This is Amelia Rayno's third season on the Gophers men's basketball beat. She learned college basketball in North Carolina (Go Tar Heels!), where fanhood is not an option. In 2010, she joined the Star Tribune after graduating from Boston's Emerson College, which sadly had no exciting D-I college hoops to latch onto. Amelia has also worked on the sports desk at the Boston Globe and interned at the Detroit News.

  Follow Rayno on Twitter @AmeliaRayno

Some thoughts on Big Ten teams heading into conference play

Posted by: Amelia Rayno under College basketball, Gophers coaches, Gophers players Updated: December 31, 2013 - 9:35 AM

These capsules on each Big Ten team were published in today's Star Tribune (along with my story on Wisconsin's success) ahead of the official start of Big Ten season this afternoon, but I thought I'd share them here as well, in order of how I rank the teams in the league right now. Gophers fans should not get overly excited about the fact that I rank Minnesota (gasp!) sixth in the league right now. It doesn't mean I change my final prediction for the Gophers (I don't), and really, it's more of a statement about other teams disappointing rather than Minnesota impressing right now. Of course, these rankings are meant to reflect what has already happened, not what is to come -- and as wel all know, what really matters is January and February.

1. Wisconsin
Record: 13-0
Outlook: It's hard to call the Badgers' non-conference schedule anything but a success, with Wisconsin -- behind very balanced production -- skyrocketing up the AP poll to No. 4.
Player to watch: Sam Dekker 14.5 points, 6.2 rebounds a game. The 6-7 forward has really developed into a complete player in his second year, rooting a frontcourt that lost all of its starters.
Defining stat: Wisconsin's schedule so far is ranked third in the country by ESPN.com.

2. Ohio State: 
Record: 13-0
Outlook: There might not be a star like there was a year ago, with Deshaun Thomas, but the Buckeyes are getting it done with stellar defense and a wide range of scorers.
Player to watch: Lenzelle Smith Jr. 13.4 points, 5.2 rebounds a game. LaQuinton Ross was supposed to run away with the team accolades, but early on, it's Smith who has impressed, also getting to the free-throw line 48 times, where he has made 81 percent of his shots.
Defining stat: The Buckeyes are holding opponents to 24.3 percent of their attempts from three-point range, the best defense behind the arc in the nation.

3. Michigan State:
Record: 11-1
Outlook: The Spartans have dealt with injury issues all season and still the only blip on the radar was an ugly loss to North Carolina. Michigan State, which beat now No. 15 Kentucky in the second game of the year, topped off their non-conference schedule with a very convincing 101-48 win over New Orleans.
Player to watch: Keith Appling: 15.9 points, 3.3 rebounds, 5 assists a game. The Spartans are brimming with players to watch, but Appling, despite dealing with a sore hip, has been absolutely phenomenal in guiding MSU.
Defining stat: Four of the Spartans' five starters are averaging double-digits.

4. Iowa:
Record: 11-2
Outlook: The Hawkeyes have definitely been the Big Ten's surprise team of the year so far, combining harassing defense with impressive effort on the boards to find early success.
Player to watch: Aaron White: 13.2 points, 6.2 rebounds a game. In his junior year, White is becoming everything he's shown the raw talent to be, scoring in a variety of ways and battling in the paint.
Defining stat: Iowa is grabbing 39.8 percent of available offensive rebounds, good for 16th best in the nation according to Kenpom.com.

5. Michigan:
Record: 8-4
Outlook: It's fair to criticize the Wolverines, who recently dropped out of the national AP rankings after landing at No. 7 in the preseason poll. But this young squad has already faced Duke, Arizona, Florida State and Iowa State. They will only learn and grow from here.
Player to watch: Glenn Robinson III: 14.2 points, 5 rebounds a game. With Mitch McGary out with a back injury, and scheduled to have surgery, Robinson will need to be the heart of the frontcourt more than ever.
Defining stat: The Wolverines have posted a 13.8 turnover percentage, seventh best in the country.

6. Gophers:
Record: 11-2
Outlook: Minnesota has faced some good teams this season, and hasn't totally been embarrassed, overcoming glaring shortcomings in the frontcourt, for the most part.
Player to watch: DeAndre Mathieu: 11.9 points, 4.8 assists a game. The JUCO point guard has been a Godsend to new coach Richard Pitino, making his up-tempo, pressing system run with ease. Can Mathieu keep up his impressive production in the Big Ten? It will be a new challenge for the 5-9 guard.
Defining stat: The entire frontcourt is providing just 18.6 rebounds a game. That leaves a lot of work for the guards.

7. Indiana:
Record: 10-3
Outlook: If the Hoosiers are going to compete with the cream of the crop in the league, they've got to learn how to beat good teams. With their only wins coming over cupcakes, the young Indiana might be in for a surprise at the start of league play.
Player to watch: Noah Vonleh: 12 points, 9.5 rebounds a game. The freshman has provided big production so far, and even more will be expected of him. On a young team, players have to grow up fast.
Defining stat: The Hoosiers are 0-3 against the only top-100 teams they've played this season.

8. Illinois:
Record: 11-2
Outlook: A neutral-court win over Missouri has given the Illini something to feel good about as they ease into January. If Tracy Abrams and Joseph Bertrand can take the next step, Illinois could be intriguing in the Big Ten.
Player to watch: Rayvonte Rice: 18.2 points, 5.5 rebounds a game. After sitting out last year after transferring from Drake, Rice has become the go-to player on his new team, shooting .500 from the field.
Defining stat: The Illini have held opponents to 40.2 percent shooting.

9. Purdue: 
Record: 10-3
Outlook: After a few neutral-court losses, perhaps a win over West Virginia on the road gives the Boilermakers a little steam just as things heat up in the conference.
Player to watch: AJ Hammons: 8 points, 6.8 rebounds a game. The 7-foot center hasn't the sophomore leap Purdue fans were hoping for, just yet, but his size will be a commodity in the Big Ten. How quickly can he grow?
Defining stat: Purdue blocks 6.3 shots a game.

10. Penn State:
Record: 9-4
Outlook: It's pretty obvious from once glance at their Kenpom.com page -- the Nittany Lions are highly improved from a year ago, starting with their stellar backcourt, which happens to be one of the best in the country.
Player to watch: Tim Frazier: 18.2 points, 7.5 rebounds per game. He's back and it seems he hasn't missed a beat, rooting a strong backcourt that also includes D.J. Newbill and Pittsburgh transfer John Johnson. 
Defining stat: Penn State is making 54.1 percent of its two-point shots.

11. Nebraska:
Record: 8-4
Outlook: The Huskers might be at least another year away. Early on, they've struggled against good teams and haven't run away with many games, even against very mediocre teams.
Player to watch: Ray Gallegos: 8.7 points, 1.7 rebounds, 1.8 assists. The senior guard needs to do more for the Huskers, who are far and away being led by sophomore Terran Petteway. 
Defining stat: Opponents are grabbing 1.4 rebounds a game more than Nebraska.

12. Northwestern:
Record: 7-6
Outlook: New head coach Chris Collins has a ways to go with his crew, which is firmly in transition mode after becoming accustomed to Bill Carmody's Princeton offense.
Player to watch: Drew Crawford: 16.4 points, 7.8 rebounds a game. After returning from season-ending shoulder surgery a year ago, the fifth-year senior has been a force when he's been able to stay on the court. This year, Crawford has been dealing with back spasms.
Defining stat: The Wildcats are making just 41.5 percent of their shots from the field.

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