Big Ten race open as league play be­gins

Ter­rap­ins start with Illi­nois on Tues­day

The Washington Times Daily - - SPORTS - BY LUKE MEREDITH

The Big Ten might not be as good as it has been in re­cent years.

But it sure looks like the con­fer­ence ti­tle chase will be in­ter­est­ing in 2016-17.

The con­fer­ence didn’t have a team ranked in the top 10 in the most re­cent poll, with Wis­con­sin, Pur­due and In­di­ana ranked Nos. 14, 15 and 16 re­spec­tively.

Teams like Michi­gan, Ohio State, Min­nesota and North­west­ern — yes, North­west­ern — have a shot at push­ing for a top-three fin­ish, and Michi­gan State can’t be counted out no mat­ter how banged up the Spar­tans are.

Mary­land is 12-1, Illi­nois has bounced back af­ter los­ing three in a row and Iowa has some­what turned a cor­ner af­ter an ugly start.

The ti­tle pic­ture is very mud­dled head­ing into league play, which starts on Tues­day.

Here are some keys to con­sider as the Big Ten gets set to kick off its 112th sea­son.

HOOSIER DADDY? In­di­ana (10-2) might have the con­fer­ence’s most im­pres­sive win so far, knock­ing off No. 3 Kansas 103-99 in the sea­son opener. But the Hoosiers were snapped back to re­al­ity with a 71-68 loss to IPFW just be­fore Thanks­giv­ing, and 13th-ranked But­ler beat them by five last week­end on a neu­tral floor. In­di­ana has the Big Ten’s best of­fense and leads the league in re­bound­ing mar­gin though, and James Black­mon

Jr., Robert John­son and Thomas Bryant will be a hand­ful for op­pos­ing de­fenses. Pur­due’s only losses came against No. 1 Vil­lanova and 10th-ranked Louisville — and big man Caleb Swani­gan might be the Big Ten’s best over­all player by early March.

BADGER UP: Wis­con­sin (11-2) has only fallen to North Carolina and Creighton, and Bron­son Koenig, Nigel Hayes and Ethan Happ make the Badgers dan­ger­ous on the perime­ter and in the paint. But af­ter open­ing Big Ten play by host­ing Rut­gers, Wis­con­sin has to travel to In­di­ana and Pur­due be­fore host­ing Ohio State and Michi­gan. The Badgers can es­tab­lish them­selves as the front-run­ner by the mid­dle of Jan­uary — or fall be­hind in a hurry.

UP AND DOWN SPAR­TANS: Los­ing to Ari­zona, Ken­tucky, Bay­lor and Duke is un­der­stand­able. But North­east­ern at home? That was puz­zling for Michi­gan State (8-5), which has been rav­aged by in­juries, most no­tably the sprained an­kle that forced tal­ented fresh­man Miles Bridges to the bench. But Bridges will likely be back by early Jan­uary, and coach Tom Izzo’s teams are fa­mous for find­ing their stride in league play. The front end of the Spar­tans’ league sched­ule is also rel­a­tively easy, but they can’t be con­sid­ered a ti­tle threat just yet.

THE MURKY MID­DLE: Michi­gan (9-3, plays Thurs­day) is hold­ing op­po­nents to just un­der 61 points per game, though that’s partly a re­sult of its ex­tremely slow tempo. Ohio State (9-3, plays Thurs­day) has six play­ers av­er­ag­ing at least 10 points per game, and it nearly beat No. 12 Vir­ginia on the road. Min­nesota (11-1, plays Satur­day) has been im­pres­sive de­fen­sively, but the Go­phers have yet to beat any­one of note. North­west­ern’s an­nual quest for its first-ever NCAA Tour­na­ment bid is off to a good start. The Wild­cats’ only losses were to But­ler and Notre Dame by just six com­bined points.

ALSO-RANS? Mary­land has some nice wins over Ge­orge­town, Ok­la­homa State, Kansas State. But it’s still way too early to project the Terps as a se­ri­ous threat. They’ll open with Illi­nois (10-3), which won six in a row head­ing into league play . ... Iowa (8-5) is one of the youngest teams in the coun­try and soon could re-emerge as a top-tier Big Ten team. It likely won’t be this year though. ... Rut­gers started 11-1 af­ter go­ing 7-25 in 2015-16. But ex­pect the Scar­let Knights to strug­gle yet again in league play . ... Penn State and Ne­braska are prov­ing yet again that they were in­vited to the Big Ten for foot­ball, not hoops. They opened the sea­son a com­bined 14-11.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Pur­due for­ward Caleb Swani­gan might be the Big Ten’s best player by early March. League play be­gins Tues­day.

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