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
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.
How close in talent level are Big Ten champions Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan? Well, nationally, there are just four spots – 7 through 10 -- that separate them in the AP rankings at regular season's end. It should be an interesting Big Ten tournament this year, especially with Indiana jumping up three spots to join Wisconsin in the top 15.
There is less than a month left before the Big Ten tournament now, but there’s still a lot left to shake out. The frenzy leading up to March is in full force and more than half of the Big Ten is in the mix, fighting for spots.
Some quick thoughts as I look around the Big Ten:
Best team of the week: Purdue. With the Boilermakers firmly on the bubble, Purdue is making a case that it belongs. Two wins – against Northwestern and at Illinois (also both bubble teams) were huge for the tough road ahead that features Michigan State, Michigan and Indiana.
Worst team of the week: Minnesota. Sorry, Gophers fans. The hometown team had two opportunities against great teams – taking Wisconsin to overtime and pulling back to striking distance against Ohio State (who knows what could have happened if not for that 21-point hole earlier) – that would have really aided an NCAA tournament resume.
Player who impressed: Cody Zeller. The tougher-than-nails freshman has been huge in Indiana’s three-game winning streak, and has scored at least 22 points in each of the Hoosiers last two games. The performances earned him a finalist spot for the Wayman Tisdale award.
1. The Gophers are still counted in … for now. As of yesterday, CBS sports bracketologist Jerry Palm has the Gophers getting in the tournament as a 10-seed.
2. Indiana could be finding its stroke again -- and at the right time of year, too. The Hoosiers have now won three straight. We’ve talked about them losing games recently, but has anyone forgotten just how impressive this turnaround is?
3. Illinois might be in a worse spot than Minnesota. The records are identical, but the road ahead for the Illini might be even tougher than that of the Gophers. Illinois still has to play games against Michigan and AT Ohio State and Wisconsin. Plus, this team – which was once ranked – has now lost seven of its last eight. Ouch.
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