Star Tribune staff writer Amelia Rayno takes a look at every team in the Big Ten as conference play is slated to begin. Teams are listed in alphabetical order:
The Gophers aside, the Illini have been the Big Ten's biggest surprise of the early season, winning their first 12 games (including winning the Maui Invitational over Thanksgiving) and making it as high as No. 10 in the rankings before falling to then-No. 7 Missouri on Dec. 22. Behind Brandon Paul, the Illini have had impressive play from the backcourt, making a Big Ten-best 9.4 three-pointers per game. But as successful as the Illini have been in that regard, Missouri exposed them as somewhat one-dimensional, without the frontcourt strength to battle inside.
With most of the Big Ten talk surrounding the six teams in the Associated Press poll, the Hawkeyes have been a bit overlooked, but Iowa's early successes shouldn't be ignored. The Hawkeyes have gone 12-2 in nonconference play, boasting an improved defense and plenty of depth. Devyn Marble has become the go-to guy and will try to lead Iowa to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006.
The Hoosiers have fallen from their spot atop the national rankings after their loss to Butler, but there still is plenty to be in awe about with this balanced squad. Cody Zeller has been everything expected in his sophomore season, and the Hoosiers do just about everything right -- the highest-scoring team in the country, second in field-goal percentage, 12th in rebounding and outscoring opponents by more than 30 points per game.
This always was supposed to be a guard-driven team, and behind Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr. and freshman Nik Stauskas, the Wolverines are shooting 51 percent from the floor. But unlike in the recent past, this season's version isn't as reliant on outside shooting alone, with multiple weapons in its arsenal. Michigan has gotten a big lift inside from 6-10 freshman Mitch McGary.
The Spartans still are ranked No. 19 nationally, a fact that seems to be undercut with pundits eager to talk about how Michigan State just hasn't been up to its traditional standards this season. Without graduated Draymond Green, the team has struggled some inside and still is searching for that leader to bind everything. But losses to Connecticut and Miami (Fla.) don't paint the full picture. The Spartans are battle-tested, and still have a strong core with Keith Appling, Branden Dawson, Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne.
The Gophers have been here before -- looking at the start of the Big Ten schedule fresh off a nonconference slate of successes. But something feels different this time. Maybe it's the fact that the team is healthy. Or that the team's defense is hugely improved. Or that it finally has found offensive balance. Whatever the reason, the Gophers have caught the nation's eye and head into the Big Ten season ranked No. 11 in the country, their highest ranking in the Tubby Smith era.
After the Cornhuskers lost five of their six top scorers from a team that struggled a year ago, expectations were not high. But new coach Tim Miles has been effective in getting this team to play, and the result has been some intrigue with a rebuilding team that has beaten Wake Forest and Southern California. Dylan Talley has been a leader and a legitimate scoring threat, but the biggest surprise has perhaps been inside, where Brandon Ubel and Andre Almeida have held their own.
The Wildcats suffered a big blow when they lost Drew Crawford for the season to a torn labrum earlier this month. The senior forward had been Northwestern's leading scorer at 13.5 points per game. Without him, the Wildcats have two players -- Reggie Hearn and Dave Sobolewski -- who are capable three-point shooters, but their inside play will need to improve.
The Buckeyes haven't disappointed early, but they haven't exactly wowed either. Ohio State lost to Kansas and Duke and had its aircraft carrier game with Marquette canceled, so its most impressive victory has been over Long Beach State. Deshaun Thomas has been great, but otherwise the Buckeyes are in need of another scoring threat. With Jared Sullinger gone, the team doesn't have a player taller than 6-8, so rebounding hasn't come easy and the Buckeyes can be bullied inside.
The Nittany Lions would have struggled anyway, but since their senior point guard Tim Frazier suffered a season-ending Achilles tendon injury in November, Penn State is rebuilding. Sophomore D.J. Newbill and junior Jermaine Marshall have held the team together through the nonconference schedule, and freshman forward Donovon Jack shows promise. This season, however, figures to be another down one in State College.
At 6-6, the Boilermakers have had a rough start. Losing to Bucknell, Oregon State, Villanova, Xavier, Eastern Michigan and Notre Dame wouldn't be unthinkable, in a prism, with talent on each of those teams. But losing all of those games spells trouble for Purdue. The frontcourt has shown some pop, but with the backcourt doing most of the scoring, coach Matt Painter has opted to go small.
Four losses have dropped the Badgers out of the Top 25, and while they have talent, there is plenty to improve if the team wants to make waves in league play. With Josh Gasser injured, Wisconsin needs either George Marshall or Traevon Jackson to separate himself at point guard and look like a true floor general. While Jared Berggren and Ben Brust have played well, the team still is in search of a go-to scorer.