The Big Ten will have plenty of challenges for Minnesota throughout the season -- but none as great as the next four game stretch.
That span of a week and a half -- you can call it The Meat Grinder or the Sadistic Slate or the Trail of Terror (these are just some suggestions) -- is going to test the Gophers in every way they can be tested and ultimately spit out a very blunt picture of just what this team is.
Let's take a look at the next four:
at Michigan State (1:15 Saturday, BTN):
The scary: The atmosphere at Breslin Center, where student section wraps around the court is simply terrifying, and will jolt the Gophers awake after a game at Penn State in which Amelia -- the queen of paranoia about ear damage -- didn't even think about putting in her ear plugs.
The scarier: Sparty has executed all season long despite a flurry of injuries. All three of MSU's top scorers have dealt with some issue or another, and yet they are all producing at a high level. Against Ohio State, the Spartans were again hobbled (Travis Trice = flu, Keith Appling = cramps, Adreian Payne = sore foot) but yet they got the job done against one of the nation's best teams.
The silver lining: The Spartans can lose leads too. In fact, they lost a whopper against the Buckeyes, nearly letting the big win slip away after Ohio State plowed back from a 17-point deficit. It's something the Gophers have had trouble with, so although OSU is, well, much better than Penn State or Purdue, that fact may be of some comfort to Minnesota fans.
vs. Ohio State (8 p.m. Thursday, ESPN2):
The scary: The Buckeyes boast two of the premiere ball theives in the country. Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott have both been incredibly pesky early on (Scott has the 23rd best steal percentage in the nation according to kenpom.com, and Craft is 46th best), something that should be concerning for a Gophers team that has had trouble holding onto the ball in conference play even when they aren't being harassed.
The scarier: Hey look, it's the top-rated efficient defense in the nation. It's not just Craft and Scott -- Ohio State has played incredible all-around defense, allowing just 56 points a game. The Gophers' offense has been the strength of the team early on, but if they struggle to get going against the Buckeyes stifling system, it will put extra pressure on their own defense to keep them in the game.
The silver lining: They're human? That's right, Ohio State is no longer undefeated after dropping their first loss to MSU on Tuesday. There's really no shame in that, especially at a place like Breslin Center, and after battling back from a deep deficit, but it does shave off a sliver of the intimidation factor.
at Iowa (noon Jan. 19, BTN):
The scary: Roy Devyn Marble and Aaron White have both taken the next big step. With a strong early start to the year, the pair has shown the capability of being leaders, just what a team on the verge needed. Both have been consistent through the start of Big Ten play, and have stepped up in the big games, even the losses (such as Villanova and Iowa State). These two are carrying the Hawkeyes.
The scarier: They know how to dominate. Iowa has not had the problem of playing down to competition this year: if the opponent shows a weakness, the Hawkeyes will take advantage. Iowa, which routed Northwestern by 26, has beaten five teams by at least 33 points this year, and three by at least 43.
The silver lining: Iowa isn't on the same level as the other three. The Hawkeyes are still growing and improving and isn't a bonafide powerhouse. They've struggled in close games, with all three losses coming by five points or fewer, so if the Gophers can keep it close, they've got a chance.
vs. Wisconsin (8 p.m. Jan. 22, BTN)
The scary: The Badgers are still undefeated, despite playing arguably the toughest schedule in the nation (they are currently No. 1 in RPI and No. 3 overall on kenpom.com)
The scarier: We know all about Bucky's defense, but what about this offense? Kenpom ranks Wisconsin as the third most efficient offense in the country, powered by their extremely balanced lineup.
The silver lining: The Badgers haven't hit the meat of their schedule yet. Is Wisconsin battle-tested or exhausted? Yes, Wisconsin had a tough non-conference schedule, comparably -- considering most teams do not face seven top-100 teams during that slate -- but they have yet to see the league's best. The win vs. Iowa was good, but close , and at home. How will the Badgers fare against the conference elite on the road? We still don't know that yet.