- Eamonn Brennan, College Basketball Reporter
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In the preseason, Illinois was supposed to be mediocre at best, and Minnesota was supposed to be above average, and the Big Ten was still considered the obvious choice for best conference in the country. Now the Illini are 11-0 and ascendant, Minnesota is 11-1, and the rest of the league looks just about as good as we expected. How fun is conference play going to be?
1. Indiana. Could the Hoosiers lose to Butler in an IU-dominated Bankers Life Fieldhouse Crossroads Classic game Saturday? Well, sure. It's possible. Butler is great at controlling tempo, taking away opponents' strengths and making the game uncomfortable for everyone involved, and coach Brad Stevens will have one or two things up his sleeve for the Hoosiers to deal with. A slow pace, a bad shooting afternoon, sloppy play, some unusually lights-out Butler offensive performance -- it could happen. Do I think it's going to? No. I do not.
This is sort of unrelated, but ... my roommate and I were watching a cut of the Indiana-North Carolina game Thursday night, and we couldn't help but notice that Yogi Ferrell's defensive slides are basically picture-perfect. Not only that, but they appear to be his only method of movement when on defense. He doesn't really turn and run, and his feet definitely don't get tangled up. He just slides and pushes, the way you're supposed to. Go ahead, watch. You'll see what I mean.
Anyway, that's your Indiana tidbit for the week. (Yes, my Thursday night was exactly as exciting as it sounds.)
2. Michigan. Since we last met, Michigan handled Arkansas (and Binghamton, but who cares) at home in totally predictable fashion -- the Razorbacks don't guard anybody, and that is a bad trait to have when you're playing in Ann Arbor. Michigan ranks in the top seven in the country in both effective field goal percentage (56.7) and turnover rate (15.7) and its defense, long John Beilein's programmatic weakness, is fouling at the lowest rate in the country. There's nothing to dislike here.
3. Illinois. The biggest question in college basketball the past week -- well, besides who gets to keep the kids in the Big East divorce, I guess -- is this: Is Illinois really real? Like, Kendrick Lamar-epiphanic, I'm "really really really real" real? I think so! They are probably not going to make 3s at this clip forever; the frequency and accuracy of Illinois' 3-point shooting is the most easily identifiable key to its success thus far, and that kind of reliance can wax and wane. But Brandon Paul, once an inefficient chucker, has totally bought in to John Groce. When he said so at Big Ten media day, even his enthusiastic tone couldn't sell me. I'd seen enough. But here he is, playing efficient basketball and carving defenses up on pick-and-roll sets and D.J. Richardson is playing well, and Tyler Griffey is shooting 43.6 percent from 3, and the whole thing really is clicking.
I don't think Illinois can sustain this all season. I don't think it's better than Ohio State now, and I think Ohio State will clearly be the better team by the end of the year. But I'm sorry, when you start 11-0, and you beat Gonzaga on the road, you're going to get serious power rankings love. Deservedly so.
4. Ohio State. The only downside of marking Illinois' ascendancy is knocking the Buckeyes down one spot, because they really don't deserve it -- after all, their only loss is an eminently winnable five-point defeat at Duke. The move says more about Illinois than OSU. The Buckeyes rank in the top five in adjusted efficiency in both offense and defense, per KenPom, and hugely talented but uneven sophomore LaQuinton Ross has shown really promising signs he could take a major leap this season. I'm in on the Buckeyes. But it may take a win over Kansas on Dec. 22 before the rest of the country really comes along for the ride.
5. Minnesota. Want to hear a fun statistic? Trevor Mbakwe is playing 18.2 minutes per game -- or 45.4 percent of available minutes -- thus far this season. And Minnesota still ranks No. 1 in the country in offensive rebounding percentage, which is Mbakwe's forte (his is the fifth-highest rate in the country), despite the fact that he's not even on the floor that much. Want to hear a weird statistic? The Gophers rank No. 1 in offensive rebounding rate and No. 283 in the country in defensive rebounding rate. That sort of disparity is … unusual. Anyway, it's working. Minnesota is 11-1, Tubby Smith's mustache looks fabulous and Rodney Williams is doing this from time to time. All is well in Minneapolis.
6. Michigan State. The Spartans aren't exactly blowing anyone out of the water this season. They've developed a reputation for just barely scraping by inferior teams, even at home (Boise State, Louisiana Lafayette), and Saturday's win over Loyola-Chicago — when the Spartans trailed at the half 32-30 — was yet another example. That said, Tom Izzo is still working through some of the kinks, including a one-center lineup that not only pushes Branden Dawson to the 4 (where he can be a wrecking ball) but should earn more time for arguably the best passing freshman I've seen all year, Denzel Valentine. We'll see if things start clicking soon. Texas is the only nonconference game of note remaining on the — actually, check that. Forget I said anything.
7. Wisconsin. The Badgers haven't had four losses this early in a season in at least a decade; in fact, they've never had more than two. What does that mean? It means they miss Jordan Taylor (graduated) and Josh Gasser (injured). It means that unlike in 2011, they aren't one of the most efficient offenses in the country and unlike 2012, they aren't one of its best defenses. Neither end of the floor particularly makes up for the other right now. The good news is all four losses came against likely tournament teams (including Marquette, last Saturday's rivalry "L"). The bad news is Wisconsin is going to enter conference play without a marquee win — and no, that Cal blowout doesn't count.
8. Iowa. The Hawkeyes jump above Northwestern once more, primarily thanks to a nice win last Friday at home against in-state rival Iowa State. The folks back home were pretty jacked about that game, and understandably so — both Iowa and Iowa State feel like they're at the start of new, fruitful eras, however stylistically different they may be. In any case, Fran McCaffery's team needed that win to prove it wasn't merely capable of feasting on the Texas A&M-Corpus Christis of the world. Losses to Wichita State (neutral) and Virginia Tech (away) only look better by the week. Am I allowed to jump back on the Iowa-is-the-Big-Ten's-sleeper bandwagon this quickly? Or is that bandwagon already too full of giddy Illinois fans? This stuff can get confusing.
9. Northwestern. All of a sudden, Northwestern's win at Baylor is looking less like a statement about the new and improved Wildcats than it does about Baylor. Despite that impressive win in Waco, NU has now lost three of its past four, including last Saturday's nine-point home loss to Butler. None of its losses is bad — Maryland looks good, Illinois-Chicago is vastly improved, and Butler is Butler — but they were all at home, which is in and of itself sort of weird. Stanford comes to Welsh-Ryan Arena on Dec. 21; I wonder if Northwestern wouldn't prefer to play that game in Palo Alto.
10. Purdue. If D.J. Byrd doesn't make shots, the Boilermakers are going to be dreadful. How do I know? In Purdue's last two losses (at home to Xavier; at, yes, Eastern Michigan), Byrd went 0-for-9 and 0-for-5 from beyond the arc, respectively. And yes, Purdue lost at Eastern Michigan this past Saturday 47-44. On Saturday, the Boilermakers get Notre Dame, and it could be a long day for them just about everywhere on the court, particularly on the interior. ND forward Jack Cooley is the best rebounder in the country.
11. Nebraska. With a new coach and new facilities springing up all around, Nebraska had the chance to really announce itself with an upset win over Creighton last Thursday. Didn't happen. It will come in time — everything about Cornhuskers basketball seems headed in the right direction, which is not something anyone has said, I don't know, ever — but this young team will take some lumps, Saturday at Oregon included.
12. Penn State. Last Saturday, Penn State held on to an eight-point home win over Army, and that was good to see, because it's impossible not to feel bad for this Nittany Lions team right now. The Tim Frazier injury was as devastating as any one injury could be to any one team; see last week's 82-57 loss at LaSalle if you don't believe me. This is a long-term project now.
In the preseason, Illinois was supposed to be mediocre at best, and Minnesota was supposed to be above average, and the Big Ten was still considered the obvious choice for best conference in the country.