College Basketball Nation: Penn State Nittany Lions

BPI Talk: Duke is not a top-25 team

December, 17, 2013
12/17/13
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The Duke Blue Devils came into the season as a preseason Final Four contender, but after losses to Kansas and Arizona and a one-point win over Vermont, the Blue Devils are ranked No. 31 in BPI.

Duke's BPI game score in its six-point loss against Arizona (ranked No. 4 in BPI) was higher than two of its wins (vs East Carolina, vs Vermont). Other than its wins over No. 40 Michigan and No. 63 Alabama, Duke doesn't have any other wins over teams ranked in the top 180.

Duke has the best adjusted offensive efficiency according to KenPom.com, but its adjusted defensive efficiency ranks 101st.

Is Wisconsin the best team in college basketball?

The Wisconsin Badgers rank No. 1 in BPI after starting 12-0 with five wins over top-50 BPI teams -- St. John's, Florida, Saint Louis, West Virginia and Virginia. Their five wins against top-50 teams are the most by any team. Kansas and Davidson are the only other teams that have even faced five top-50 teams.

Wisconsin has the 11th-most difficult schedule according to BPI. Seven of their 12 wins are against top-100 opponents and none of them are against teams outside the top 175.

The Badgers have been successful playing a slow pace (17th-fewest possessions per game). Two of their three worst BPI game scores this season have come in the two games in which they played at the fastest pace (at Green Bay, vs North Dakota).

Michigan State barely cracks the top 25

The Michigan State Spartans, previously ranked No. 1 in the AP Poll, come in at No. 24 in BPI. The Spartans only have one loss, but it was by far their worst BPI game score and it came against their second-best opponent (No. 23 North Carolina).

Why else is Michigan State's BPI lacking? The Spartans have five wins against teams ranked outside the BPI top 100. Three of those wins are by 15 points or fewer, including two by single digits, and one of the five wins is against No. 338 McNeese State. Also, they haven't played a single true road game yet.

Welcome to the top 10, Saint Mary's

The undefeated Saint Mary's Gaels are ranked No. 8 in BPI, and it's not due to any wins over top-notch opponents. The Gaels haven't faced a single top-50 team yet, but five of their eight wins came against top-100 opponents and six of their eight wins are by double digits.

Saint Mary's has performed well against top-100 teams, posting a BPI game score higher than 95 in four of those five wins.

Why isn't Pittsburgh ranked yet?

The Pittsburgh Panthers are ranked No. 9 in BPI but aren't in the top 25 in the AP Poll. The Panthers are 10-0 with each of those 10 wins coming by at least nine points and nine of the wins coming by at least 17 points.

Pitt doesn't have any top-50 wins, but the Panthers do have two wins against teams just outside the top 50 (No. 51 Penn State, No. 55 Stanford). Their three best BPI game scores came against their three best opponents -- Penn State, Stanford and Texas Tech (No. 110).

Pitt is one of seven teams ranked in the top 20 in both adjusted offensive efficiency and adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom.com, along with Louisville, Oklahoma State, Arizona, Wisconsin, Kansas and North Carolina.

BPI Rankings

Video: Penn State-Pittsburgh preview

December, 2, 2013
12/02/13
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Andy Katz and Seth Greenberg take a look at the matchup between Penn State and Pittsburgh in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.

You Gotta See This: Big Ten

October, 22, 2013
10/22/13
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Yogi FerrellBrian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsSophomore point guard Yogi Ferrell will take on a much bigger role for the Hoosiers this season.
It's college basketball preview season, and you know what that means: tons of preseason info to get you primed for 2013-14. But what do you really need to know? Each day for the next month, we'll highlight the most important, interesting or just plain amusing thing each conference has to offer this season — from great teams to thrilling players to wild fans and anything in between. Up next: Promise and uncertainty in the Big Ten.

You have to feel for the Big Ten. After decades of punchlines -- 10 losses in its first 10 ACC-Big Ten Challenges, groaningly slow basketball, and a dearth of NCAA tournament success -- last season the Big Ten finally ascended to the conference-hierarchy throne.

Its reign lasted about as long as Robb Stark's.*

When the ACC officially added Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame this summer, it became the de facto top league by sheer force of acquisition. But even in a status-quo alternate universe, the Big Ten wasn't a guarantee to maintain its exalted position in 2013-14. This is less an argument about conference strength than a way into a summary of the league's individual parts: This season, uncertainty is the one true king.

Nowhere is this crystallized more clearly than in Bloomington, Ind. The Hoosiers, now fully rebuilt by coach Tom Crean, waved farewell to two top-five picks (Victor Oladipo, Cody Zeller) and two dependable four-year seniors (Jordan Hulls, Christian Watford) this spring. What remains might be as talented as any group in the Big Ten this season: Sophomore point guard Yogi Ferrell, sophomore wingman Jeremy Hollowell, highly recruited freshman forwards Noah Vonleh and Luke Fischer, top-100 small forwards Troy Williams and Stanford Robinson. But save senior guard Will Sheehey, the Hoosiers will look totally different when you see them in November. With all that talent and capable guard play, they might be very good. But no one can know for certain.

You don't have to squint too hard to see this trend elsewhere in the league. Iowa is looking to make a leap from sneaky-good to just plain good. Purdue has a potential lottery-pick center in A.J. Hammons, but what else? Northwestern will be playing modern basketball for the first time in 13 years. With Tim Frazier back, Penn State has a chance to be legitimately good not terrible. Nebraska will introduce a player who could be one of the best recruits in school history (New Zealand native Tai Webster). Illinois turned over whole swaths of production, but everyone expects John Groce to come up with an answer. New Minnesota coach Richard Pitino wants the Gophers to run, run, run. Even Michigan will be figuring out how to make its high-powered attack run without the national player of the year. And Ohio State has to score without Deshaun Thomas.

Perhaps the only sure things are that a) Michigan State will compete for the national title, and b) Wisconsin will finish no lower than fourth.

That seems like a lot of things to know about the 2013-14 Big Ten. It's really only one thing: We don't know that much about the 2013-14 Big Ten. It could be great. It could be meh. There's only one way to find out.

* The North remembers.
This week, ESPN.com is breaking down the nonconference schedules of each team in nine of the nation's top leagues. Next up: the Big Ten.

ILLINOIS

Toughest: at UNLV (Nov. 26), vs. Oregon (Dec. 14 in Portland, Ore.), vs. Missouri (Dec. 21 in St. Louis)
Next toughest: at Georgia Tech (Dec. 3)
The rest: Alabama State (Nov. 8), Jacksonville State (Nov. 10), Valparaiso (Nov. 13), Bradley (Nov. 17), Chicago State (Nov. 22), IPFW (Nov. 29), vs. Auburn (Dec. 8 in Atlanta), Dartmonth (Dec. 10), UIC (Dec. 28 in Chicago)

Toughness scale: 6 -- It's hard to really give the Illini a solid schedule grade, because it's hard to know just how good Illinois' best opponents really are. For example: It is never easy to win in the Thomas & Mack Center, but still-unproven center Khem Birch is the most certain thing about the Rebels' personnel in 2013-14; it looks like Dave Rice's team will be a quality road opponent, but impossible to make a guarantee to this effect. The same goes for Oregon and Missouri, both of whom should be solid at the very least, either of which could completely disappoint if their respective transfers don't pan out. A six feels fair to me, but it's an educated guess.

INDIANA

Toughest: 2K Sports Classic (Nov. 21-22), at Syracuse (Dec. 3), vs. Notre Dame (Dec. 14 in Indianapolis)
Next toughest: N/A?
The rest: Chicago State (Nov. 8), LIU Brooklyn (Nov. 12), Samford (Nov. 15), Stony Brook (Nov. 17), Evansville (Nov. 26), North Florida (Dec. 7), Oakland (Dec. 10), Nicholls State (Dec. 20), Kennesaw State (Dec. 22)

Toughness scale: 5 -- Two years since the collapse of its long-standing annual date with Kentucky, the Hoosiers have yet to find a home-and-home or even a neutral-court partnership to replace the strength they lost when the rivalry went awry. As such, Indiana's marquee nonconference games have been reduced to their participation in events: The 2K Sports Classic, where they'll play Washington and then either Boston College or Connecticut; the Crossroads Classic, where they'll play Notre Dame in front of a predominantly crimson crowd in downtown Indianapolis; and the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The good news, at least as it pertains to schedule strength, is that this season's ACC/Big Ten draw sends IU to Syracuse, where they'll face a rabid Orange crowd and another very good Jim Boeheim team just months removed from their season-ending loss to the Cuse in March.

IOWA

Toughest: Battle 4 Atlantis (Nov. 28-30), Notre Dame (Dec. 3)
Next toughest: at Iowa State (Dec. 13)
The rest: UNC-Wilmington (Nov. 8), Nebraska-Omaha (Nov. 10), Maryland Eastern Shore (Nov. 14), Abilene Christian (Nov. 17), Penn (Nov. 22), vs. Drake (Dec. 7 in Des Moines, Iowa), Farleigh Dickinson (Dec. 9), Arkansas-Pine Bluff (Dec. 22)

Toughness scale: 6 -- Last season, the ahead-of-schedule Hawkeyes played some of the best defense in the Big Ten, finished top 20 in the Pomeroy adjusted efficiency rankings and made a deep run in the NIT. They were easily one of the best 60 teams in the country, but their nonconference schedule was so weak it precluded Fran McCaffery's squad from serious tournament consideration even as it played tight games with the best teams in the Big Ten every night. That shouldn't be as much of a problem this season, when Iowa will benefit from participation in the Battle 4 Atlantis (they'll face Xavier in the first round, and either Tennessee or UTEP in the second, maybe Kansas in the final?) and a much better opponent (Notre Dame) in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. They also get Iowa State -- which lost much of last season's excellent offensive group, but retained rising sophomore Georges Niang and that insane Hilton Coliseum home court -- in a quality true road fixture. This slate still isn't a murderers' row, but it shouldn't hold the Big Ten's most fashionable title sleeper back, either.

MICHIGAN

Toughest: Puerto Rico Tip-Off (Nov. 21-24), at Duke (Dec. 3), Arizona (Dec. 14)
Next toughest: at Iowa State (Nov. 17), vs. Stanford (Dec. 21 in Brooklyn)
The rest: UMass-Lowell (Nov. 8), South Carolina State (Nov. 12), Coppin State (Nov. 29), Houston Baptist (Dec. 7), Holy Cross (Dec. 28)

Toughness scale: 9 -- The 2012-13 national runners-up, and 2013-14 Big Ten co-favorites, will play a nonconference schedule befitting their newly elevated aspirations. The Puerto Rico Tip-Off, with VCU and Georgetown lurking, ranks among the best tournament events of November. The trip to Duke for the ACC/Big Ten needs little in the way of explanation. (Man, that is going to be a fun game.) The trip to Iowa State is no laughing matter, for reasons outlined in Iowa's blurb; the trip to Brooklyn to face defensive-minded Stanford will be a challenge, too. But the X factor in this schedule comes Dec. 14 when Sean Miller's loaded Arizona group arrives in Ann Arbor for a good old-fashioned campus nonconference tilt. Those kinds of games are rare in our modern, neutral court-dominated landscape, and neither program needed to schedule this one. But I'm happy to speak for most college basketball fans when I say how glad I am that they did.

MICHIGAN STATE

Toughest: vs. Kentucky (Nov. 12 in Chicago), North Carolina (Dec. 4), vs. Georgetown (Feb. 1 in New York City)
Next toughest: Coaches vs. Cancer Classic (Nov. 22-23), at Texas (Dec. 21)
The rest: McNeese State (Nov. 8), Columbia (Nov. 15), Portland (Nov. 18), Mount St. Mary's (Nov. 29), Oakland (Dec. 14), North Florida (Dec. 17), New Orleans (Dec. 28)

Toughness scale: 8 -- Most of Michigan State's schedule strength is derived from that monster Champions Classic matchup with potential preseason No. 1 Kentucky, John Calipari's most laughably-loaded group of talented freshmen ever -- which, two years removed from the 2012's 38-2 national title run, is saying something. The Dec. 4 home date against North Carolina won't be easy, but if the Tar Heels are without leading scorer and noted rental car enthusiast P.J. Hairston, the Spartans will be obvious favorites in the Breslin Center. Best-case scenario in the Coaches vs. Cancer (a win over Virginia Tech and a matchup with Oklahoma) still isn't much. The real pivot point comes in late December at Texas. For much of the past decade, that has been a brutal road test having less to do with Texas' crowds (sleepy) than with its teams (defensively brutal). If Barnes' team rebounds from last season's struggles and gets back to its usual spot in the top third of the Big 12, Tom Izzo's schedule looks a good sight harder. If not, it really comes down to that Kentucky game -- and what a game it will be. (Update: My first dig into the Spartans' schedule missed their Feb. 1 Super Bowl Sunday game against Georgetown in Madison Square Garden. The Hoyas are a bit of an unknown quantity without Otto Porter, but that's almost guaranteed to be a tough win to come away with, so I bumped them from seven to eight.)

MINNESOTA

Toughest: Maui Invitational (Nov. 25-27),
Next toughest: at Richmond (Nov. 16), Florida State (Dec. 3)
The rest: Lehigh (Nov. 8), Montana (Nov. 12), Coastal Carolina (Nov. 19), Wofford (Nov. 21), New Orleans (Dec. 7), South Dakota State (Dec. 10), Nebraska-Omaha (Dec. 20), Texas A&M Corpus Christi (Dec. 28)

Toughness scale: 4 -- The Gophers have at least one true standout game on their schedule: Their first-round Maui Invitational matchup with Syracuse, the best the 2013 Maui field has to offer. Which is not to say their trip to Richmond will be easy; indeed, after an injury-plagued 2012-13 season, Chris Mooney's program looks ready to pop back into tourney-bid contention this season. But that's basically it, besides a decent second Maui game with either Arkansas or Cal. Without would-be freshmen Andrew Wiggins (who chose Kansas instead) and Xavier Rathan-Meyes (who chose FSU, but wasn't cleared academically by the NCAA), the Seminoles could be in for another sub-.500 campaign, and from there it's all home cupcakes befitting a transitioning group -- which, under first-year coach Richard Pitino, is exactly what the Gophers are.

NEBRASKA

Toughest: at Creighton (Dec. 8), at Cincinnati (Dec. 28)
Next toughest: Charleston Classic (Nov. 21-22)
The rest: Florida Gulf Coast (Nov. 8), Western Illinois (Nov. 12), South Carolina State (Nov. 17), Northern Illinois (Nov. 30), Miami (Dec. 4), Arkansas State (Dec. 14), The Citadel (Dec. 21)

Toughness scale: 5 -- The signs of second-year coach Tim Miles' tepid forward progress are evident not only in the impending opening of Nebraska's new $300 million arena, or in his signing of impressive New Zealand native Tai Webster (who will immediately be the Cornhuskers' best player when he takes the court against Dunk City in early November), but also in Nebraska's schedule. The Charleston Classic could yield a matchup with New Mexico (not to mention first-round opponent UMass), the Dec. 28 trip to Cincinnati is a perfectly respectable road trip, and Dec. 8's visit to Creighton -- the one program whose success can be said to have played a role in Nebraska's newfound commitment to hoops -- has a chance to put the Cornhuskers on the radar before Big Ten play commences. Miles & Co. are still a year or two away, but there are green shoots all over the place here, and the slightly improved schedule is just one more piece of evidence.

NORTHWESTERN

Toughest: Las Vegas Invitational (Nov. 28-29), at NC State (Dec. 4)
Next toughest: at Stanford (Nov. 14)
The rest: Eastern Illinois (Nov. 9), Illinois State (Nov. 17), UIC (Nov. 20), IUPUI (Nov. 22), Gardner-Webb (Nov. 25), Western Michigan (Dec. 7), Mississippi Valley State (Dec. 16), Brown (Dec. 22), DePaul (Dec. 27)

Toughness scale: 6 -- First-year coach Chris Collins is the first person to admit that his rebuilding project will be a multiyear affair. The immediate future will be just as challenging: Collins has to get a group of players recruited to play former coach Bill Carmody's very specific (some would say gimmicky) style to update their entire philosophy toward a modern and more conventional approach. But Collins does have some players at his disposal in Year 1 -- fifth-year medical redshirt Drew Crawford, post-suspension junior JerShon Cobb, promising sophomore center Alex Olah -- set to play a nonconference schedule that helpfully avoids the softness that plagued the Wildcats' nascent tournament hopes in recent seasons. Two true road noncon games at Stanford and NC State complement a solid pair of back-to-back fixtures (Missouri, UCLA) in the Las Vegas Invitational. The point of all this? Northwestern has the schedule to compete for a tournament bid in Year 1. Whether it will have the results to get there -- and make Collins a lionized, conquering hero in 12 months’ time -- will be fascinating to see.

OHIO STATE

Toughest: at Marquette (Nov. 16), vs. Notre Dame (Dec. 21 in New York City)
Next toughest: Maryland (Dec. 4)
The rest: Morgan State (Nov. 9), Ohio (Nov. 12), American (Nov. 20), Wyoming (Nov. 25), North Florida (Nov. 29), Central Connecticut State (Dec. 7), Bryant (Dec. 11), North Dakota State (Dec. 14), Delaware (Dec. 18), Louisiana-Monroe (Dec. 27)

Toughness scale: 4 -- Save a trip to Duke, the Buckeyes' early schedule in 2012 was so gentle as to make their quality difficult to gauge. It took until February, when Shannon Scott, Aaron Craft, Lenzelle Smith Jr. and Sam Thompson congealed into a monster on the defensive perimeter, for the Buckeyes took on the look of a national title contender. (And they would have gotten to the Final Four, too, if it wasn't for those meddling kids Wichita State Shockers.) This season's slate is a bit more difficult, but not too much; its main attraction is that early road trip to Marquette, where Buzz Williams has forged an annual Sweet 16 attendee. Even if Dez Wells and the Maryland Terrapins prove better than expected, it's hard to see how they can put enough points on the Buckeyes in Columbus to keep pace. Four seems about right.

PENN STATE

Toughest: at Pittsburgh (Dec. 3)
Next toughest: La Salle (Nov. 19), Barclays Center Classic (Nov. 29-30 in Brooklyn, N.Y.)
The rest: Wagner (Nov. 9), Bucknell (Nov. 13), Longwood (Nov. 24), Monmouth (Nov. 26), Marshall (Dec. 7), Princeton (Dec. 14), Mount St. Mary's (Dec. 22)

Toughness scale: 4 -- Like Nebraska, Penn State's schedule is improved over recent seasons, and with D.J. Newbill returning and 2011-12's do-everything star Tim Frazier back from a season-ending Achilles tear, the Nittany Lions should improve along with it. It might be unfair to La Salle to keep them off that top line; the Explorers could still be a very dangerous team even without senior guard Ramon Galloway. The Barclays Center Classic offers a game against St. John's and a matchup with either Georgia Tech or Ole Miss, and putting a trip to Pittsburgh on the schedule doesn't only help coach Pat Chambers build his program's brand in a local recruiting zone, it also gives the Nittany Lions a real-deal road game against one of the nation's most consistent (and consistently RPI-friendly) programs.

PURDUE

Toughest: Old Spice Classic (Nov. 28-Dec. 1)
Next toughest: Boston College (Dec. 4), vs. Butler (Dec. 14 in Indianapolis), at West Virginia (Dec. 22)
The rest: Northern Kentucky (Nov. 8), Central Connecticut State (Nov. 13), Rider (Nov. 17), Eastern Illinois (Nov. 20), Siena (Nov. 24), Eastern Michigan (Dec. 7), Maryland Eastern Shore (Dec. 17)

Toughness scale: 5 -- The Boilermakers have one of those schedules that doesn't necessarily look great from this vantage point, but stands a reasonable chance of looking tougher and tougher as the season rolls on. How so? For starters, there's at least one really good game here -- the first-round Old Spice matchup with Oklahoma State and star point guard Marcus Smart. But a trip to West Virginia is never easy, and it's hard to imagine Bob Huggins' team repeating last season's monumental struggles. Boston College is a fringe ACC sleeper. And if Butler is better than most expect -- the Boilermakers could play the Bulldogs twice, if the two teams meet at the Old Spice in Orlando -- Matt Painter's team could benefit from a slate that proves better than the sum of its parts.

WISCONSIN

Toughest: Florida (Nov. 12), at Virginia (Dec. 4), Marquette (Dec. 7)
Next toughest: Cancun Challenge (Nov. 26-27), vs. St. John's (Nov. 8 in Sioux Falls, S.D.)
The rest: at Green Bay (Nov. 16), North Dakota (Nov. 19), Bowling Green (Nov. 21), Oral Roberts (Nov. 23), Milwaukee (Dec. 11), Eastern Kentucky (Dec. 14), Prairie View A&M (Dec. 28)

Toughness scale: 9 -- The Badgers' schedule is tough enough in the abstract. It's even tougher when you consider how quickly Bo Ryan will throw his team into the fire. The geographically baffling season opener against St. John's in Sioux Falls is one thing, but that game is followed by a visit from Florida just four days later. In late November, the Badgers will be the likely favorite in the two-game Cancun Challenge, but will have to get by both Saint Louis and (probably) West Virginia to come away with two wins. Then it's off to Charlottesville for a revenge game against Virginia, just three days before Marquette comes to the Kohl Center for another edition of Wisconsin's best basketball rivalry. Merely listing these games out doesn't quite do the schedule justice. You need to see the chronology to get the full, brutal picture.

Correction: An earlier version of this post substituted Temple coach Fran Dunphy for Iowa coach Fran McCaffery. It also neglected to list Michigan State's Feb. 1 game vs. Georgetown in Madison Square Garden, which is a pretty awesome game. Eamonn regrets the errors, and is now atoning via self-flagellation.

Times/networks for Big Ten/ACC Challenge

August, 15, 2013
8/15/13
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The times and networks have been finalized for the 15th annual Big Ten/ACC Challenge, which will take place Dec. 3-4 on ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNU.

All 12 Big Ten teams and 12 of the 15 ACC schools will participate in the 2013 Challenge, including the three newest ACC members (Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Syracuse). Clemson, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest will not play in this year's event.

The ACC and Big Ten split last year’s Challenge with six wins each. In the event of a tie, the Commissioner’s Cup remains with the conference that won the previous year, which was the Big Ten in 2011. The ACC holds a 10-3-1 Challenge record, winning the first 10 events (1999-2008) before the Big Ten won the next three (2009-2011).

For an analysis of this year's matchups, check out Eamonn Brennan's take from back in May. As for the times and networks, here they are ...

Tuesday, Dec. 3 (all times ET)
7:15 - Indiana at Syracuse (ESPN)
7:15 - Illinois at Georgia Tech (ESPN2)
7:30 - Penn State at Pittsburgh (ESPNU)
9:15 - Michigan at Duke (ESPN)
9:15 - Notre Dame at Iowa (ESPN2)
9:30 - Florida State at Minnesota (ESPNU)

Wednesday, Dec. 4 (all times ET)
7:00 - Maryland at Ohio State (ESPN or ESPN2)
7:00 - Wisconsin at Virginia (ESPN or ESPN2)
7:30 - Northwestern at NC State (ESPNU)
9:00 - North Carolina at Michigan State (ESPN)
9:00 - Boston College at Purdue (ESPN2)
9:30 - Miami at Nebraska (ESPNU)

A few notes on this year's matchups:
  • Seven of the 12 games will mark first-time Challenge matchups: Michigan-Duke, Maryland-Ohio State, Miami-Nebraska and Boston College-Purdue, plus the debut of the three new ACC members Syracuse (vs. Indiana), Notre Dame (at Iowa) and Pitt (vs. Penn State).
  • In addition to first-time Challenge games, several of the teams are infrequent opponents: Nebraska holds a 3-1 record against Miami; Purdue won both previous meetings against BC; Ohio State and Maryland last played in 1985 with OSU three out of the five all-time games; and Notre Dame will play Iowa for the first time since 1990 and holds a 8-5 series record.
  • Old Pennsylvania rivals Pitt and Penn State will meet for the first time since 2005. The Panthers have won the past five contests.
  • Illinois/Georgia Tech and Wisconsin/Virginia will follow their first-time Challenge meetings in 2012 with a rematch in the 2013 event. The Illini and Cavaliers won last year's matchups.
  • Best Three Out of Five: North Carolina/Michigan State and Minnesota/Florida State will meet in the Challenge for the fifth time. Both series are 2-2.
  • Rubber Match: Northwestern and NC State will square off in the Challenge for the third time. Northwestern won in 2009 and NC State in 2002.
  • Syracuse and Indiana have met five previous times in non-Challenge games, with the Orange winning the past four, including last season’s Sweet 16 matchup.
Now that realignment is behind us, rosters are mostly finalized, and freshmen are getting used to living in dorm rooms (oh, to be reborn at summer orientation), we're spending the week looking ahead at some of the more interesting players and storylines we expect to track in 2013-14. Next up: players facing crucial senior seasons, both individually and for their teams.

(Important note: This is not a list of the best seniors, or even necessarily the most important or most indispensable). It is a list of seniors -- some who have underachieved to date -- that need to, once and for all, make good on their star potential in their final year in the college game. Make sense? Cool.)

10. C.J. Fair (Syracuse): Fair's career to this point has been characterized by admirable consistency. In his first two campaigns he maintained similarly promising offensive ratings (109.5 and 114.6) while averaging a 17.3 percent usage rate, while blending in quality defense, rebounding and stellar work on the offensive glass. Fair's usage jumped slightly as a junior (to 20.5 percent of available possessions), and he grew far more comfortable wielding his outside shot, but the rock-solid fundamentals of his game remained mostly the same. As a senior, even on a team with plenty of oncoming talent, Fair may yet be expected to do even more. If he can expand his game further on the perimeter and provide go-to scoring in the midrange without losing the things that have made him so solid for so long, the Orange should make a massive impression in their first year in the ACC, and Fair should do the same for NBA scouts.

[+] EnlargeKevin Ollie, Shabazz Napier
John Woike/Hartford Courant/MCTGuard Shabazz Napier has taken on a leadership role under coach Kevin Ollie.
9. Shabazz Napier (Connecticut): Napier has had one of the most up-and-down careers of any player in recent college hoops memory. You can make the argument that he got where he needed to be as a junior. Not only did he have his best year by far statistically (he posted a 115.3 offensive rating on 24.3 percent usage and a 54.4 effective field goal percentage, shot 39 percent from 3 and created plenty of steals) but also, under new coach Kevin Ollie, assumed the leadership role denied him by that apathetic 2011-12 team. The only problem? UConn was ineligible for the NCAA tournament. With a full batch of returning players and that APR-induced postseason ban behind the Huskies, Napier is in position to make his biggest impact since Kemba Walker was on campus.

8. Tim Frazier (Penn State): As promised above, some of the guys on this list have underachieved for most of their careers; it's not fair to lump Frazier into that group. There are two reasons he isn't already a household name: Penn State and injuries. When Frazier was healthy for his true junior season in 2011-12, he led the Big Ten in assists (and posted the nation's second-highest assist rate, higher than either Kendall Marshall or Scott Machado), averaged 18.2 points per game (second in the Big Ten), created four steals per 100 possessions and drew an average of six fouls per game, while playing 92.8 percent of his team's available minutes. Thanks to a medical hardship waiver -- the 2012-13 campaign was derailed by a brutal ACL injury Achilles tear in just the fourth game of the season -- 2013-14 will provide Frazier with his last chance to earn the kind of individual national attention that gets scouts to raise an eyebrow. If he can also pull Penn State over the rebuilding hump, hey, all the better.

7. Aaron Craft (Ohio State): You couldn't say Craft has underachieved in his career. Quite the opposite. During his prep days, Craft was seen as a merely respectable but hardly a program-changing recruit, provided your head coach didn't lie to NCAA investigators about having him over for a barbecue. (Ba-dum-ksh.) Craft has long since exceeded those expectations. As a freshman, he seized a starting role in Thad Matta's very good veterans-plus-Jared Sullinger-led lineup, and he has maintained his spot by cementing the respect of teammates and coaches and, most noticeably, playing the best, peskiest perimeter defense in the country. That's his calling card, and it won't go anywhere, but one can't help wondering whether Craft still has more to pick up on the offensive end. Can he be a leading scorer? A more confident 3-point shooter off the dribble? Is that even possible, given the tireless work Craft does on the defensive end? (Related: Can Shannon Scott, who morphed into a deadly defender late last season, take on some of that burden?) Losing Deshaun Thomas means Ohio State has to replace a large chunk of scoring one way or the other; more incisive stuff at the point of attack would be a good place to start.

[+] EnlargeMike Stobe/Getty Images
Mike Stobe/Getty ImagesCory Jefferson was a force during Baylor's NIT run.
6. Cory Jefferson (Baylor): It is never wise to project too much based on the disproportionately weighted sample of a few postseason games in March. This is especially true when the postseason in question was the NIT. So yes, you can expect Jefferson's 21.2 points per game in the Bears' NIT title run -- which ended with a 74-54 vivisection of a very good Iowa defense -- to earn him his fair share of prospective love this fall. But Jefferson was good long before March. He posted a 128.1 offensive rating on 19.1 percent usage -- and shot 61.8 percent from inside the arc, leading the Big 12 in overall field goal percentage (61.0) in the process -- in 2012-13. Could he approximate that effort with more of a lead role as a senior? We'll see.

5. Marshall Henderson (Ole Miss): Here's another question: Did Henderson already max out his talent? After a season in which he took 394 3s (which is insane!) and made 35 percent of them (less insane, but pretty good), it's hard to imagine Henderson somehow finding a way to take more shots. It's even harder, given the volume involved, to picture him finding a way to improve that 113.5 offensive rating. According to Synergy scouting data, 38.2 percent of Henderson's possessions ended with off-ball screen action; no other play type came remotely close to that sort of frequency. (No. 2? Spot-ups, with 17.2 percent, trailed by transition offense and hand-off plays -- all of which screams "not allowed to put it on the floor.") With a less experienced frontcourt, there are only so many screens the Rebels can set. There are only so many shots Henderson can take.

So the premise for improvement is twofold. To dig an even better senior season out of his madcap heart, Henderson needs to become a better ball handler, distributor and scorer off the dribble -- less a gunner than a capable combo guard. He also, obviously, has to get to the court in the first place, which will be no small feat given the substance abuse issues that put his status at Ole Miss in jeopardy this month. Henderson appears to be taking that stuff seriously -- which he clearly wasn't at first -- and that's a good thing. It is also crucial for his career. If Henderson has any shot of making his NBA dreams a reality, he has to adjust his skill set and quell any and all concerns about his life away from basketball. It won't be easy.

4. Kendall Williams (New Mexico): It is hardly fair to tie one's assessment of a player to one particularly bonkers scoring night, but I know what I saw, and what I saw was Williams score 46 points in 33 minutes against a good Colorado State team on the road. It's not like he had a bad season otherwise -- 13.3 points and 4.9 assists per game is perfectly respectable -- but it was impossible to watch him that night and not think there was something more below the surface. Truth is, Williams hasn't really improved statistically in his college career. He was a better passer and drew more fouls as a junior, but his freshman season remains his most efficient. His 3-point accuracy fell to 34.8 percent, down from the 42.6 percent mark he posted two years prior. Without newly minted Chicago Bull Tony Snell in the backcourt, it's fair to wonder whether the Lobos will have the same defensive chops that anchored their excellent 2012-13 season. Williams will have to work more efficiently alongside emerging star Alex Kirk to find another gear going forward.

[+] EnlargePatric Young
Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/MCT/Getty ImagesPatric Young may see more opportunities in the post this season.
3. Patric Young (Florida): Young has always felt a bit disappointing. That's rarely been his fault. During his first two seasons at Florida, he frequently languished on the low block while Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton fired away from 25 feet. As a junior, the calculus changed somewhat and Young began to get more genuine post touches in a strikingly balanced edition of the Gators' spread attack. Still, he remains the college game's greatest physical specimen for three years running; you can't look at him and not expect him to dominate everyone in his vicinity. He got closer on the defensive end last season. Overall, he still isn't there. This may be the year. Boynton, shot-magnet Mike Rosario and fellow four Erik Murphy are all gone. Scottie Wilbekin is not an aggressive attacker by nature. Freshman phenom Chris Walker's status remains up in the air. Odds are, Young may finally get the chance to go to work on the low block, even if by default. The question is whether he's ready.

2. Keith Appling (Michigan State): When Appling first popped up as a freshman at Michigan State, he was a breath of fresh air. That 2010-11 team was one of the few -- honestly, maybe the only -- in Tom Izzo's tenure to genuinely underachieve. Delvon Roe fought admirably through career-ending injuries, and a young Draymond Green pointed toward a bright future, but the team's three lead guards (Kalin Lucas, Durrell Summers, and Korie Lucious), so key in bright back-to-back Final Four runs, proved to be corrosive, selfish influences. Appling quickly provided a contrast. His offensive game was tentatively promising, and his tenacious defense earned him Izzo's immediate respect. Here was a young, willing guard coached by a guy who made a career out of turning the Keith Applings of the world into Spartan legends. He was as sure a bet as the sport had to offer.

Remind me not to start a career oddsmaking business. Three years on, Appling's offensive game hasn't really improved. As a junior, he averaged 46.4 percent from inside the arc and 32 percent outside it. Turnovers are not uncommon to Izzo's teams, but Appling's inability to get his turnover rate down -- it was still 18.6 percent in 2012-13, just two points lower than his 20.6 percent assist percentage -- has compounded the effects of mediocre shooting. Last season, he went whole games, even whole weeks, when he would either (A) disappear, or (B) play so poorly (or at best, so tentatively) that Spartans fans would wonder whether option A wasn't preferable.

Appling has never been bad, per se. His perimeter defense hasn't gone anywhere. He has battled injuries with characteristic toughness, battled his slumps with determined accountability. You never hear bad things about him; he's been a reliable, hardworking presence within the program. But he has also never developed into what his coach once so convincingly proclaimed he would be.

This season is his final chance. The Spartans will be loaded again, with the Big Ten Freshman of the Year Gary Harris set for a monster sophomore season and forward Adreian Payne still blossoming into a devastating talent. Appling doesn't have to morph into a turnover-free replicate. He merely has to do what he does already and shoot the ball a bit better. If he does, there won't be many teams in the country capable of matching Michigan State man for man. If he doesn't, the Spartans will still be good -- but they, like Appling himself, risk leaving something on the table.

1. Joe Jackson (Memphis): Fortunately, Memphis won an NCAA tournament game in 2013. Getting that monkey off coach Josh Pastner's back meant knocking back at least some of the steadily growing "But can he actually coach?" talk in the Bluff City (and reinforcing a personal pet peeve about tournament sample size). It also meant less pressure on the player that has, for both better and worse, defined Pastner's tenure at the school.

Like many of the very best players Pastner has recruited in his tenure, Jackson is a local product, one of the first Pastner landed, who was unafraid to place his hometown's hopes -- and its uniquely provincial baggage -- on his back. He has also been emblematically frustrating. Hugely confident but too sensitive to criticism. Talented but too inconsistent. At times, he has been Memphis' best player. Just as often, he has moped his way to the bench.

Give Jackson credit for this much: He's still here. Many of Jackson's teammates have been fellow Memphis natives, and by many accounts the dynamic around the program has often resembled a youth team writ large, with whole neighborhoods and high school sets standing in for bickering parents arguing on behalf of one player or another. Rumors of intrasquad squabbles have been just as common. Jackson could have transferred, cordoned himself away from the local intensity, but despite all the struggles he remained. As a junior, he was much improved. His improved third season -- more unselfish and efficient than either of the two that preceded it -- built an excellent foundation for his senior campaign, but there is much more to be accomplished -- a deep tournament run chief among it.

When he arrived four years ago, Jackson embraced the unique pressure of his situation. As he told our own Dana O'Neil:

"I want to be remembered," Jackson said. "I want to be a legend. I want to be a hero. I want old people to see me on television and say, 'Look at that kid. He made it. He did it. That's who I want you to be like.'"

His performance has never quite matched that ambition. He has one more chance to close the gap.

Look out for ... Penn State?

April, 16, 2013
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On Sunday, Big Ten and consensus national player of the year Trey Burke made official his entrance into the NBA draft. There was basically nothing surprising about this decision, save maybe one thing -- the conference Burke left behind.

Now that the POY is gone, and taking other top scorers Deshaun Thomas, Cody Zeller and Brandon Paul to the NBA draft with him, the top two returning points-per-game scorers in the Big Ten will both play for the same team. Ah, but which team? Burke's own Michigan Wolverines, which shot their way to the national title game? Similarly efficient Indiana? League powers Michigan State or Ohio State? Emerging Iowa? No, no, no, no and no.

[+] EnlargeTim Hardaway
Rich Barnes/US PresswirePenn State's Jermaine Marshall will be among the Big Ten's top returning scorer's next season.
At the start of the 2013-14 season, the Big Ten's top two returning scorers will be D.J. Newbill and Jermaine Marshall, both of whom play for ... Penn State. Penn State? Penn State! It's a true story, and one that probably says more about Pat Chambers' team than the Big Ten, when you really think about it.

First of all, as anyone even remotely into efficiency statistics would recognize, points per game is not the greatest statistic in the world. It's pretty simple stuff: Taking a larger number of shots to score a certain number of points doesn't always mean you're helping your team. Both Newbill and Marshall, despite finishing fifth and sixth in Big Ten scoring last season, failed to post an offensive rating higher than 100.0 last season. Penn State simply wasn't very good, and definitely wasn't deep, because star guard Tim Frazier -- who was a preseason conference POY sleeper pick who finished the 2011-12 year second in the conference in scoring with 18.8 points, 6.2 assists and 4.7 rebounds per game -- was lost to a season-ending an Achilles rupture in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off in November. Newbill and Marshall were asked to do a lot more than they probably bargained for, and while it didn't always result in efficiency, it did result in points.

In other words, it's not like saying Newbill and Marshall are the best returning players in the Big Ten. Obviously not. Michigan State will have Keith Appling and some combination of Gary Harris, Adreian Payne, Branden Dawson and Denzel Valentine; Indiana has point guard Yogi Ferrell; Michigan could have Mitch McGary or Glenn Robinson III; Ohio State has Aaron Craft and a March-emergent LaQuinton Ross; Wisconsin has Sam Dekker; Iowa has a score of interesting players, particularly center Adam Woodbury; Purdue has A.J. Hammons, who could be a beast; new Minnesota coach Richard Pitino has a really good returning backcourt (Andre Hollins, Austin Hollins; Joe Coleman), provided it can figure out how to stop turning the ball over.

You get the point: There are still going to be a lot of good players in the Big Ten. Rest assured, the Nittany Lions will not come off a 10-21 season with a monopoly on college hoops talent.

Even so, Penn State will be intriguing. The Nittany Lions have been the victims of some really awful luck in the past two seasons, the first of it minor (when Big Ten teams hit the lottery from beyond the arc against them, a bit of production not entirely related to defense) the latter of it Frazier's injury, which came just six weeks ahead of the start of one of the more brutal Big Ten conference seasons in memory.

But Frazier will be back next season. Newbill and Marshall will still be around. Penn State will have more depth, more skill, more issues being guarded on the perimeter. Don't expect the Nittany Lions to compete for a conference title, because that would be even crazier than saying Penn State has the top two returning scorers from the best Big Ten season in recent memory. But they will be very intriguing.

PSU's Chambers savors breakthrough win

February, 27, 2013
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The virtual glass sitting on Pat Chambers’ desk wasn’t just half-empty; it was cracked straight through and emptying like a sieve.

His Penn State basketball team was 0-14 in the Big Ten this season, winless over its previous 18 games in the league. The Nittany Lions were on a path of ignominy, destined to join DePaul's 2009 Big East entry in the ranks of conference futility.

Except every time Chambers looked at that stinking, leaking glass, he saw something in it.

Had the man stood on the deck of the Titanic, he probably would have remarked at the pretty stars.

He is that optimistic, that positive-thinking.

That he was able to retain his optimism in Misery Valley this season -- where injury to Tim Frazier predetermined the insult -- is stunning.

That he somehow passed it on to his players is a miracle.

Yet there were the Nittany Lions, about to do the impossible and upset the No. 4 team in the nation, huddling close to their coach without even a blink of panic.

"It was fierce focus," Chambers told ESPN.com. "We were ready to win. We’d worked on end-game situations in practices, so I had 15 guys in that huddle looking at me with big eyes just asking, ‘OK, how do we finish this game?’ And they executed it beautifully."

With the exception of TCU’s upset of Kansas, there might not be a more improbable score in this season full of improbable scores than Penn State 84, Michigan 78.

Expectations had dipped so low in State College, Pa., that in order to rush the floor, some students and fans first had to pick their way through the empty seats to get courtside.

[+] EnlargePat Chambers
AP Photo/Ralph WilsonPenn State coach Pat Chambers lauded his players' "fierce focus" in finishing off No. 4 Michigan.
"I wanted them to have a moment," Chambers said of his players. "They worked so hard and I just kept thinking and hoping, ‘Let them taste victory just one time.’ With all this hard work, there’s got to be some results."

The fact is, Penn State had been threatening for a few weeks. A blocked shot with 21 seconds left dashed the Nittany Lions' hopes of beating Iowa and they ended up losing by two Feb. 14; they were tied with the Wolverines in Ann Arbor at the half three days later before losing by eight; they trailed by three with 5 seconds to go against Illinois last Thursday and wound up losing by five.

A team that simply couldn’t score without Frazier, who was injured in November, solved its own riddle. In Penn State’s first 11 Big Ten games combined, the Lions hit 44 3-pointers. In the past four, they’ve sunk 32, including 10 against Michigan.

"These guys have been totally engaged with what we were saying and what we were trying to accomplish," Chambers said. “They didn’t let the outside distractions of ‘They’re no good; they can’t win in that league’ get to them. And they got better. I kept telling them the results might not be there, but we are better."

Yes, all of that goes to the players, certainly, but also the coach.

Penn State doesn’t exactly have a rich tradition to call on -- the Lions' previous victory against a top-five team came during the 2001 NCAA tournament.

That part Chambers knew. What he didn’t know was that he was walking into a volcano about to blow when he took the job two years ago. The Jerry Sandusky scandal has tainted the entire school’s reputation, and last summer, Chambers admitted that people looked at him a little funny when he wore his gear out recruiting.

Mix in this season, one where the Nittany Lions started out thinking they could compete in the Big Ten and had those hopes all but dashed with Frazier’s injury, and you’ve got a run of bad fortune that only Job could relate to.

Yet here’s Chambers.

Staring at that glass.

On Wednesday night, it wasn’t only half-full, it was time to raise it.

Hail to the victors, indeed.

What's the matter with Michigan?

February, 27, 2013
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Don't get it twisted: Most of what happened in State College, Pa., on Wednesday night -- winless Big Ten doormat Penn State shocking No. 4-ranked Michigan, 84-78 -- happened thanks to Penn State.

Jermaine Marshall and D.J. Newbill made those crucial buckets in the final four minutes; Sasa Borovnjak made the key late free throws; the Nittany Lions defended Glenn Robinson III's final last-ditch misses. More than road misery and failure, Wednesday night's prevailing story is one of hard-earned triumph.

[+] EnlargeMichigan's John Beilein
Rich Barnes/USA TODAY SportsJohn Beilein's defense gave up 84 points to a Penn State team that was winless in the Big Ten before Wednesday.
But the fun half of the story -- perseverance and unlikely triumph -- couldn't exist without the other, which is where we have to take a step back and pose a perfectly valid question: Just what is the matter with Michigan?

Because it's not just the loss at Penn State. Indeed, this isn't the first time in the past 10 days the Nittany Lions have pushed the Wolverines for 40 minutes. That came on Feb. 17, a Sunday, when Penn State led Michigan 18-11 at the 10-minute mark and played the Wolverines close for the rest of the game in Ann Arbor. The final score, 79-71, came on just 66 possessions.

There were signs for concern before that, too. After that thrilling Feb. 2 "College GameDay" special at Indiana, an 81-73 IU win, Michigan had to fend off Ohio State in overtime in its own building 76-74 in one of the often-stagnant Buckeyes offense's best performances. On Feb. 12, John Beilein's team was hammered at Michigan State, 75-52. (Sandwiched between those two games was a 65-62 loss at Wisconsin, which doesn't count because it came in overtime after Ben Brust hit a regulation-ending half-court shot. We can all forgive that one.)

Thanks to a 20-1 start through November, December and January, we anointed Michigan as one of the nation's select handful of national title contenders. And rightfully so. Then, as it suffered through its worst patch of Big Ten schedule, we overlooked the defects. Also rightfully so. At Indiana, vs. Ohio State, at Wisconsin, at Michigan State? Who wouldn't struggle against that?

But there are some issues here, and they're the ones we've always had to worry about with this Michigan team, coached as it is by Beilein. Those issues can essentially be summed into one word. That word is defense.

In the past seven games, Michigan has allowed 1.11 points per possession to its opposition. Remember, that includes two games against Penn State, the league's least efficient offense, one averaging just .89 points per trip in conference play before Wednesday. Before Wednesday, the Wolverines were averaging an even 1.00 points per trip against Big Ten competition -- good for sixth-best in the conference. They had allowed opponents to make 48.9 percent of their two-point field goals, the highest percentage in the Big Ten, and they had blocked the fewest percentage of available shots (just 7.7. percent) of any team in the conference, too. According to Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings, the Wolverines rank No. 42 in the country in defensive efficiency -- good, but not great, and hardly among the elite units in the country. (For a handy snapshot of this stuff, John Gasaway's Tuesday Truths should be on your list.)

The upshot of all of this is that while Michigan's offense has been chugging along, posting efficiency numbers akin to Indiana's and keeping Trey Burke very deservedly in the conversation for national player of the year, Michigan's defense has slowed considerably. Simply put, teams with league-average defenses -- even if that league average is the Big Ten -- don't win national titles.

This was always the biggest question about Michigan, more than if it could meld Burke and Tim Hardaway and all the young talent into something great. The question was whether or not Beilein, who has never coached a top-25 efficiency defense in his career, at least since 2003, could mix all of that offensive potency with a defense that could at least get stops. Indiana faced a similar challenge last offseason, a hyper-efficient offense with a returning freshman star and sights set on a national title. The Hoosiers, who rank third in the Big Ten in defense (and have the No. 1 offense in the country) have largely answered the bell.

Michigan's offense is that good. It will be in March, too. Its defense, on the other hand, appears to be trending in the opposite direction -- and at the worst possible time of the season.

So while the Nittany Lions celebrate their monumental win, and IU and Michigan State breathe a sigh of relief, and fellow No. 1 seeds across the country thank their lucky stars, the Wolverines have much more pressing concerns. If they want to get to the Final Four, they have to fix this defense before it's too late.

Video: Penn State 84, Michigan 78

February, 27, 2013
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Behind 25 points from Jermaine Marshall, host Penn State came back from a 15-point deficit to upset No. 4 Michigan, 84-78, and record its first Big Ten win this season.

Video: Ohio State 65, Penn State 51

January, 26, 2013
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Sam Thompson scores 16, leading the No. 14 Buckeyes past the Nittany Lions.

Video: Indiana 72, Penn State 49

January, 23, 2013
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Victor Oladipo scored 19 points for No. 7 Indiana, which cruised past visiting Penn State, 72-49.

Video: Indiana 74, Penn State 51

January, 7, 2013
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No. 5 Indiana, behind 16 points and 8 rebounds from Christian Watford, improved to 14-1 with a 74-51 victory at Penn State

Conference Power Rankings: Big Ten

December, 28, 2012
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This is the final time I will construct a Big Ten power rankings post out of nothing more than nonconference games; Big Ten play begins Monday.

That is good news for power rankings purposes, sure -- it is easier to rank teams when you have some head-to-head results to look at, obviously. But that's not why I'm excited. I'm excited because, you guys, how good is this league? How much fun is it going to be on a nightly basis? I vote "really good" and "a lot." Let's see where we stand before the voice actor from "Mortal Kombat" yells "FIGHT!"

1. Michigan. The Wolverines have been dormant since before last week's rankings, so there's nothing new to report here. If I had to pick between the two, I'd say Indiana is still the best team in this league and best in the country other than (maybe) Duke. But Michigan is right there offensively, not far behind on defense, and has the talent to beat anyone, anywhere, anytime. Keep an eye out on Mitch McGary. He's been good so far, but he's already flashing signs of great.

2. Indiana. I showed Illinois some love last week, and I couldn't bring myself to punish Ohio State for losing at Duke by five, but now that both have suffered losses I don't feel quite as bad about putting the Hoosiers back near the top of the conference. Here's the thing: The Hoosiers aren't perfect. They aren't going to go undefeated. They have holes on the defensive end, they could turn the ball over less, and Christian Watford's propensity for no-shows is troubling. On the road, in the rigors of this loaded league, IU will lose games -- maybe four or five by the time Big Ten play is through. But this offense is so good -- and the defense so improved -- that you can't bet against this team any night, in any gym. Butler troubles or not, IU is very much for real.

3. Illinois. This is the problem when 43.2 percent of your field goal attempts are 3-pointers: When you miss, you lose. That's what happened Saturday in the Braggin' Rights game in St. Louis, when Illinois suffered its first loss of the season, 82-73 to Missouri. The Tigers were able to win despite Phil Pressey's 3-of-19 (!) night because Illinois shot just 8-of-32 from beyond the arc, well below its season average of 37.1 percent. That's the biggest question about Illinois: Is this laudable hot start sustainable? We'll find out soon enough.

4. Minnesota. The Gophers beat Lafayette at home on Saturday, which wouldn't be enough to make them leapfrog a team under normal circumstances, but (a) I have some concerns with Ohio State, (q.v. below) and (b) I want to give Minnesota some love. It is deserved love! Minnesota is rebounding 48.9 percent of its misses -- if my calculations are correct, that's nearly half -- which is the best rate in the country by about 3 percent. Not too shabby for a team with Duke, Memphis, Stanford, Florida State, USC (a good defensive-rebounding team, despite it all) and South Dakota State on its docket. This is Tubby Smith's best team at Minnesota.

5. Ohio State. It's tough to ride a team too hard for losing to Kansas, even at home, because Kansas is Kansas and Ben McLemore is really good. That said ... Ohio State has a few minor problems. Chiefly, the Buckeyes' defense isn't where it was in recent seasons; it doesn't rebound as well or create turnovers without fouling the same way, even with Aaron Craft doing his thing. The second, it seems, is a lack of identity beyond Craft and Deshaun Thomas; as of yet, none of the Buckeyes' promising young forwards has stepped up and demanded a role the way Thad Matta surely would have hoped. Until that happens, the Buckeyes are going to be good, but well shy of great.

6. Michigan State. Were this nearly any other program, this team's turnover woes would be major cause for concern. But this is Michigan State, where turnover woes are quite frequently -- and quite bafflingly -- often the cost of doing business. Even so, this year's Spartans team is turning it over on 23 percent of their trips down the floor, which is the second-highest mark under Izzo since 2003 (though it could obviously come down before the season ends). MSU defends well, shoots it OK, and rebounds, so even if some of these games are ugly, I'm not worried. Yet.

7. Iowa. Last week I officially reclaimed my set aboard the Iowa Hawkeyes Big Ten sleeper bandwagon, and nothing has changed this week. The Hawkeyes are playing some surprisingly good defense, considering the way they started the season at Virginia Tech (which we now know is just plain good on offense); plus Iowa plays fast, which can skew their defensive numbers. Meanwhile, forward Melsahn Basabe is rebounding the ball like he did as a freshman, when he was one of the Big Ten's most impressive newcomers. Look out for the Hawks.

8. Wisconsin. For all the talk of how much Wisconsin misses former point guard Jordan Taylor and injured point guard Josh Gasser, the fact of the matter is that Wisconsin turns the ball over at the lowest rate of any team in the country. Clearly, ballhandling is not the issue. So what is? The Badgers are shooting fewer 3s and have reoriented their offense into the paint, but probably not enough. The 3s they do shoot are not nearly as likely to go in as in recent seasons past. There may be intangible, leadership-based reasons this team hasn't found its stride yet this year, but it's just as much about making shots, and how.

9. Northwestern. Is there anything worse in college basketball than being a Northwestern fan? Anything?! The past few seasons have been one long series of groin kicks, from near-constant bubble worries to failed home wins to surprisingly good teams and a renewal of hope to suspensions (Jershon Cobb) to sudden season-ending injuries (Drew Crawford). So of course the Wildcats lost by two at home to a good Stanford team last Friday. Of course they did.

10. Purdue. At 5-6, Purdue has the worst record in the Big Ten to date. It is a long season, sure, but the chances this young, rebuilding, inconsistent group gets to the NCAA tournament are slim; it's hard to go 5-6 in November and December and get a tourney bid. And with that said, if you think any coach in the league is looking forward to traveling to West Lafayette to face those Purdue fans and their raucous Mackey Arena echoes, not to mention that grindingly good defense, you, my friend, are wrong.

11. Nebraska. Nebraska does exactly one thing well: It prevents offensive rebounds. Other than that, it is taking its lumps any time it plays a good team (and sometimes when it plays not-so-good teams), which was to be expected in Tim Miles' first season. The latest was a 68-52 defeat at UTEP. So, you know: lumps.

12. Penn State. Are wins over Army, Delaware State (in overtime) and New Hampshire exciting? No. Are they wins? They are! With the prospect of playing against the above league for the next two months, you take a three-game winning streak any way you can.

Conference Power Rankings: Big Ten

December, 21, 2012
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New week, new Big Ten power rankings, new No. 1. Let's dig right in:

1. Michigan: Indiana's loss to Butler Saturday -- and the fashion in which it came -- prompted some legitimate near-term questions for the Hoosiers. But it's not like Michigan only gets this spot by default. Quite the contrary. The Wolverines are 12-0, have an All-America-level point guard (Trey Burke) running a balanced, hyper-talented team, and as such play some of the most efficient offense in the country. Michigan has its weak spots on the defensive end -- it doesn't force many turnovers, for one -- but the Wolverines don't allow opposing offensive rebounds, and they don't foul. They're the real deal.

2. Illinois: It does not make me an Illinois "hater" (haterz!) to assume that the Illini will not finish above Ohio State and Indiana through the rest of the college hoops season. I mean, I'm ready to have my perceptions altered and all, but even at 12-0 the Illini haven't been playing as well on a per-possession basis as many of the teams now sitting below them in my rankings. And, you know, so what? John Groce's team is still shooting the ball well enough from the perimeter to keep all those attempts looking like the right strategy, and Brandon Paul is still playing well, and the Illini beat Butler on a neutral floor (cough, Indiana) and Gonzaga at the Kennel. I think Illinois is probably the fourth- or fifth-best team in the league by February. But right now, it would be a disservice to move Illinois any lower than this.

3. Ohio State. Nonconference games don't get much bigger than what the Bucks have on tap Saturday. Kansas comes to town. Why is this so important? For one, it's Kansas, a good, tough team that will push the Buckeyes to the limit (particularly on the low block, where Jeff Withey's height poses a major matchup problem). For another, Ohio State had just one other nonconference game of note this season, and it was at Duke -- a game the Buckeyes could well have won. Other than that, Ohio State has a pretty weak noncon schedule. Saturday's game is massive.

4. Indiana. Don't worry, Hoosiers fans: Indiana won't languish this low in the rankings too long. But there's nothing wrong with a little medicine right now. On Saturday, IU was outworked by a Butler team with a fraction of its talent. Cody Zeller was beaten up by Andrew Smith. Tom Crean was outcoached by Brad Stevens. The Hoosiers were outrebounded, outfought and outthought, and couldn't put away a team missing three starters to foul trouble in the final minutes of overtime. Zeller needs some physical help along the front line -- the arrival of Hanner Mosquera-Perea should be a step in the right direction there -- and the Hoosiers still need to shore a few things up on defense. They'll get there.

5. Minnesota. It's becoming a weekly routine for me: I dig around for some college hoops stats, I check in on Minnesota, I make sure they're still ranked No. 1 in the country in offensive rebounding, I write as much in the power rankings. And so it is again this week, as the Gophers haven't played since last week's 13-point victory over a really solid North Dakota State team.

6. Michigan State. Thursday was tough on the Spartans. Right up until he unveiled that Duke T-shirt, MSU fans were still holding out a ton of hope that star recruit Jabari Parker would decide to take his talents to East Lansing. Instead, Parker passed, citing his positional similarity with Branden Dawson (a fair point). The good news: The Spartans you know are still a very good defensive team, and they rebound the ball on both ends of the floor. If they can cut down on turnovers -- particularly by not allowing so many possessions (13.9 percent) to turn into steals -- Keith Appling and company have a ton of potential. (Saturday's home date versus Texas should be a win, but beware that Longhorns defense.)

7. Wisconsin. It will come as no surprise for me to tell you that I base most of my statistical analysis -- i.e., the stuff I use to help me see the game, in addition to actually seeing the game (word to ESPN3 and Synergy Sports) -- on Ken Pomeroy's measures of per-possession performance. Currently, Wisconsin is ranked No. 16 overall. Much as it pains me to say this … that number is untrustworthy, even if it isn't quite as off as you might think. Wisconsin's four losses (at Florida, Creighton, Virginia, at Marquette) are all to good teams, and Bo Ryan's squad did put an utter beating on a decent Cal team. But we still haven't seen Wisconsin beat anyone really good. The Badgers have a ways to go yet.

8. Iowa. Hey, don't mind me -- just hanging out on the Iowa Big Ten sleeper bandwagon again. Oh, I'm all the way back on. Sure, sure: I was critical of the Hawkeyes after that loss at Virginia Tech, but that's because I didn't realize Virginia Tech was actually a really good offensive team (and that Erick Green was a legit All-America type this season). But after being somewhat dismissive, the Hawks swept their state foes (Iowa State and Northern Iowa) in back-to-back weeks. I already have Indiana fans telling me they're dreading opening the Big Ten season at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on New Year's Eve. All aboard!

9. Northwestern. The Wildcats got a quality home win this week, beating Texas State 74-68 … wait a second … how do you only beat Texas State 74-68 at home? It's Texas State! (No offense to Texas State.) I'll tell you how: When your best player, guard Drew Crawford, is sidelined for the rest of the season with a shoulder injury, you're bound to experience some difficulties pulling away from inferior teams. The Wildcats had a chance to stay in the middle of the Big Ten race this season, but that Crawford injury might be a killer.

10. Purdue. I maintain faith in Matt Painter's ability as a coach; indeed, he's probably already underrated, and at this rate will definitely remain so. The Boilermakers play good defense. They do not play particularly good offense. Surrounded by a young team and no real developed interior, one-time glue guy D.J. Byrd has tried to morph into a catch-and-shooter star. It hasn't worked. The lackluster loss to Notre Dame at the Crossroads Classic last Saturday wasn't pretty, but it had nothing on the 47-44 loss to Eastern Michigan that preceded it. Yuck.

11. Nebraska. How offensively challenged are the Huskers? I could give you a handful of statistics, like their rank -- No. 251 -- in points per possession, or cite their paltry offensive rebounding and inability to get to the free throw line. Or I could tell you that Nebraska scored 38 points at Oregon last Saturday, or exactly 0.59 ppp. In the words of Jesus Quintana: laughable man.

12. Penn State. No jokes or Lebowski references here. We all knew the Nittany Lions were going to struggle without Tim Frazier, and that's what's happened. To wit: Last Saturday, Penn State had to battle to hold on for an overtime home victory against Delaware State. But hey, at least the Nittany Lions are battling.

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