Big Ten race for conference title wide open in a down season
LUKE MEREDITH, AP Sports Writer
The Big Ten might not be as good as it has been in recent years.
But it sure looks like the conference title chase will be interesting in 2016-17.
The conference didn’t have a team ranked in the top 10 in the most recent poll , with Wisconsin, Purdue and Indiana ranked Nos. 14, 15 and 16 respectively.
Teams like Michigan, Ohio State, Minnesota and Northwestern — yes, Northwestern — have a shot at pushing for a top-three finish, and Michigan State can’t be counted out no matter how banged up the Spartans are.
Maryland is 12-1, Illinois has bounced back after losing three in a row and Iowa has somewhat turned a corner after an ugly start.
The title picture is very muddled heading into league play, which starts on Tuesday.
Here are some keys to consider as the Big Ten gets set to kick off its 112th season.
Indiana (10-2) might have the conference’s most impressive win so far, knocking off No. 3 Kansas 103-99 in the season opener. But the Hoosiers were snapped back to reality with a 71-68 loss to IPFW just before Thanksgiving, and 13th-ranked Butler beat them by five last weekend on a neutral floor. Indiana has the Big Ten’s best offense and leads the league in rebounding margin though, and James Blackmon Jr., Robert Johnson and Thomas Bryant will be a handful for opposing defenses. Purdue’s only losses came against No. 1 Villanova and 10th-ranked Louisville — and big man Caleb Swanigan might be the Big Ten’s best overall player by early March.
Wisconsin (11-2) has only fallen to North Carolina and Creighton, and Bronson Koenig, Nigel Hayes and Ethan Happ make the Badgers dangerous on the perimeter and in the paint. But after opening Big Ten play by hosting Rutgers, Wisconsin has to travel to Indiana and Purdue before hosting Ohio State and Michigan. The Badgers can establish themselves as the front-runner by the middle of January — or fall behind in a hurry.
UP AND DOWN SPARTANS
Losing to Arizona, Kentucky, Baylor and Duke is understandable. But Northeastern at home ? That was puzzling for Michigan State (8-5), which has been ravaged by injuries, most notably the sprained ankle that forced talented freshman Miles Bridges to the bench. But Bridges will likely be back by early January, and coach Tom Izzo’s teams are famous for finding their stride in league play. The front end of the Spartans’ league schedule is also relatively easy, but they can’t be considered a title threat just yet.
THE MURKY MIDDLE
Michigan (9-3, plays Thursday) is holding opponents to just under 61 points per game, though that’s partly a result of its extremely slow tempo. Ohio State (9-3, plays Thursday) has six players averaging at least 10 points per game, and it nearly beat No. 12 Virginia on the road. Minnesota (11-1, plays Saturday) has been impressive defensively, but the Gophers have yet to beat anyone of note. Northwestern’s annual quest for its first-ever NCAA Tournament bid is off to a good start. The Wildcats’ only losses were to Butler and Notre Dame by just six combined points.
Maryland has some nice wins over Georgetown, Oklahoma State, Kansas State. But it’s still way too early to project the Terps as a serious threat. They’ll open with Illinois (10-3), which won six in a row heading into league play. … Iowa (8-5) is one of the youngest teams in the country and soon could re-emerge as a top-tier Big Ten team. It likely won’t be this year though. … Rutgers started 11-1 after going 7-25 in 2015-16. But expect the Scarlet Knights to struggle yet again in league play. … Penn State and Nebraska are proving yet again that they were invited to the Big Ten for football, not hoops. They opened the season a combined 14-11.
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