College Basketball Nation: Northwestern Wildcats


For the third time since the ACC/Big Ten Challenge began in 1999, more teams have been added to the mix. The battle for conference supremacy started with just nine games deciding the outcome back when that was the extent of ACC membership.

The league has ballooned to 15 teams and now that the Big Ten expanded too, a slate of 14 games over three consecutive nights from Dec. 1-3 will determine bragging rights.

The ACC was 6-0 when just nine teams played in the Challenge. It was 4-2 after ACC expansion and 11 teams played. Since going to 12 teams the Big Ten won once and the Challenge has ended in consecutive ties.

The ACC still holds an advantage winning 10 of the 15 meetings overall, but it has not won the Challenge since 2008.

Louisville (ACC) and Rutgers (Big Ten) will make their respective debuts in the Challenge this season. Clemson, Wake Forest and Virginia Tech did not participate last season for the ACC. Boston College will sit this one out this season.

As Maryland changes allegiances from ACC charter member to Big Ten expansion team, it becomes the Big Ten team with the most wins. The Terrapins have participated in every challenge and has a 10-5 record, and trails only Duke (13) for most Challenge wins. Five Big Ten teams (Illinois, Minnesota, Ohio State, Purdue, Wisconsin) are tied with seven wins in the series.

From top to bottom, here are the best matchups of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge:

1. Duke at Wisconsin: It just might be an early Final Four preview. On paper, both have the rosters that could be playing the final weekend of the season. The Badgers, led by center Frank Kaminsky, return most of the rotation that got Bo Ryan to his first Final Four during his Wisconsin tenure. Duke restocks with the No. 1 recruiting class led by center Jahlil Okafor and guard Tyus Jones. The Blue Devils were 0-4 versus top 10 teams away from home last season in a year that ended with a NCAA second round flameout against Mercer. Wisconsin will be an early test to see if Duke will write a different narrative this season.

2. Iowa at North Carolina: Expect a high-scoring game because the Hawkeyes and Tar Heels both want to run early and often. Forward Jarrod Uthoff and center Gabriel Olaseni give Iowa a formidable frontcourt duo that will put up points in Fran McCaffery’s system despite their roster losses from last season. The Hawkeyes have never won on the road (0-5) in the Challenge. UNC will be a much more athletic team than it was last season with the addition of freshmen Joel Berry, Theo Pinson and Justin Jackson. The game could offer a small bit of redemption back home for guard Marcus Paige, who is a Marion, Iowa, native, after the Heels were bounced by Iowa State in the NCAA tournament.

3. Ohio State at Louisville: The last time Thad Matta squared off against Rick Pitino, Xavier upset the Cardinals in the 2004 NCAA tournament en route to the Elite Eight. It was the run that helped Matta land the Buckeyes job. Matta will learn what he’s working with in an early road test for a young, but talented team. The game will also serve as a homecoming for Ohio State freshman guard D’Angelo Russell, a Louisville native, who had an offer from Louisville. Ironically, next season, the Cards will rely heavily on sophomore guard Terry Rozier, a Cleveland native, who is expected to have a breakout year with the departure of Russ Smith. Montrezl Harrell’s decision to return to school was like a recruiting coup for the Cards.

4. Virginia at Maryland: A new twist to an old rivalry. The two foes have literally played the past 100 years, and as ACC rivals the game had the exalted status of the final regular season game for the better part of the last four decades. It could easily be the most intense game of the Challenge since both teams know each other so well. The backcourt battle pitting Virginia’s London Perrantes and Malcolm Brogdon against Maryland’s Seth Allen and Dez Wells could determine the outcome.

5. Michigan State at Notre Dame: From 1908 to 1979 the Spartans and Irish had a healthy basketball rivalry, meeting 94 times. It’s the first meeting between the schools since MSU beat the Irish in the Elite Eight en route to its 1979 national championship. The Spartans bring back Branden Dawson, who considered turning pro. The Irish welcome back Jerian Grant, who withdrew from school at the start of conference play due to an “academic matter.”

6. Syracuse at Michigan: Think of how great this game would have been with guard Tyler Ennis and forward Jerami Grant still suiting up for the Orange and guard Nik Stauskas, forward Glenn Robinson III and center Mitch McGary playing for the Wolverines. Instead, they form an all-star lineup of NBA early entries. In a rematch of the 2013 Final Four game, only a combined five players (Syracuse: Rakeem Christmas, Trevor Cooney; Michigan: Spike Albrecht, Caris LeVert) remain who played in the game.

7. Nebraska at Florida State: If the Cornhuskers plan on improving on last season's NCAA appearance, they have to learn to win games like this. The Huskers were just 3-8 last season on the road and Tallahassee can be a tough place to play. The Seminoles missed the NCAA tournament last season due to several close nonconference losses, a trend they’ll need to reverse this season.

8. Pittsburgh at Indiana: The Panthers haven’t played the Hoosiers in Bloomington since 1941 and Pitt's experienced guards Cameron Wright and James Robinson won’t be intimidated by Assembly Hall. Noah Vonleh’s decision to turn pro possibly set IU back in its bid to rejoin the nation’s elite. But guard Yogi Ferrell and newcomer James Blackmon Jr. means the Hoosiers' cupboard isn’t bare.

9. Illinois at Miami: The Illini could be a darkhorse in league and an early road win could prove it. Guard Rayvonte Rice will be even harder to stop if he can improve his 3-point shooting from 29.5 percent last season. The Canes return just three players from last season, who accounted for just 15 percent of their scoring. Transfers Angel Rodriguez (Kansas State) and Sheldon McClellan (Texas) should make immediate impact for Miami.

10. Minnesota at Wake Forest: Guards Deandre Mathieu and Andre Hollins give Minnesota backcourt stability. The Deacons counter with their top duo of leading scorer Codi Miller-McIntyre and leading rebounder Devin Thomas, who should help Danny Manning make a smooth transition in his first season as coach.

11. Rutgers at Clemson: The Mack and Jack show is back for Rutgers. Myles Mack and Kadeem Jack were the top two scorers from last season and a formidable duo. Clemson returned everyone of impact except leading scorer and rebounder K.J. McDaniels. Guard Rod Hall will likely expand his scoring role after leading the Tigers in assists.

12. NC State at Purdue: The Boilermakers are the hottest team in the Challenge with five straight wins. Junior 7-footer A.J. Hammons gives Purdue a solid centerpiece to build around. NCSU has the monumental task of replacing 2014 ACC Player of the Year T.J. Warren. The Wolfpack's fortunes could rest with talented, yet erratic, point guard Anthony Barber.

13. Georgia Tech at Northwestern: Both teams hope to get a boost from guards lost to injury last season. Tech’s Travis Jorgenson played in just four games before tearing his ACL. Northwestern’s oft-injured guard JerShon Cobb, its leading scorer returning, missed the last five games with a foot injury. The Yellow Jackets have only won once on the road in the Challenge.

14. Virginia Tech at Penn State: The Nittany Lions return most of their rotation that lost eight games by five or fewer points. Senior guard D.J. Newbill, who led the team in scoring, is now the unequivocal leader with Tim Frazier gone. Buzz Williams begins Hokies rebuilding project with a good starting point -- guard Devin Wilson was on both the coaches and media all-ACC freshmen teams and ranked third in the league in assists.

Look back, look ahead: Big Ten

April, 21, 2014
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The Big Ten competed with the Big 12 for the mythical "best conference" title throughout the season. It came close to making a historic statement to settle the matter with three teams positioned to reach the Final Four. That would have placed the league beside the 1985 Big East (St. John’s, Georgetown, Villanova) as just the second league to have three of four teams playing on the last weekend. Wisconsin gave the league a Final Four presence for the fifth time in the past six seasons, but Michigan's and Michigan State’s losses in the Elite Eight kept this from being a crowning achievement for the league.

There was no denying the Big Ten had its share of great teams, with Michigan, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Iowa and Ohio State all ranking in the top 10 at some point in 2013-14. But the league finished yet another season without having the best team in the nation. The Big Ten’s national championship drought added another year of distance since its last glory year, when the Spartans cut down the nets in 2000.

As an indication of the conference's depth, Minnesota brought home the NIT championship.

What we saw this season:
[+] EnlargeFrank Kaminsky
Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY SportsAfter an impressive run to the Final Four this past season, Frank Kaminsky's Badgers may be the team to beat in the Big Ten in 2014-15.
It was defined more than ever by resiliency.

Michigan seemingly reinvented itself during the course of the season. Mitch McGary was expected to play a big role for the Wolverines, but he was hampered by a back injury that eventually sidelined him for the last half of the season. Nik Stauskas helped shoot them out of disappointment as they captured the league’s regular-season title.

Wisconsin abandoned the methodical style that had come to define it during Bo Ryan’s tenure, and became a team with enough offensive weapons to outscore its opponents. Despite losing five of six during a stretch in conference play, the Badgers bounced back to reach their first Final Four since 2000 and the first under Ryan.

Michigan State was arguably the best team in the nation before injuries sabotaged its national title hopes. The Spartans battled through those injuries and were again a popular pick as a No. 4 seed to win it all when the NCAA tournament began. They were eliminated by eventual national champion UConn in the Elite Eight. It marked the first time a group of seniors who stayed four years under coach Tom Izzo did not appear in a Final Four.

And what team proved to be more resilient than Nebraska? The Cornhuskers, picked to finish 12th in the conference’s preseason media poll, started conference play 1-5. Coach Tim Miles held his team together and guided it to an 11-4 record -- with wins over Wisconsin, Michigan State and Ohio State -- to close out the season. The Cornhuskers finished fourth in the league standings and earned their first NCAA tournament berth since 1997-98.

Iowa and Ohio State went from hot to not and fizzled down the stretch. The Hawkeyes had problems stopping opponents, and the Buckeyes had trouble scoring. Ultimately both fizzled out of the NCAA tournament without winning a game.

Minnesota’s Richard Pitino and Northwestern’s Chris Collins, a pair of first-year coaches, gave a possible glimpse of what is to come. Pitino rejuvenated the Gophers in leading them to the NIT championship. Collins led the Wildcats to a pair of upsets over ranked teams in Wisconsin and Illinois.

What we expect to see next season:
The Big Ten title could be Wisconsin’s to claim. The Badgers again have a chance to be a special team, returning all of their key players except guard Ben Brust. Center Frank Kaminsky will be a household name in college basketball circles thanks to his NCAA tournament performance. Rising sophomore forward Nigel Hayes is poised for a breakout season in what should be an expanded role.

Wisconsin will hang with the nation’s elites next season, but not many others in the Big Ten will be considered very highly -- at least, that will be the case early on.

Michigan State and Michigan both took big hits with departing players. The Wolverines lost both Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III to the NBA draft. McGary still has until April 27 to decide if he’ll join them in turning pro. If he leaves, the Wolverines won’t have any starters from their 2012-2013 team that played in the national title game. They won’t be devoid of talent, with Caris Levert and ever-improving Derrick Walton Jr., returning, but they will be rebuilding.

The Spartans will face a similar retooling after Gary Harris announced he would forgo his final two seasons and enter the draft. Branden Dawson could have made it a devastating loss, but he will be back for his senior season. And Izzo will be welcoming new talent, such as point guard Lourawls Nairn.

Iowa and Minnesota are positioned to make a move into the league’s upper echelon, as both are expected to return key rotation players. Illinois brings back one of the league’s best scorers in Rayvonte Rice. Nebraska will be out to prove this past season was no fluke. The Huskers return Terran Petteway, who led the Big Ten in scoring with 18.1 points per game.

Indiana returns arguably the league’s best point guard in Yogi Ferrell and will add a couple of big scorers to its mix, led by James Blackmon Jr.

There will be plenty of new names to usher in next season across the Big Ten. Ohio State welcomes a recruiting class -- led by guard D'Angelo Russell -- ranked fifth by ESPN.com Recruiting Nation that could thrust it back into the Top 25.

It will be a bit of an adjustment seeing Maryland and Rutgers count as Big Ten conference games next season, as both teams will be making their league debut.

Afternoon Links: Pay your dues

January, 28, 2014
Jan 28
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What we’re reading. Submit links via Twitter.

  • The idea of a college players’ union is a fantastic idea in theory for a whole host of obvious reasons. But it starts to break down in practice, though, as the petition filed on behalf of Northwestern football players Monday -- broken by ESPN’s Outside the Lines -- demonstrates. Passages like “only Division I FBS football players and men's basketball players the athletes at the center of the commercial enterprise will be eligible to join CAPA” and “any decision in favor of the players against Northwestern would apply to all private universities across the country in the FBS [but would not] apply to public universities, which are governed by state laws” kind of tell you all you need to know. It’s a mess. But hey: If it starts the conversation in earnest, that’s a net positive for those involved.
  • “It seems like the system really isn't teaching players anything, if you go to college,” Kobe Bryant said. “If you go to college, you play, you showcase, and you come to the pros.” With that, defenders of college basketball quickly tossed their capes on and flew in to rescue the sport, via Twitter, from that criticism, which wasn't surprising. In fairness, though, it also wasn't unwarranted because the idea that college coaches aren't "teaching players anything" is obviously silly, and Bryant is smart enough to know that, I'm certain. So why did Bryant say what he said? My guess is he simply misspoke while making a larger point. And the larger point he made was spot-on and worth examining. -- CBS’s Gary Parrish goes on to do just that. And he’s right.
  • USC has a DJ now? True story: “DJ Mal Ski plays music and interacts with fans during timeouts at all [USC] men's games and select women's games and [associate athletic director Craig] Kelley believes he has helped the Trojans win games. He said an assistant coach for Cal told a member of his staff last week that he believed DJ Mal Ski got in the heads of some of his players during Enfield's first Pac-12 Conference victory.”
  • Did you know Wake Forest hasn’t lost a home game this season? I did not, but Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim is making sure his team -- which plays at Wake Wednesday night -- is well aware.
  • To win the Big Ten, Iowa coach Fran McCaffery says, “you’ve got to go through Michigan State.” The Hawkeyes have an excellent chance to do so in Iowa City tonight.

3-point shot: Northwestern finds identity

January, 24, 2014
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Andy Katz discusses a frontcourt depth problem for Michigan State, Northwestern finding an identity during conference play, and Georgia being the surprise team of the SEC.
What we're reading as we craft our own Megacast Film Room pitch. Submit links via Twitter.
  • Kentucky coach John Calipari is nothing if not entertaining. This week, on his weekly radio show, Calipari criticized the media’s reaction (or lack thereof) to UK’s victory over Louisville. He also took a subliminal shot at Indiana fans. The result was Calipari’s hilarious rhetorical duality on full display: Woebegone victim one minute, chest-thumping factionalist the next.
“If we won a game against the No. 1 team in the country in Rupp Arena, would people charge the court? No. You're supposed to [win]. You're Kentucky. We don't do that here.”

“That Louisville game we had 100 writers. Hundred media. Seven wrote stories. Ninety-three had the other story written. 'They're gonna lose. You can't do it. Cal doesn't care about Kentucky or basketball, college, he's just trying to get guys to the NBA. This is bad for [college basketball].’ But we won, and we won big with a young team. And Julius [Randle] didn't play the second half! So they couldn't write the story. So seven were written."
  • Of course, the big story Tuesday afternoon was far more serious than any slinging of taunts: UTEP dismissed three players for gambling on athletic events, though the school claimed there was no evidence of point-shaving or betting on Miners games following an FBI investigation. Leading scorer McKenzie Moore and reserves Jalen Ragland and Justin Crosgile received automatic one-year suspensions and will also lose a year of eligibility.
  • In case you missed it, Grinnell’s Patrick Maher broke the NCAA record with 37 assists in a game Monday night. Jack Taylor didn’t play. Your joke goes here.
  • Wisconsin survived last season despite the early loss of senior guard Josh Gasser; it is thriving with him.
  • The Chicago Bulls’ trade of Luol Deng for the ghost of Andrew Bynum’s contract (or: cap relief and picks!) didn’t just make your humble author’s morning. (We’ll always love ya, Lu. But it was time.) It also caused Northwestern center Chier Ajou, Deng’s cousin, to transfer.
What we're reading as we shake off the last remnants of New Year’s Eve. Submit links via Twitter.
  • Michigan State basketball ops man Kevin Pauga was back late last week with another look at the monthly trends in scoring in college basketball. November was a boon month for the NCAA’s attempts to increase scoring. But December marked a drastic decline in both points and, not accidentally, fouls called: “The increase in scoring was 43.4% lower in December than November when compared to full season data from 2012-13. In the numbers world, that’s a lot. That’s actually a real lot. … The bottom line is fewer fouls are being called. The increase in fouls from last year was 53.4% lower in December than it was in November. The explanations is likely as simple as players, coaches and officials have adjusted to the new rules. Teams are either fouling less or officials are passing on more calls.”
  • SI.com’s Seth Davis brings back his annual “stock report,” which is both informative and gives me a mental image of Seth slamming on a big red “buy buy buy!” button as a bull roars in the background. Try to put a value on that.
  • Michigan’s win over Northwestern on Sunday can’t really be boiled down to a handful of plays. Actually, that’s true of every game. In this instance, it’s true because the Wolverines beat the tar out of Chris Collins’ rebuilding project. Still, UMHoops’ breakdown of five big plays against the Wildcats is good insight on the kind of possessions Michigan would like to get all the time.
  • Is Wake Forest’s victory over UNC a stepping stone? Or an aberration? Rush the Court discusses.
  • Even after losses to Houston and SMU, UConn is still getting Top 25 votes. Gary Parrish Poll-Attacks the culpable parties.

What we're reading as we shake off the last remnants of New Year’s Eve. Submit links via Twitter.

  • Losing isn’t easy, and first-year Northwestern coach Chris Collins is losing for the first time in a really long time, SI.com’s Brian Hamilton writes: “On Thursday night, Northwestern coach Chris Collins’ first Big Ten season begins. It is a piano dropped on Northwestern’s head. First, No. 4 Wisconsin. Then road trips to Michigan and Iowa. Then Illinois and Michigan State at home. Then a trip to Indiana. In this league, maybe there is no safe corner to scurry to anyway. But knowing this is all about tomorrow won’t dull the aches of today. And, actually, it can’t. ‘It’s funny, the people that are closest to me, they reach out to me because they know how competitive I am,’ Collins said. ‘So they do know. I can’t lose that competitive spirit. So I’m never going to get to a point where I’m numb to losing. When you get to that point, it carries over to your players. And then you’re in a lot of trouble. Losing is never going to be OK. Now, I can be proud of the effort. What I tell the guys is, I’ll live with the results, but it doesn’t mean I’m going to be OK with it. If you fight and do what we want you to do and you’re all-in, I’ll live with whatever happens, win or lose. But I can’t lose that competitive spirit. If I do, I lose a lot of myself.’”
  • Creighton fans kept singing Sweet Caroline a cappella, and then Marquette turned the ball over. Coincidence? Probably! But still. (And by the way: Creighton shot a TON of 3s in that game. It worked.)
  • Were you looking for a granular, intensive analysis of Kentucky’s pick-and-roll defense against Louisville? You were? Great! Rush the Court is one step ahead of you.
  • “It's only appropriate that Penn State used a volatile loss to say hello to a month that was named after a two-faced god.” Credit to Big Ten Powerhouse’s Aaron Yorke for the excellent sentence, not to mention a solid recap of Penn State’s promising-then-not-so-much defeat to Michigan State Wednesday.
  • Former Louisville forward Chane Behanan is going to seek guidance from rehab guru John Lucas, he announced Thursday. That all but confirms rumors that substance abuse was a major factor in his dismissal early week. “I’m hoping to go down there, take care of myself and then hopefully get another opportunity wherever it may be," Behanan said. "I haven't decided what I'm going to do yet. First I'm going to go get help."

Big Ten team previews

October, 22, 2013
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From Sept. 30 through Oct. 25, Insider will be rolling out its college basketball preview, including breakdowns on every Division I team, projected order of finish for every conference and essays from Insider’s hoops experts.

Here are previews for each team in the Big Ten:

Illinois Fighting Illini Insider
Indiana Hoosiers Insider
Iowa Hawkeyes Insider
Michigan Wolverines Insider
Michigan State Spartans Insider
Minnesota Golden Gophers Insider
Nebraska Cornhuskers Insider
Northwestern Wildcats Insider
Ohio State Buckeyes Insider
Penn State Nittany Lions Insider
Purdue Boilermakers (free)
Wisconsin Badgers Insider

Collins builds buzz around NU hoops

August, 27, 2013
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The first NCAA tournament was held on Northwestern's campus in 1939. It is the closest the Wildcats have ever been to it.

Bill Carmody managed a few close calls during his 12-year tenure, but he was fired after the 2012-13 season. In comes Chris Collins, a Chicagoland native with a Duke pedigree.

He would seem to be an excellent fit. Collins played for Mike Krzyzewski and coached alongside him. He understands academic rigors. He has seen how to win at the highest level. He has maintained recruiting ties in fertile areas of Illinois.

But this is Northwestern. If Collins is looking for a challenge, he has found it. Read what ESPN.com's Eamonn Brennan has to say about the new coach and his chances here.

 
CHICAGO - Here's a quick look at Iowa's 73-59 Big Ten tournament win over Northwestern at the United Center on Thursday night.

How it happened: The undermanned, 11th-seeded Wildcats didn't have a chance. Northwestern went scoreless for the first 7 1/2 minutes, going down 11-0, and never got closer than within six points after that. Northwestern shot 32 percent from the field in the first half and 36.7 percent for the game. The Wildcats kept it interesting in the second half, trimming the deficit to single digits several times, but couldn't save their season. Iowa (21-11), the sixth seed, plays No. 3 seed Michigan State on Friday.

Player of the game: Reggie Hearn, a former walk-on, scored 19 points and added 10 rebounds and 3 blocks for the Wildcats.

What it means: Northwestern coach Bill Carmody might be fired after 13 seasons, none of which resulted in an NCAA tournament berth, and the school would immediately look for his replacement. This team was promising before JerShon Cobb was suspended in September and Drew Crawford under shoulder surgery in December. The Wildcats finished 13-19 with a 4-14 record in the Big Ten regular season, their first losing season since 2007-08.

What's next: Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips likely fires Carmody and begins a "national search" for his replacement. Whether that hire works out is anybody's guess.

Ten thoughts from the road on the Big Ten

February, 12, 2013
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For the first three months of the season, I admired the Big Ten from afar.

Michigan’s Trey Burke was impressive on television. The environment at Indiana’s Assembly Hall seemed spectacular. The battles between schools such as Ohio State, Michigan State and Illinois -- and, of course, the Wolverines and Hoosiers -- looked intense.

Embarrassed as I am to admit it, I don’t think I truly appreciated the Big Ten -- at least not as much as I should have.

Then came last week.

A three-game road trip through the heart of Big Ten country made me realize how special this conference is in 2012-13. The talent level is up, the fervor and emotion on the court and in the stands is unparalleled, and the parity is at an all-time high. Coaches every season say there are no easy games in conference play, but in this year’s Big Ten, it’s actually true.

In some ways I felt as if I was witnessing history as I watched games in Bloomington, Ann Arbor and East Lansing. As Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said, the Big Ten has never been this good. And it may never be again.

Here are a few other thoughts that stuck during last week’s roadie:

1. I can’t imagine someone from a non-Big Ten school winning the Wooden Award. Burke, the outstanding Michigan point guard, and Indiana’s Victor Oladipo are the leading candidates, and it’s probably going to take a mammoth February for someone such as Creighton’s Doug McDermott or Duke’s Mason Plumlee to catapult into the top spot.

[+] EnlargeTrey Burke and Victor Oladipo
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY Sports It's shaping up to be a two-horse race between Indiana's Victor Oladipo and Michigan's Trey Burke for the Wooden Award.
Burke is averaging 18.2 points and 7.1 assists per game, but it’s the command he has on the court and his play in big moments that impresses me the most. This is his team. I loved Burke’s resiliency during a back-and-forth battle with Ohio State point guard Aaron Craft. Moments after Craft stole the ball from Burke during the waning seconds of regulation, Burke sprinted down the court and stripped the ball from Craft just as he was attempting a layup that would have won the game. Then he came up with another big play when he blocked Craft’s midrange jumper with nine ticks remaining.

Oladipo might be the top perimeter defender in the country. It’s tough to truly appreciate his energy, effort and relentlessness until you see him in person. He never takes a play off, which is probably why he is averaging 5.8 rebounds, 2.3 steals and 2.5 assists to go along with his 14.3 points a game. The cherry on top of Oladipo’s statistic sundae is that he is shooting 64.5 percent from the field. I also love his temperament on the court. Never too high or too low.

2. The only problem with Burke’s great season is that it’s overshadowing an outstanding effort by Michigan’s Tim Hardaway Jr. The son of the former NBA guard is averaging 16 points on the season and 19.7 points in his past three games. “We couldn’t dial up plays for him fast enough,” Michigan coach John Beilein said after Hardaway Jr. scored 23 points against Ohio State. Hardaway Jr. has made 10 of his last 17 3-point attempts, including one that would have given Michigan a win in Saturday’s game at Wisconsin if not for Ben Brust’s desperation heave at the buzzer that forced overtime.

3. The best coaches are never satisfied no matter what their record is or the outcome of a game. I was reminded of this about a half hour after Michigan State’s 61-50 win over a solid Minnesota squad in East Lansing on Wednesday, when Tom Izzo spent most of his postgame news conference lamenting all that is wrong with the Spartans, who had just improved to 19-4.

Branden Dawson isn’t playing with energy, the team lacks chemistry, guys are banged up. On and on Izzo went.

“I’ve been 19-4 three or four times in my career,” Izzo said. “I don’t mean for it to sound as down as it is. This is no doubt the toughest the Big Ten has ever been.

“Tonight was a big win for us, and I’m going to take it as a big win. But I’m not going to be one for fool’s gold. They’ve got to get better, and they will get better.”

That, folks, is why Izzo is a perennial Final Four contender and a future Hall of Famer.

4. If you forced me to choose, I would pick Indiana as the Big Ten’s top team right now. But the one weakness the Hoosiers have is their bench. Yes, I realize it’s not a huge weakness. If it were, Indiana wouldn’t be 21-3 overall and 9-2 in conference play. Still, Indiana needs to get more production from its reserves, who averaged just 6.5 points in victories over Michigan and Ohio State. Will Sheehey scored 13 points off the bench in Thursday’s loss at Illinois.

5. I was surprised Ohio State didn’t put up a better fight in Sunday’s 81-68 home loss to Indiana. After watching the Buckeyes against Michigan five days earlier, I was convinced Thad Matta’s squad had what it took to win the league title. The chances of that happening now appear slim -- Ohio State is two games out of first place -- but that doesn’t mean this team can’t make a significant run in the NCAA tournament.

The Buckeyes have improved as much as any team in the league since the start of conference play. The biggest question around that time was whether Ohio State had much beyond veteran point guard Craft and scoring machine Deshaun Thomas.

Against Michigan, I watched LaQuinton Ross go off for 16 points before Lenzelle Smith Jr. hit a huge basket in the waning seconds of regulation that helped force overtime. Amir Williams and Sam Thompson combined for 16 points and six blocks while shooting a combined 6-for-7 from the field.

This is hardly a two-man team.

6. I’m not sure any conference rivals the Big Ten when it comes to home-court environments. I’ve been to nine of the 12 venues. Michigan’s is the fanciest (though Nebraska may have something to say about that a year from now), Indiana’s is the loudest and most intimidating (at least recently), and Purdue’s is the most underrated. I attended a rather "blah" game at Michigan State’s Breslin Center, so I may not have gotten a true feel for how rowdy things get there. I've never been to Iowa, Penn State or Illinois.

[+] EnlargeTubby Smith
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhTubby Smith could be on the hot seat after his Golden Gophers have dropped six of their past eight.
7. Is Tubby Smith in trouble? The thought of Smith losing his job would have been tough to fathom a month ago when the Gophers were 15-1 and potential contenders for the league title. Minnesota, though, has lost six of its past eight games and is in danger of finishing conference play with a sub-.500 record. Minnesota has made just two NCAA tournaments in Smith’s five seasons, and the Gophers lost in the first round each time. A third straight first-round loss -- or missing the NCAA tournament altogether, which seems unlikely -- may lead Minnesota to make a change.

8. Nebraska is just 3-8 in the league and 12-12 overall, but it’s hard not to be impressed with the job first-year coach Tim Miles is doing in Lincoln. Miles took over a bad program that finished 12-18 a year ago and lost five of its top six scorers. He basically had nothing to work with, or so it seemed. Nebraska has lost by single digits to Ohio State and Wisconsin and was still in the game against Michigan and Michigan State with less than five minutes remaining. Nebraska’s new basketball arena will be among the country’s best when it opens next season. If Miles can sign a few good players, the Cornhuskers could be an upper-half Big Ten team within three years. Their fans will definitely fill the arena.

9. Purdue is 12-12 overall and 5-6 in conference play, but the Boilermakers won’t be down for long. When you lose players such as Robbie Hummel, E’Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson during a two-year stretch, you’ll almost always take a step back. Matt Painter is one of the top X’s and O’s coaches in the game, especially when it comes to defense, and Mackey Arena is a tough environment for any opponent. Look for the Boilermakers to be back in the Big Ten title hunt within a year or two.

10. I’m not sure fans in most Big Ten cities realize how good they have it when it comes to newspapers. I couldn’t have been more impressed with the space publications such as the Indianapolis Star and Detroit Free Press devoted to their coverage of Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State and the Big Ten in general. Multiple well-written stories before and after each game, insightful columns and quick-hit notebooks. They didn’t miss a thing. The first thing I did each morning was trudge down to the hotel lobby to purchase a paper, and that hasn’t happened in a while.

Mid-Major Report: Power Rankings

December, 13, 2012
12/13/12
9:45
AM ET
Here are ESPN.com’s latest mid-major power rankings, as voted upon by our national panel. I also vote in this poll, which does not include any teams from the Atlantic 10, Conference USA or Mountain West.

Another quick look at the panel:

Rob Demovsky (@RobDemovsky) covers Horizon League basketball for the Green Bay Press-Gazette.

Richard Kilwien (@smcgaels) is the associate athletic director for external affairs at Saint Mary's College.

Leslie Wilhite (@Leslie_Wilhite, @MT_MBB) is in her second season as an assistant director of athletic communications at Middle Tennessee State University.

Dusty Luthy Shull (@DustyLuthyShull) covers Murray State athletics for The Paducah (Ky.) Sun.

John Templon (@nybuckets) writes about New York City and East Coast mid-major college basketball for his website, nycbuckets.com.

Thomas Chen (@thomasmchen) is in his third year as director of athletic communications at Stony Brook University.

Terry Vandrovec (@terryvandrovec) covers South Dakota State basketball for the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, S.D.

Mid-Major Power Rankings No. 2
  1. Gonzaga (9-1): The Zags hold onto the No. 1 spot despite their home loss against Illinois.
  2. Creighton (9-1): The Bluejays crushed Akron, 77-61, Sunday for their third win in a row.
  3. Wichita State (9-0): The undefeated Shockers are ranked 29th in defensive efficiency.
  4. Belmont (6-2): Tough stretch for the Bruins, who face MTSU and Kansas this week.
  5. Murray State (9-1): Ed Daniel and Isaiah Canaan have led the Racers to four consecutive wins.
  6. Bucknell (8-1): Mike Muscala. Google him.
  7. Middle Tennessee State (7-2): The Blue Raiders beat Ole Miss, 65-62, on Saturday.
  8. Lehigh (8-2): The Mountain Hawks haven’t lost since Nov. 13 (78-53 at Pitt).
  9. Saint Mary’s (7-2): Like most years, the Gaels won’t really be tested again until WCC play begins.
  10. Illinois St. (6-3): The Redbirds’ three losses have come against teams in Ken Pomeroy’s top 100.
  11. Ohio (7-2): The Bobcats have won just one of three games in December.
  12. Illinois-Chicago (8-1): Seven-game winning streak includes wins against Northwestern and Colorado St.
  13. Northern Iowa (6-3): A win against Iowa on Saturday would be Panthers’ fourth in a row.
  14. BYU (6-3): The Cougars are coming off a 61-58 win against Utah on Saturday.
  15. North Dakota State (8-3): The Bison (62nd in defensive efficiency) are a top contender in the Summit.
Team of the Week: Middle Tennessee earns the nod this week after knocking off Ole Miss on Saturday, 65-62. The Rebels were just 5-for-21 from beyond the arc.

Player of the Week: Murray State’s Ed Daniel has entered Beast Mode. The senior recorded 21 points, 15 rebounds, a steal and three blocks in the Racers’ 82-70 road win against Evansville on Saturday.

Notes
  • Dan Monson’s Long Beach State squad always plays one of the toughest nonconference schedules in the country. But that tough slate and the loss of last season’s core, including Casper Ware, has led to a rocky start for the 3-6 49ers, who will face UCLA Dec. 18.
  • Stephen F. Austin’s start proves that the RPI can be a deceptive measuring stick for a team’s performance. Per RPI, the 9-1 Lumberjacks are fifth and 16th in nonconference strength of schedule. But they’re ranked 117th in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings, largely due to their poor offensive efficiency (232).
  • Paging the WCC? The league’s nonconference season has been lukewarm thus far. And I thought that before Gonzaga lost to Illinois over the weekend.
  • Where’s the national hype for Howard Moore? The Illinois-Chicago head coach has led the Flames to an 8-1 start. And they’ve already defeated Northwestern and Colorado State. They look like the favorites to win the Horizon League.
Now that we’ve covered the week that was, here’s my take on the top games this weekend involving mid-major teams …

Mid-Major Report: Power Rankings

December, 6, 2012
12/06/12
10:00
AM ET
For the second year in a row, I’ll be covering the mid-major scene for ESPN.com. But unlike last year, we’ve switched up the format.

One of the major changes is a new top-15 poll that will be compiled by a panel of folks (writers, SIDs) who are plugged into the mid-major scene. They’ll join me in ranking the best of the mid-major circuit -- which does not include the Mountain West, the Atlantic 10 or Conference USA -- each week.

So without further ado, here’s the panel for ESPN.com’s Mid-Major Power Rankings for the 2012-13 season:

Rob Demovsky (@RobDemovsky) has worked at the Green Bay Press-Gazette since 1997. He covers the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and the Horizon League.

Richard Kilwien (@smcgaels) is the associate athletic director for external affairs at Saint Mary's College. He has worked in college athletics for the past 25 years, and has been involved with the West Coast Conference since 2000.

Leslie Wilhite (@Leslie_Wilhite, @MT_MBB) is in her second season as an Assistant Director of Athletic Communications at Middle Tennessee State University, serving as the primary contact for men's basketball, baseball and women's golf. Wilhite, a 2006 graduate of the University of Kentucky, has also worked in media relations with Alabama-Birmingham, the University of Illinois and the Houston Astros.

Dusty Luthy Shull (@DustyLuthyShull) is a sports writer for The Paducah (Ky.) Sun and is in the middle of her sixth season covering Murray State athletics. Luthy Shull is a graduate of the University of the Missouri School of Journalism.

John Templon (@nybuckets) writes about New York City and East Coast mid-major college basketball at Big Apple Buckets using a stats based, tempo-free slant.

Thomas Chen (@thomasmchen) is in his third year as Director of Athletic Communications at Stony Brook University. He has six years of experience serving as a primary media contact for mid-major men's college basketball teams.

Terry Vandrovec (@terryvandrovec) has been the South Dakota State beat writer for the Argus Leader newspaper in Sioux Falls, S.D., since 2006. Prior to that, he spent nine years at The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead in his home state of North Dakota.

Poll No. 1 (Dec. 6)
  1. Gonzaga (9-0) (7) -- Beat Washington State on Kevin Pangos' late layup Wednesday night. Now 9-0 for the first time in its D-I history.
  2. Creighton (7-1) -- Suffered first loss of the season last week against Boise State, but bounced back with an 80-51 wipeout of Saint Joseph's.
  3. Wichita State (8-0) (1) -- Has wins against VCU, Iowa and Air Force in what was supposed to be a rebuilding season.
  4. Bucknell (8-1) -- Behind a monster season from Mike Muscala, the Bison already have wins over Purdue, George Mason and Kent State.
  5. Belmont (6-2) -- Losers in two of its past four games, but owns impressive wins at Stanford and against Oral Roberts.
  6. Murray State (6-1) -- Isaiah Canaan is doing Isaiah Canaan things and the Racers' only blemish of the season is a neutral-site loss to Colorado.
  7. Lehigh (7-1) -- On a six-game winning streak behind All-American candidate C.J. McCollum.
  8. Ohio (6-2) -- Suffered an 84-58 loss at Memphis on Wednesday night, the Bobcats' second straight loss since a 6-0 start.
  9. Saint Mary’s (6-2) -- Winners of two in a row after a disappointing performance at the DIRECTV Classic in Anaheim.
  10. Middle Tennessee (6-2) -- Beat UAB by 20 points Wednesday night after a heartbreaking OT defeat at Akron.
  11. Illinois State (5-3) -- Lost to No. 5 Louisville by three Saturday, but then blew a huge lead against Wyoming at home.
  12. BYU (5-3) -- Winners in three of its past four games, but doesn't own a quality win yet.
  13. Davidson (4-4) -- Off to a surprisingly lukewarm start, including Wednesday's home loss to Charlotte.
  14. Akron (4-2) -- On a three-game winning streak and plays at Creighton Sunday.
  15. Illinois-Chicago (7-1) -- Beat Northwestern Saturday, plays Colorado State this weekend.
Player of the Week: Gonzaga’s Kelly Olynyk had 22 points, seven rebounds, two assists, one block and a steal in the Bulldogs’ 71-69 road win against Washington State on Wednesday night.

Team of the Week: Illinois-Chicago upset its crosstown foe, Northwestern, in Evanston, 50-44, Saturday. The Flames are on a six-game winning streak entering Saturday’s home matchup against Colorado State.

Notes
  • Ohio missed its best chance to boost its at-large resume when it suffered an 84-58 loss to Memphis on Wednesday night. The Bobcats gave up 84 points for the second consecutive game.
  • Portland’s Ryan Nicholas had a career night (15 points, 19 rebounds and six assists) in the Pilots’ 68-60 home loss against No. 21 UNLV.
  • Drexel’s 2-6 start is beyond surprising. The Dragons’ struggles began before senior guard Chris Fouch suffered a season-ending injury in the third game of the season. Their greatest challenges are on defense, where they’re slotted at No. 172 in defensive efficiency (they finished 61st in 2011-12).

Now that we've covered the week that was, here's my take on the top games this weekend involving mid-major teams ...

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