,” he said. “Because there is so much interest in the game, our players and Michigan State’s players hear about it a lot. Everyone knows everyone really well. We really play very hard against each other every time.

“It’s the Big Ten and every game is important. But Michigan State certainly brings that element to it.”

* The MSU game is the first of two biggies for Michigan this week. The Wolverines will travel down to Arkansas for a CBS game on Saturday. Arkansas opened the year 5-3, but has since won eight of its last nine games going into tonight’s match-up at No. 2 Kentucky.

Beilein was asked why he scheduled a nonconference game during the Big Ten season.

“Because of our trip to Hawaii (for the Maui Invitational), we lost a weekend to play a game (in December),” Beilein said. “We wanted one more game and we wanted one more road game against a quality opponent and also so they could come to our place next year and we could continue to bring great nonconference teams into the Crisler Center.

“I’ve never been to Fayetteville. I hear it is an extremely difficult place to win. We look forward to any opportunity we can have to represent the Big Ten.”

* One team that could be a tougher out the rest of the way is Nebraska. The Huskers are just 9-8 overall and 1-5 in the conference. But they got 6-11 center Jorge Brian Diaz and 6-5 wing Dylan Talley back after each missed five games due to injuries.

They helped Nebraska take its first-ever Big Ten win over Penn State (70-58) last Wednesday and they also took Wisconsin to the wire in a 50-45 loss at the Kohl Center on Sunday. (Wisconsin had drilled Nebraska 64-40 on Dec. 27 in Lincoln.)

UW’s Ryan was asked how Diaz and Talley impact the bottom line for the Huskers.

“It’s the extra size,” Ryan said. “(Brandon) Ubel gets some help inside. Then, when they use them at the same time, the high-low stuff has been productive for them. Talley is one of those guys who believes every shot he takes will go in. He will stretch the defense because of his ability. He gives them an offensive spark.”

NU coach Doc Sadler is glad to get two of his big guns back on the court.

“In the last three games, we’ve had most of our team back together and our confidence is going in the right direction,” he said.

That confidence will be tested with home games against Indiana Wednesday and Ohio State Saturday.

* In any other week, OSU guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. might have won the player of the week honor. He had a career-high 28 points in the Buckeyes’ win over Indiana on Sunday. The Hoosiers sloughed off Smith to double team Jared Sullinger in the post. Smith made them pay as he hit 10 of 12 shots from the floor, including 4 of 5 from three-point range.

This was heady stuff for Smith, who was averaging just 5.2 points and 3.7 shots per game coming into that game.

“Lenzelle had a terrific game,” Matta said. “For him a lot of times, it starts on the defensive end. He has proven to be a heck of a defensive player. He had the opportunity to get some open shots and he knocked them down. It was the difference in the start we had to the game. He shoots a good percentage and the ball found him and he made them.”

Smith’s status was in doubt as he missed two practices prior to the game due to strep throat.

“It was a courageous effort on his part to come out and play,” Matta said.

* Minnesota’s Joe Coleman was the Big Ten freshman of the week. The 6-4 Coleman averaged 15.5 points and 4.0 rebounds per game, helping Minnesota earn road victories at Indiana and Penn State. He posted 23 points and five rebounds in the Gophers’ 80-66 win over the Nittany Lions.

Big Ten Notable Games This Week

* Michigan State at Michigan, Tuesday, 7 p.m. (ESPN) – This is the first time these rivals have met as ranked opponents in almost 14 years, dating to Feb. 17, 1998. UM swept the regular season series with the Spartans last year, including a 70-63 win in Ann Arbor. Each team comes in off weekend losses.

* Northwestern at Wisconsin, Wednesday, 9 p.m. (BTN) – This is another referendum game for both teams. Northwestern, coming off the win over Michigan, can gain some steam for an NCAA bid by winning at the Kohl Center. But the Wildcats have never won there since the building opened in 1998.

* Illinois at Penn State, Thursday, 9 p.m. (ESPN2) – How will the Illini respond after their home win over Ohio State? You know Bruce Weber doesn’t want to give that one back with a loss at PSU, just 1-5 in conference play and just 7-4 at home this year.

* Purdue at Michigan State, Saturday, noon (ESPN) – The Boilers and Spartans always seem to play nut cruncher type games.

* Michigan at Arkansas, Saturday, 2 p.m. (CBS) – This is the last nonconference game of the season for the Big Ten. Conference teams are 4-3 combined against the SEC this year.

* Wisconsin at Illinois, Sunday, 2 p.m. (BTN) – This should be a neat match-up to see how Illinois’ Paul and Meyers Leonard deal with UW’s stingy defense.

National Games To Watch This Week

* Arkansas at Kentucky, Tuesday, 9 p.m. (ESPN) – The Razorbacks are hot, but UK is 44-0 at home under John Calipari. The Hogs are winless on the road this year.

* Cincinnati at Connecticut, Wednesday, 7 p.m. (ESPN2) – Cincinnati has won nine of its last 10 since the fight-marred loss at rival Xavier on Dec. 10. UConn looked good in a Saturday win at Notre Dame (67-53), however.

* Xavier at Dayton, Saturday, 1 p.m. (ESPN2) – The Atlantic 10 lead could be on the line as these longtime rivals square off at UD Arena.

* Missouri at Baylor, Saturday, 2 p.m. (ESPN) – Baylor is licking its wounds after Monday’s first loss of the season at Kansas (92-74). Now comes No. 5 Missouri, whose only loss was at Kansas State on Jan. 7.

* Kansas at Texas, Saturday, 4 p.m. (CBS) – Can Kansas build off the momentum of Monday’s win with a victory at struggling Texas, which has lost three of its last six going into a Wednesday game at Kansas State.

* Syracuse at Notre Dame, Saturday, 6 p.m. (ESPN) – The Orange face a two-game road trip to the Midwest, beginning with this game at ND.

* Syracuse at Cincinnati, Monday, 7 p.m. (ESPN) – The Bearcats’ big week continues as they could be hosting unbeaten and No. 1-ranked Syracuse at Fifth Third Arena.

My National Top 16

Here’s what I have: Syracuse, Kentucky, Ohio State, Duke, Missouri, Kansas, Baylor, North Carolina, Michigan State, Georgetown, Indiana, Murray State, Connecticut, Virginia, UNLV, San Diego State.

And this is real early, but looking at the Big Ten you’d think OSU, MSU and Indiana could all get “protected” top-four NCAA seeds in a given region.

The opening weekend site breakdown for the four-team pods could be:

Albuquerque – Baylor, UNLV

Pittsburgh – Syracuse, Ohio State

Portland – San Diego State, Georgetown

Louisville – Kentucky, Indiana

Columbus (OSU can’t play there) – Michigan State, Connecticut

Greensboro – Duke, Virginia

Nashville – Murray State, North Carolina

Omaha – Missouri, Kansas

Big Ten Standings, Schedule

TEAM CONF OVERALL
Michigan State 4-1 15-3
Illinois 4-1 15-3
Ohio State 4-2 16-3
Michigan 4-2 14-4
Purdue 3-2 13-5
Indiana 3-3 15-3
Wisconsin 3-3 14-5
Iowa 3-3 11-8
Northwestern 2-3 12-5
Minnesota 2-4 14-5
Nebraska 1-5 9-8
Penn State 1-5 9-10

Tuesday’s Games

Michigan State at Michigan, 7 p.m. (ESPN)
Iowa at Purdue, 8 p.m. (BTN)

Wednesday’s Games

Indiana at Nebraska, 7 p.m. (BTN)
Northwestern at Wisconsin, 9 p.m. (BTN)

Thursday’s Games

Illinois at Penn State, 9 p.m. (ESPN2)

Saturday’s Games

Purdue at Michigan State, noon (ESPN)
Michigan at Arkansas, 2 p.m. (CBS)
Ohio State at Nebraska, 8 p.m. (BTN)

Sunday’s Games

Penn State at Indiana, noon (BTN)
Wisconsin at Illinois, 2 p.m. (BTN)
Northwestern at Minnesota, 4 p.m. (BTN)

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