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Big Ten Primer: Conference Play

The Big Ten basketball season begins Tuesday, so we will take a look at how the teams have fared so far in the nonconference.

Big Ten stars: MSU's Gary Harris, Wisconsin's Sam Dekker, Indiana's Yogi Ferrell and OSU's Aaron Craft

The Big Ten has been the nation’s second-strongest conference to date in terms of RPI. The Big 12 leads the way, followed by the Big Ten, Big East, Pac-12, ACC, SEC, the Atlantic 10 and the West Coast. The Big Ten and ACC split their annual 12-game series of Challenge games down the middle at 6-6.

Ohio State and Wisconsin, each at 13-0 after nonconference play, are among eight remaining unbeaten teams nationally. They are joined by Syracuse, Iowa State, Toledo, Wichita State, Arizona and Oregon.

The conference boasts three of the nation’s top five teams. Arizona and Syracuse top the AP poll with Ohio State third, Wisconsin fourth and Michigan State fifth. Iowa checks in at No. 22.

Those four teams are joined by Minnesota and Michigan in the latest NCAA Tournament bracketology by CBSSports.com’s Jerry Palm. He lists Michigan State (first seed, South), Wisconsin (first seed, Midwest), Ohio State (second seed, Midwest), Iowa (seventh seed, South), Minnesota (eighth seed, West) and Michigan (12th seed, Midwest).

Everything in the conference will build toward the Big Ten tournament, scheduled for March 13-16 at Indianapolis’ Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

Below we have a look at the 12 Big Ten basketball teams headed into conference play, listed in order of their overall records with thoughts on how each could fare:

Ohio State (13-0)

* Human Poll Rankings: Third in AP poll, third in USA Today coaches poll.

* Computer Poll Rankings: 14th in RPI, third in Sagarin.

* Strength-Of-Schedule Rankings: 114th in RPI, 222nd in Sagarin

* Top-100 RPI Wins (3): North Dakota State (37), Ohio U. (55), Wyoming (95)

* Losses (0): None.

* Top Scorers: G Lenzelle Smith Jr. (13.4 ppg, 5.2 rpg), F LaQuinton Ross (12.9 ppg, 5.8 rpg), G Aaron Craft (9.5 ppg, 4.6 apg), C Amir Williams (9.9 ppg, 7.2 rpg), G Shannon Scott (7.6 ppg, 4.0 apg), F Sam Thompson (7.5 ppg).

* Steve Says: Ohio State rose into the top five quickly as a number of preseason contenders suffered losses. The Buckeyes have only played twice outside the friendly confines of Value City Arena. One of those was an impressive win at Marquette. The other was a miraculous comeback to beat Notre Dame at Madison Square Garden.

Ross is growing into his role as Deshaun Thomas’ replacement as a scorer. Williams has been a pleasant surprise in the paint. The Buckeyes are fifth nationally in scoring defense at 55.9 points allowed per game.

Ohio State is the only team to reach each of the last four straight NCAA Sweet 16s. The odds look good for them to make it five in a row and, with a favorable conference schedule (one game each against Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan), the Buckeyes could also be in the Big Ten race until the end.

Wisconsin (13-0)

* Human Poll Rankings: Fourth in AP poll, sixth in USA Today coaches poll.

* Computer Poll Rankings: Second in RPI, eighth in Sagarin.

* Strength-Of-Schedule Rankings: 14th in RPI, 49th in Sagarin

* Top-100 RPI Wins (6): Florida (13), St. John’s (50), Virginia (56), St. Louis (57), Green Bay (64), Oral Roberts (74).

* Losses (0): None.

* Top Scorers: F Sam Dekker (14.5 ppg, 6.2 rpg), C Frank Kaminsky (14.2 ppg, 5.8 rpg), G Ben Brust (12.5 ppg, 5.2 rpg), G Traevon Jackson (10.7 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 4.5 apg), G Josh Gasser (9.0 ppg, 4.4 rpg), F Nigel Hayes (5.5 ppg).

* Steve Says: Wisconsin is off to its best start since it opened 15-0 in 1913-14. The Badgers got off to a fast start with early wins over St. John’s and Florida to open the season.

The Badgers needed Dekker to step into a primary role, Gasser to come back from injury, Kaminsky to replace Jared Berggren inside. All of that has happened – plus the freshman Hayes has made some valuable contributions as well.

Wisconsin has been to every NCAA Tournament since 1998 and that certainly isn’t changing anytime soon. Bo Ryan has a team that will be extremely hard to beat (once again) at the Kohl Center.

Michigan State (11-1)

* Human Poll Rankings: Fifth in AP poll, fifth in USA Today coaches poll.

* Computer Poll Rankings: 13th in RPI, seventh in Sagarin.

* Strength-Of-Schedule Rankings: 72nd in RPI, 176th in Sagarin.

* Top-100 RPI Wins (4): Kentucky (15), Texas (26), Oklahoma (27), New Orleans (60).

* Losses (1): North Carolina (29).

* Top Scorers: G Keith Appling (15.9 ppg, 5.0 apg), G Gary Harris (17.9 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 3.2 apg), G Branden Dawson (10.3 ppg, 9.3 rpg), C Adreian Payne (18.0 ppg, 7.9 rpg), G Denzel Valentine (7.4 ppg, 5.4 apg), G Travis Trice (7.4 ppg).

* Steve Says: The Spartans jumped out of the gate strong by knocking off preseason No. 1 Kentucky in Chicago (78-74). There was a blemish with the home loss to an unranked North Carolina team (79-65). But this is a veteran team that could be in the hunt for another national title for Tom izzo.

MSU is a top-25 team nationally in scoring, rebounding and field goal percentage. Payne is playing at an All-American level and has stepped up as a leader. Harris is auditioning for an NBA jump. Valentine has also improved from last season.

The Spartans are a gritty bunch that will be hard to beat at the Breslin Center. They look like the team to beat in the Big Ten.

Iowa (11-2)

* Human Poll Rankings: 22nd in AP poll, 23rd in USA Today coaches poll.

* Computer Poll Rankings: 39th in RPI, fifth in Sagarin.

* Strength-Of-Schedule Rankings: 125th in RPI, 248th in Sagarin

* Top-100 RPI Wins (3): Xavier (44), Drake (66), Nebraska-Omaha (82).

* Losses (2): Iowa State (5), Villanova (7).

* Top Scorers: F Roy Devyn Marble (15.3 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 3.5 apg), F Aaron White (13.2 ppg, 6.2 rpg), F Jarrod Uthoff (10.8 ppg, 6.7 rpg), F Zach McCabe (8.2 ppg, 3.5 rpg), F Melsahn Basabe (7.5 ppg, 6.2 rpg), G Peter Jok (7.3 ppg), C Adam Woodbury (5.7 ppg, 4.3 rpg).

* Steve Says: Fran McCaffery’s hard work is starting to pay off as Iowa has been a top-25 fixture since early in the season. The two losses were no disgrace as they fell to once-beaten Villanova (88-83 in overtime) and at unbeaten rival Iowa State (85-82) in a heartbreaker.

Iowa is third nationally in scoring (88.7 ppg) and rebounding (45.9 rpg). Big Ten teams that have taken home wins over Iowa for granted are in for a rude awakening this winter. The Hawkeyes boast the best inside game in the conference with White, Uthoff, Basabe, McCabe and the 7-1 Woodbury.

The Hawkeyes haven’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2006. That drought looks like it will be ending this March.

Illinois (11-2)

* Human Poll Rankings: Unranked.

* Computer Poll Rankings: 19th in RPI, 50th in Sagarin.

* Strength-Of-Schedule Rankings: 55th in RPI, 247th in Sagarin.

* Top-100 RPI Wins (2): Missouri (17), UNLV (89).

* Losses (2): Oregon (6), Georgia Tech (164).

* Top Scorers: G Rayvonte Rice (18.2 ppg, 5.5 rpg), G Tracy Abrams (12.7 ppg, 4.1 rpg), G Joseph Bertrand (10.8 ppg), F Jon Ekey (8.5 ppg, 6.0 rpg), C Nnanna Egwu (8.0 ppg, 5.4 rpg).

* Steve Says: John Groce is building something special in Champaign, although this seemed like a transitional season after losing Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and others off last year’s team. Rice, a transfer from Drake, has flourished in his first season with the Illini.

Illinois’ two losses were on the road at Georgia Tech (67-64) and at Oregon (71-64), showing Illinois has been competitive in every game so far. The win over then-No. 23 Missouri in St. Louis (65-64) was a head turner, for sure.

Minnesota (11-2)

* Human Poll Rankings: Unranked.

* Computer Poll Rankings: 30th in RPI, 39th in Sagarin.

* Strength-Of-Schedule Rankings: 57th in RPI, 249th in Sagarin

* Top-100 RPI Wins (4): Florida State (22), New Orleans (60), Nebraska-Omaha (82), Richmond (93).

* Losses (2): Syracuse (1), Arkansas (70).

* Top Scorers: G Andre Hollins (16.2 ppg, 4.0 rpg), G Austin Hollins (13.5 ppg, 7.2 rpg), G Deandre Mathieu (11.5 ppg, 4.8 apg), G Malik Smith (9.8 ppg), F Joey King (7.5 ppg).

* Steve Says: Some scoffed when Minnesota chose 30-year-old Richard Pitino to replace Tubby Smith. But Pitino is showing his dad isn’t the only quality coach in his family by leading the Gophers to a strong start.

The two losses came on back-to-back days at the Maui Invitational. One of them was to current No. 2 Syracuse (75-67). As always, this team will be tough to contend with at Williams Arena.

Indiana (10-3)

* Human Poll Rankings: Fifth in AP poll, fifth in USA Today coaches poll.

* Computer Poll Rankings: 91st in RPI, 334th in Sagarin.

* Strength-Of-Schedule Rankings: 187th in RPI, 45th in Sagarin

* Top-100 RPI Wins (0): None.

* Losses (3): Syracuse (1), Connecticut (28), Notre Dame (128).

* Top Scorers: G Yogi Ferrell (16.8 ppg, 4.2 apg), C Noah Vonleh (12.0 ppg, 9.5 rpg), G Will Sheehey (10.8 ppg, 4.1 rpg), F Jeremy Hollowell (8.6 ppg, 4.2 rpg), F Troy Williams (7.9 ppg, 4.8 rpg), G Evan Gordon (7.8 ppg).

* Steve Says: Losing Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo early to the NBA and Christian Watford and Jordan Hulls to graduation, everybody knew the Hoosiers would likely take a step back. The Hoosiers were competitive in two of their three losses, falling to Connecticut (59-58) and Notre Dame (79-72) on neutral floors. They lost at Syracuse (69-52) in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. IU’s two best wins are over Oakland (157 in RPI) and Washington (176).

Ferrell has had to step up from being a facilitator last year as a freshman to a scorer this year. Freshmen Vonleh and Williams have come in and made an immediate impact as has the Arizona State transfer Gordon.

Tom Crean faced a tough reloading project, but he has a lot of nice pieces to work with. If they come together and can also hold serve at Assembly Hall, they could make a run at an NCAA bid.

Purdue (10-3)

* Human Poll Rankings: Unranked

* Computer Poll Rankings: 94th in RPI, 81st in Sagarin.

* Strength-Of-Schedule Rankings: 188th in RPI, 297th in Sagarin.

* Top-100 RPI Wins (1): Eastern Michigan (58)

* Losses (3): Oklahoma State (12), Butler (32), Washington State (143).

* Top Scorers: G Terone Johnson (14.0 ppg, 3.6 rpg), C A.J. Hammons (8.0 ppg, 6.8 rpg), G Ronnie Johnson (10.8 ppg, 3.8 apg), G Bryson Scott (9.7 ppg), G Kendall Stephens (7.5 ppg), F Basil Smotherman (6.4 ppg, 3.6 rpg).

* Steve Says: I kind of like Purdue. They have a nice blend of veterans with the Johnsons and Hammons as well as an infusion of talented freshmen in Scott, Stephens and Smotherman. The Boilers dropped games to then-No. 5 Oklahoma State (97-87) and Washington State (69-54) at the Old Spice Classic and to Butler on a neutral floor in Indianapolis (76-70).

They wrapped nonleague play with a gutty win at West Virginia (73-70). But they jump right into Big Ten play by hosting Ohio State Tuesday.

They should be able to knock some teams off at Mackey Arena. The key to getting to the NCAA, though, will be to steal a win or two on the road. But Matt Painter has the roster to do it.

Penn State (9-4)

* Human Poll Rankings: Unranked

* Computer Poll Rankings: 111th in RPI, 76th in Sagarin.

* Strength-Of-Schedule Rankings: 59th in RPI, 229th in Sagarin.

* Top-100 RPI Wins (1): St. John’s (50).

* Losses (4): Pittsburgh (32), Princeton (43), Mississippi (85), Bucknell (145).

* Top Scorers: G D.J. Newbill (18.9 ppg, 6.2 rpg), G Tim Frazier (18.2 ppg, 3.9 rpg), F Ross Travis (11.8 ppg, 8.4 rpg), F Brandon Taylor (10.8 ppg), F Donovan Jack (7.3 ppg).

* Steve Says: Penn State coach Patrick Chambers is glad to have Frazier back after he missed most of last year due to injury. He and Newbill form one of the Big Ten’s best backcourts. Travis has also stepped up at forward.

PSU had some tough losses at home to Bucknell (90-80) and Princeton (81-79 in overtime). And they jump right into the Big Ten by hosting Michigan State Tuesday. I think an NCAA bid is a stretch. The Lions will have to play well at Bryce Jordan Center, where they are usually good for one or two upsets in conference play each year.

Nebraska (8-4)

* Human Poll Rankings: Unranked

* Computer Poll Rankings: 87th in RPI, 93rd in Sagarin.

* Strength-Of-Schedule Rankings: 116th in RPI, 237th in Sagarin.

* Best Wins (0): None.

* Losses (4): Massachusetts (3), Creighton (42), Cincinnati (54), UAB (97).

* Top Scorers: F Terran Petteway (17.3 ppg, 4.7 rpg), G Shavon Shields (12.7 ppg, 5.5 rpg), G Deverell Biggs (9.3 ppg), G Ray Gallegos (8.7 ppg), F Walter Pitchford (8.4 ppg, 4.5 rpg), F Leslee Smith (8.3 ppg, 6.6 rpg).

* Steve Says: This is a season of much optimism at Nebraska, which has sold out its new 15,000-seat Pinnacle Bank Arena for the season. It began with a flourish with a rout of last year’s NCAA Cinderella team Florida-Gulf Coast (79-55). NU dropped neutral site games to Massachusetts and UAB and road games at Creighton and Cincinnati with three of those by double digits.

The Huskers will not exactly ease into Big Ten play with road games at Iowa and Ohio State this week. But the ever-positive Tim Miles is building something the people of Nebraska can be proud of. NU hasn’t been to the NCAA since 1998 and that is not likely to change this season. But the Huskers could be an NIT team if they can muster, say, eight wins the rest of the way.

Michigan (8-4)

* Human Poll Rankings: Unranked.

* Computer Poll Rankings: 78th in RPI, 15th in Sagarin.

* Strength-Of-Schedule Ranking: 83rd in RPI, 102nd in Sagarin.

* Top-100 RPI Wins (2): Florida State (22), Stanford (59).

* Losses (4): Iowa State (5), Arizona (11), Duke (31), Charlotte (99).

* Top Scorers: G Nik Stauskas (18.2 ppg, 3.7 rpg), F Glenn Robinson III (14.2 ppg, 5.0 rpg), G Caris LeVert (13.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg), C Mitch McGary (9.5 ppg, 8.3 rpg), G Derrick Walton (7.7 ppg), G Zak Irvin (7.6 ppg).

* Steve Says: The Wolverines lost stars Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. early to the NBA after their run to the national title game last year. McGary opted to come back, but is not out indefinitely – possibly for the rest of the year – after undergoing back surgery. But coach John Beilein has a veteran big man in Jordan Morgan to bridge that gap.

Three of UM’s losses have been by a combined 11 points. They are battle-tested with defeats at unbeaten Iowa State (77-70), at Duke (79-69) and at home to No. 1 Arizona (72-70).

Stauskas and LeVert have stepped up their production, which was definitely needed. Robinson, however, has found it a little tougher at times in his sophomore year.

Beilein has a reputation as a strong program builder and game coach. If he can get this team to The Big Dance without McGary, this may be his best coaching job yet … and that would be saying something.

Northwestern (7-6)

* Human Poll Rankings: Unranked

* Computer Poll Rankings: 174th in RPI, 130th in Sagarin.

* Strength-Of-Schedule Rankings: 157th in RPI, 269th in Sagarin.

* Top-100 RPI Wins (0): None.

* Losses (6): Missouri (17), Stanford (59), UCLA (67), N.C. State (86), DePaul (106), Illinois State (138).

* Top Scorers: G Drew Crawford (16.4 ppg, 7.8 rpg), G JerShon Cobb (12.6 ppg, 4.3 rpg), G Tre Demps (11.0 ppg), C Alex Olah (8.0 ppg, 5.3 rpg), G Dave Sobolewski (7.8 ppg).

* Steve Says: Chris Collins, a longtime Duke assistant, is getting a chance to prove himself as a head coach. He has inherited a hodge-podge roster, led by Crawford (out most of last year with injury) and Cobb (suspended all last year by former coach Bill Carmody).

The Wildcats have played as many major conference teams as anybody in the Big Ten and have the lumps to prove it. They allowed DePaul to come into Welsh-Ryan Arena last week and pull out a 57-56 win on a buzzer beater. That’s a tough pill for a team desperate for any kind of positive break.

Still, Northwestern is a grind-it-out team that will be competitive at home and hopeful on the road.

Summing Up

This is how I see the final order of finish:

Michigan State – MSU’s big four is simply better than anybody else’s in this league.

Ohio State – OSU’s defense keeps the Buckeyes in every game. Can they withstand scoring droughts?

Wisconsin – The Badgers are off to an amazing start. How long can they keep it going?

Iowa – The Hawkeyes’ NCAA drought is coming to an end.

Minnesota – The Gophers could be a factor for their new coach Pitino.

Michigan – The McGary injury is a killer, but don’t give up hope just yet.

Indiana – Hoosiers fans should enjoy watching this young team grow up.

Purdue – The Boilers have the veteran backcourt and big man to make a run.

Illinois – The Illini are probably a year away, but will be tough at home.

Nebraska – The new building means so much in building a program.

Penn State – Can Chambers get help for Newbill and Frazier?

Northwestern – Collins is finding out firsthand how hard this fixer-upper project will be.

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