The Big Ten season, what we've all been waiting for, is less than a week away. We all know that this next part of the schedule is when teams make themselves into true contenders or fall apart against the conference's constant grind. But already, there has been plenty to intrigue through the fall. Five things around the league that have surprised me thus far:
Michigan's early struggles: Yes, they're young. Yes, they've lost star guards Trey Burke an Tim Hardaway Jr. But the Wolverines appear as though they still have a long way to go to compete at the top of the Big Ten, as they were expected to. The Wolverines lost to Charlotte in November, and have been unable to sufficiently challenge very talented teams (with losses to Iowa State, Duke and Arizona) Mitch McGary's health issues (again) isn't helping anything, but the Wolverines do have plenty of talent around the sophomore big man.
Aaron White's third-year transformation: OK, it's not so much a surprise as just really fun to watch. I've liked the 6-9 forward since he landed in Iowa, the only major school to really recruit him. Now, in his junior season, he's becoming the complete player he's seemed capable of from the start. White is so versatile, with his capacity for rebounding and battling inside as well as his ability to take the ball off the dribble and shoot the three. His 25-point, 17-rebound game against Iowa State was nothing short of impressive. Yes, Aaron White has arrived.
LaQuinton Ross has been good, not great, and yet Ohio State is still thriving: Ross, who received some preseason Big Ten player of the year nods, looks with each passing game as though he might be ready to take that next step soon, but for now, the Buckeyes success is truly a team effort. Unlike a year ago, when Ohio State WAS Deshaun Thomas, this version of the Buckeyes is a story of balance-- an approach that was able to overcome Notre Dame at Madison Square Garden this past weekend when each starter average between 9 and 16 points.
Wisconsin's prowess: It's hard to deny how good the Badgers have been early, putting up their best start in the modern era of the program. Wisconsin has perennially been good, but the "great" so far has been the result of consistency throughout the lineup, great outside shooting and the young team's ability to compensate for the veteran starting frontcourt, all of which is gone after last year. The freshman have been solid, Josh Gasser has been great in his return from ACL surgery and Sam Dekker has appeared to take the next step. Basically, everything is clicking for the Bo Ryan boys.
Penn State probably doesn't belong at the bottom of the league anymore: With Tim Frazier back from an ACL tear and now Pitt transfer John Johnson joining D.J. Newbill, the Nittany Lions have arguably the best backcourt in the Big Ten. Penn State will still take their lumps, and have showed they still have a ways to go, allowing Princeton to return from a 20-point deficit for the Tigers win, but there is plenty of promise in State College. Right now, the Nittany Lions don't look much different from Minnesota, Illiinois, Purdue or Nebraska.