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Big Ten Digest: A Very Special Digest

Week one in an on-going series on the basketball teams of the Big Ten...

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Hello Digest readers! Big news - the Digest has come down with a fever. A basketball fever. I'm told it's like the flu, but without all that phlegmy stuff. Starting this week, I'll be covering basketball within the conference as well as football. Never fear though, even though the regular season for football is nearly complete, the Digest will also cover football through the end of the bowl season. Look for this week's football digest later this week.

For the second year in a row, the Big Ten scored a victory in the Big Ten - ACC Challenge as wins by Illinois, Michigan, Northwestern, Ohio State, Purdue, and Wisconsin propelled the conference to a 6-4 win. The conference did suffer a major upset as the No. 13 Minnesota Gophers fell to the unranked Virginia Cavaliers, and a disappointment as No. 6 ranked Michigan State narrowly lost to No. 1 ranked Duke. Still, given the historical dominance of the ACC in this battle, it's encouraging to see the conference look so strong in recent times. The conference has seven teams legitimately looking to be included in the expanded NCAA tournament this year, with another two or three sitting outside but still possibilities if they play well in-conference, which is a great development for basketball in the Big Ten.

Because the Digest is coming to the basketball party a bit late, this edition will take a slightly different form from that of future editions. After the news and rankings update, we'll take a status look at each team - how the season has gone so far, a recent highlight, as well as what's up next on their schedule. In future weeks I'll return to the more normal weekly recap and preview style.

News Update:

Indiana player Guy-Marc Michel has lost his eligibility appeal and will not play for the Hoosiers this season. Michel played five games for a professional French team in 2007-2008, and also enrolled in a French college in 2006. Though all sides in the debate agreed that Michel did not intend to compromise his eligibility, his past actions will still require him to sit out the year. He may still be allowed to practice with the team, however.

In recruiting news, two recent commits have prompted reports of a turf war over elite Indiana high school players starting up between Indiana and Purdue. After 6'11" power forward and member of the Indiana Elite travel team (ranked #100 in the class of 2011 by ESPNU) Cody Zeller committed to Indiana, Purdue managed to secure a verbal commitment out of shooting guard Bryson Scott, of the class of 2013. Scott had been leaning to IU, but the university's interest seemed to wane after securing several other high profile signings, and that let the Boilermakers sneak in and grab him instead.

 

Rankings Watch:




Five Big Ten teams are ranked in the week four rankings, with No. 2 Ohio State currently leading the pack.

Illinois:

No. 20 in the AP Poll, No. 21 in the Coaches' Poll

Michigan State:

No. 6 in the AP Poll, No. 6 in the Coaches' Poll

Minnesota:

No. 15 in the AP Poll, No. 13 in the Coaches' Poll

Ohio State:

No. 2 in the AP Poll, No. 2 in the Coaches' Poll

Purdue:

No. 22 in the AP Poll, No. 18 in the Coaches' Poll

 

Season Recap:

Several Big Ten teams have gotten off to hot starts. Though conference play won't begin for some time (the first game sees Indiana host Penn State on December 27th), Ohio State is atop the standings at 6-0. Northwestern rounds out the list of undefeated teams at 5-0. Nationally ranked Illinois, Michigan State, Minneosta, and Purdue are shortly behind, within striking distance.

Illinois (No. 21, 7-1)

Bruce Weber's fighting Illini have surged out to a strong start, with their only disappointing performance a loss to No. 22  Texas in the semi-finals of the Coaches vs. Cancer tournament. Illinois has been helped by the strong play of guards Demetri McCamey and former Big Ten freshman of the year D.J. Richardson, as well as forward Mike Davis. All three are averaging double digits in points on the season, contributing to the Illini's average 80.3 points per game. Though Illinois has performed well to date, the top of the conference is likely to be crowded this year, and they'll have to keep it up if they want to last with the Buckeyes and the Spartans.

Recent Highlight: The Illini scored one for the good guys on Tuesday night when they took down their Big Ten - ACC challenge opponent North Carolina, 79-67. The Tar Heels have had a tough start to the season, currently sitting at 4-3, but it's still good to see the Illini post a strong victory here.

Next Up: The Illini will have a battle this Saturday as they visit No. 24 Gonzaga. Can they handle their second ranked opponent of the season better than they did No. 22 Texas?

Indiana (6-1)

Though the Hoosiers are off to a hot start this year, the inelligibility of 7 foot center Michel is seriously going to impact this squad. Forward Christian Watford is the current replacement, and he's leading the team in scoring at 17.5 ppg, but the Hoosiers really could have used the size of Michel in the frontcourt. Indiana had been playing well lately, but dropped their most recent game to Boston College in the Big Ten - ACC Challenge. In that 88-76 loss, the Hoosiers trailed often, though they closed their deficit to only a single point at one point in the game. Ultimately the Eagles' 3-pt accuracy and overall 51.6% from the field proved too much to handle, though. Unfortunately the Hoosiers have yet another challenge up ahead when they host No. 11 Kentucky before Big Ten play starts. A shot at the tournament this year is an outside possibility for Tom Crean's squad, but better times for the Hoosiers are definitely down the road after their recent recruiting successes.

Recent Highlight: Though the Hoosiers lost to a tough BC team, Christian Watford did manage 23 points in the game. If he can keep this up, perhaps Indiana won't miss Michel all that much after all.

Next Up: Indiana should bounce back and claim a seventh victory when they host the 1-7 Savannah Tigers, but they're going to have an uphill battle when they travel to No. 11 Kentucky the very next game.

Iowa (3-4)

Hawkeye fans might want to just close this article and wait for the football digest to come out later this week... er..... never mind. Guess there's bad news there too. If only I wrote a wrestling digest. The Hawkeyes currently sit in the bottom of the conference standings, the only team with a losing record at 3-4. This isn't really a surprise considering that Iowa is definitely in a rebuilding year, having hired a new coach, Fran McCaffery just this past March. I'm not exactly sure what the team is rebuilding to, considering they've been pretty awful in most recent years, but at least they're trying.

The only bright spot for Iowa is that they only have one more game left against an NCAA Tourney team before conference play starts at the end of December. The Hawkeyes will host Northern Iowa on December 7th.

Recent Highlight: Even though they lost, the Hawkeyes managed to keep it close against their ACC opponent Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons aren't ranked, but they do have a record above .500, so, that's impressive... I guess...

Next Up: Idaho State comes to down this Saturday. The Bengals are currently at 2-3.

Michigan (4-2)

After starting out 3-0 the Wolverines have faltered a bit, dropping games to UTEP and No. 10 ranked Syracuse. Both losses are largely understandable, though, and it's not as though Blue has been dropping games to cupcakes. The big problem for the Wolverines is the strength of the conference. Michigan isn't really fielding any "star" players this year, relying mostly on underclassmen, and though things are going okay, it's anyone's guess as to whether the team can maintain it when conference play starts.

Recent Highlight: The Wolverines won their own Big Ten - ACC challenge game, defeating Clemson on the road 69-61. Clemson is a bubble tournament team this year, so that's an impressive win for Michigan.

Next Up: Michigan hosts 4-1 Harvard. Michigan might have a battle on their hands, as Harvard outranks them in all statistics but rebounds per game.

Michigan State (No. 6, 5-2)

The Spartans have started off well, with just one blemish coming in a hard fought 70-67 loss to surprise team UConn. Though the Spartans are currently the second highest ranked team in the conference, they are within striking distance of Ohio State. The Spartans have been led by the strong play of guard Kalin Lucas, who looks to be fully recovered from his Achilles injury. Lucas is currently averaging 17.5 points per game and is one of three Spartans - Durrell Summers and Draymond Green are the others - in double digits in ppg this season. Though Sparty had quite the challenge in its ACC matchup against No. 1 ranked Duke, Tom Izzo's team managed to hang in there for most of the game. Down several times, MSU closed deficits but it was turnovers that did them in during this one. The Blue Devils turned 20 State turnovers into 28 points in this game, and that was MSU's undoing. Though MSU did manage to shoot 49% from the field and Korie Lucious had 20 points, they won't be able to take down top teams unless they limit their turnovers. Without that, they could even have problems against Ohio State during conference play this year.

Recent Highlight: MSU took down No. 11 ranked Washington on the road 76-71 last week, good enough for third place in the Maui Invitational. The Spartans were led by, who else? Kalin Lucas, with his 29 points.

Next Up: The Spartans return home to host Bowling Green and then face the No. 7 Syracuse Orange.

Minnesota (No. 13, 6-1)

Looking like a likely tournament team again this year, the Golden Gophers are off to a hot start. Minnesota is led by forward Trevor Mbakwe, currently close to averaging a double-double at 14.3 ppg and 9.3 rebounds / game. The only blemish for the Gophers thus far is their recent loss to unranked Virginia, 87-79, in the Big Ten - ACC Challenge. This was supposed to be the easy game for the Big Ten... so the ugly play by the Gophers was a bit of a shock. They're really missing point guard Al Nolen right now, and his health seems crucial to them competing at the top of the conference this year.

Recent Highlight: Minnesota took down former final four player West Virginia 74-70 to claim the Puerto Rico Tip-Off tourney and garnered a tournament MVP award for Mbakwe in the process.

Next Up: This weekend sees the Gophers host the Cornell Big Red. Currently at 2-5, the Gophers should be able to bounce back from their loss to the Cavaliers.

Northwestern (5-0)

Is this the year? The year the Wildcats will finally erase their stigma as the only BCS affiliated school to never make it to the NCAA tournament? Currently at 5-0, the undefeated ‘Cats are listed as a bubble team, predicted to be one of the last four who play in the new tournament play-in games, part of the new 68 team format. After the off-season drama with the departure of star player Kevin Coble, the hot start of the Wildcats is a bit surprising. What's more surprising is that Bill Carmondy's team is putting up an average 51.7 FG percentage, good for 10th best in the country. Northwestern is currently scoring points at an unprecedented clip, having surpassed 90 points twice this season in games against Northern Illinois and Georgia Tech. During the previous fourteen seasons, Northwestern scored more than 90 points in a game only three times.... Ever. Wow. Maybe this is the year after all.

Recent Highlight: The ‘Cats shot 64.6% from the field in their 91-71 Big Ten - ACC Challenge victory over Georgia Tech. Forward John Shurna, currently leading the team with 22.4 ppg, had 21 points, while sophomore guard Drew Crawford put up 19 and a season high six rebounds.

Next Up: The ‘Cats put their undefeated record on the line, hosting 4-1 Long Island this Saturday. The Blackbirds currently are 21st in the nation in overall points per game, averaging 82.6.

Ohio State (No. 2, 6-0)

The undefeated Buckeyes currently top the conference and are looking like a monster team again. Of course, Michigan State might take exception to that, but it's certain that the top of the conference is stacked this year. Key for Ohio State this year has been their ability to pull out wins even when playing like shit. In their ACC game, OSU shot a horrific 32.2% from the field (their worst percentage in a win in the past 15 years) but still managed to down FSU 58-44. Freshman forward Jared Sullinger is a big part of the OSU success, averaging nearly a double-double at 14.5 ppg and 9.3 rebounds / game. Barring ridiculous injuries, the Buckeyes are definitely going to the tournament this year, but the question is whether or not they can do so as Big Ten champions.

Recent Highlight: The FSU game was pretty icky, so I'll shine the spotlight on the game before - Ohio State's 66-45 dominance of Miami (OH). The reason why this game is a highlight? It just so happened to be fifth-year senior guard David Lighty's 100th career victory. Lighty is currently leading the team in ppg at 14.7, and he and Sullinger make quite the combination.

Next Up: OSU is off until the 9th, when they host the IUPUI Jaguars, currently 3-4. The next challenge that the Buckeyes will have will be when host South Carolina, currently at 4-1.

Penn State (5-2)

Wait, the Nittany Lions are 5-2? The epic snub of the 2009 NCAA tourney, the Nittany Lions just might be on the bubble for this year's big dance. If they can keep this up, that is. That's a big if, considering the depth of the conference and the fact that PSU's current record hasn't come from any really tough games thus far. Their toughest recent match was against the bubble team that is the Maryland Terps, but they ended up dropping that 62-39, shooting an abysmal 21% from the field on the night. That's going to have to change if the Nittany Lions want to avoid an NIT fate this year. Though I don't think they really have the talent to hang with the upper crust of the Big Ten in 2010-2011, if Northwestern can play with a possible tourney bid in sight, so can the Nittany Lions.

Recent Highlight: Let's just forget that Big Ten - ACC Challenge happened, shall we? In the game right before that Penn State dominated Southern Conference team Furman 70-49, shooting a season high 12 of 19 from beyond the 3-pt arc. More shooting like that, and less like in the game against the Terps, and the Nittany Lions might actually go somewhere in the conference.

Purdue (No. 18, 6-1)

The Boilermakers sustained a major loss prior to the start of this season as Robbie Hummel was once again injured. Hummel has been replaced in the lineup by freshman guard Terone Johnson, who after starting the season hot, shooting just under 50%, has dropped off a bit. The team is currently being led by guard E'Twaun Moore and big man JaJuan Johnson. Moore is averaging just over 20 ppg and Johnson is sitting at 16, with nearly 9 rebounds per game. Outside of a surprise upset by Richmond, the Boilermakers have started the season well, but they'll need consistency out of everyone including their potential Hummel replacements if they hope to compete with Michigan State and Ohio State. A bid in the tourney is almost certainly in their future, but they've got an uphill road in the conference.

Recent Highlight: Though they were down late, the Boilermakers managed to take the Virginia Tech Hokies to overtime in their Big Ten - ACC Challenge game. JuJuan Johnson scored 29 points in the game as Purdue edged Tech 58-55, sealing a win in the Big Ten - ACC Challenge for the conference for a second year in a row.

Next Up: The weekend sees the Boilermakers hosting a 4-3 Crimson Tide squad, before heading to take on the Crusaders of instate rival Valpo.

Wisconsin (5-2)

It's been a bit of a disappointing start for the Badgers, as a pre-season rank disappeared in quick fashion after a narrow loss to UNLV in the third week of the season. The Badgers also added a loss to an 8-0 Notre Dame squad in the finals of the Old Spice Classic, but recently rebounded with a dominating victory over their ACC Challenge opponent North Carolina State. The 4-2 Wolfpack were manhandled by Bucky in an 87-48 loss. The Badgers managed to hold NC State scoreless for an entire ten minutes, and kept the Wolfpack shooting just 31% on the evening. Though Bo Ryan's team has faltered a bit initially, Wisconsin looks to be a solid upper-middle player in the conference this year, led by senior forward Jon Leuer, who is currently averaging more than 18 ppg, though his field goal percentage is sitting at just 48.7, down from last year's solid 52.2. Still, even though a berth in the tournament is likely, it's going to take more than stifling defense to get past the early rounds. Someone other than Leuer needs to step up for this squad to be competitive in the conference and the tournament this year.

Recent Highlight: Wisconsin's bounceback game against NC State would certainly qualify, and though they lost by seven to Notre Dame, the Irish are currently undefeated and it was in the finals of the Old Spice Classic tournament. Yeah there haven't been too many highlights from the Badgers' games against quality opponents, but times are looking up a bit in Madison for the rest of the schedule.

Up Next: The Badgers face a trio of in-state schools as they host the 3-4 Milwaukee Panthers over the weekend, followed by a trip to 5-2 Marquette, and then a return to the Kohl Center for a visit by 3-3 Green Bay.