Columbus, Ohio – For the casual college men's basketball fan who hasn't yet paid close attention, Ohio State's upset of Kentucky on Dec. 19 might not have been all that strange.
But for those who were tuned into the Big Ten's wacky two months of nonconference curveballs, it was just another head-scratcher that leaves league predictions more than a little fuzzy.
How to summarize these past two months? Well …
Iowa got run over by a Division II school in an exhibition game and then stomped No. 1 Michigan State by 13 points Tuesday.
The Spartans, despite playing the toughest schedule, was previously undefeated and looking like the conference Cinderella.
Indiana has 20-point wins — and losses to UNLV and Wake Forest.
Wisconsin looks nothing like the Badgers of the recent past.
Perennial bottom-dweller Northwestern is cruising.
And those Ohio State Buckeyes, after enduring a four-game losing streak that included a pair of guarantee game losses at home, suddenly rebounded to knock off the fourth-ranked team in the country.
In other words: As the Gophers head to Columbus, Ohio, for their conference opener at Ohio State on Wednesday, we're still not sure what the Big Ten could bring this season — other than confusion.
In October, when writers began ranking the league's teams, the prevailing thought was this would be Maryland's season. Now? The Melo Trimble-led Terrapins are certainly still in contention for the top spot with an impressive collection of talent, a No. 4 ranking and only one loss at North Carolina. But it's clear they're not alone.
Michigan State already has knocked off Kansas, Louisville and Florida while running the nonconference table, but the Spartans will have to avoid more losses like Tuesday's for at least the next game or two while national Player of the Year candidate Denzel Valentine recovers from minor knee surgery.
Right behind those two is Purdue, with its towering frontcourt of two 7-footers and a talented 6-9 freshman.
The rest of the league is shaped like one big question mark. There are a handful of teams, puzzling through November and December, with chances to assert their identities in January and February.
Indiana was thought to be among the elite this year, and looked it in a victory over Notre Dame on Dec. 19, but head-scratching losses and defensive struggles have the pressure up once again.
Wisconsin has been a shadow of the team that charged to the NCAA championship game a year ago, and the Badgers now must navigate their first rocky season of the past 15 years under the guidance of interim head coach Greg Gard after Bo Ryan retired earlier this month.
Michigan might be the best team that isn't getting much attention. Of course, getting annihilated in games against Xavier, Connecticut and SMU will do that. But Caris LeVert — last year's league Player of the Year contender who broke his foot last January — is explosive again and has already led the Wolverines to victories over Texas and North Carolina State.
The Gophers will visit a Buckeyes team with a dynamic but young roster. Will Ohio State look more like the team that beat Kentucky by seven on a neutral court, or the one that lost to lost to Louisiana Tech by eight at home?
Even Northwestern, with only a loss to mighty North Carolina, looks stout at 12-1. But then again, the Wildcats haven't really played anyone else.
At the bottom of the standings sits a tangle of squads still trying to figure things out. Illinois has dropped games to North Florida and Chattanooga. Nebraska hasn't won consecutive games since mid-November. Penn State might be taking a step backward. Rutgers' offense looks even worse than last year.
And then there are the Gophers who, one season after entirely missing the postseason, have slid to .500 by dropping four of their past five. Up next is a wicked start to the conference schedule, with the trip to Columbus before returning home Saturday to face the Spartans, who won't be top-ranked much longer. Richard Pitino's squad will need a big upset to avoid a 6-8, 0-2 start. The postseason would be a long way from there.
Some of this mayhem could be predicted. But all of this? No way. Then again, after a topsy-turvy 2014-15 Big Ten season, perhaps the unexpected is what we should expect.