Big Ten basketball roundup: Conference play is coming

Big Ten basketball roundup: Conference play is coming
December 27, 2013, 10:30 am
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Vinnie Duber

The Big Ten season is coming.

A handful of teams have already completed their non-conference schedules, while the rest have just one non-conference game left. And while there aren't many games left that could be described as anything other as tune ups for the start of Big Ten play, there are games left nonetheless.

So, as conference play looms — things get started on New Year's Eve — there are likely some of those 20- and 30-point wins on the horizon this weekend. But of course there were those statement wins last weekend, and those statement-makers will try to both build off important victories and try to avoid let downs.

Illinois Fighting Illini (10-2)

AP rank: Receiving votes

Saturday's tilt with UIC should serve as a nice little victory lap for the Illini, a chance to soak in the praise from its massive Chicago fan base following the statement win over Missouri last weekend. The annual Braggin' Rights game went the Illini's way for the first time in five years as the orange and blue scored its first big-time win against the rival Tigers after several failed chances against other major-conference foes. Though Rayvonte Rice continues his hot start, ranking fifth in the conference in scoring (17.4 points per game), the Illini are flourishing more on the defensive end, where they rank second in the Big Ten in scoring defense, allowing just 60.7 points per game.

vs. UIC (United Center), 1 p.m. Saturday

Indiana Hoosiers (10-3)

AP rank: Not ranked

A pair of games against States that aren't actually states — Nicholls and Kennesaw, for those without map access for confirmation — provided a pair of blowout wins for the Hoosiers last weekend. Indiana continues to be able to score in bunches, pouring in 90 against Kennesaw State, the fifth time that's happened this season (and there was an 89-point output, too). The Hoosiers rank second in the Big Ten in points per game with an 82.2 average that trails only Iowa's 88.7 mark. New Year's Eve's conference opener against the Illini should be an interesting matchup between one of the conference's highest-scoring teams and one of its best defensive teams. Freshman Noah Vonleh still leads the Big Ten in rebounding, too, with 9.5 boards per game.

This week: No games

[MORE: Big Ten's big three stay up top, Illini on the verge of top 25]

Iowa Hawkeyes (11-2)

AP rank: 22

No Big Ten team is scoring more points than the Hawkeyes right now, who are averaging 88.7 points per game. They also lead the Big Ten in scoring margin, winning by an average of more than 23 points per game. That last stat was boosted by a throttling of Arkansas-Pine Bluff last weekend that saw the Hawkeyes ahead 52-15 at halftime. It was a solid tune up, the team's final game of the non-conference portion of the schedule. Thanks to a few losses elsewhere throughout the top 25, Iowa actually moved ahead three spots in the latest poll, up to No. 22 from No. 25. Now it needs to just wait for the Big Ten opener against Nebraska on New Year's Eve.

This week: No games

Michigan Wolverines (7-4)

AP rank: Receiving votes

A win over Stanford won't erase the memories or effects of the four losses the Wolverines have already suffered this season — mostly to top-ranked teams like Arizona and Duke — but it was a needed win nonetheless. The neutral-site meeting showed Michigan, though out of the top 25, can still run with higher quality competition, the kind its been losing to throughout the non-conference portion of its schedule. Fortunately for the Wolverines, Nik Stauskas is rolling, averaging 18.4 points per game, but they need to get Mitch McGary going if they want to get back to the late rounds of the Big Dance. The preseason All-America has played just eight games this season and ranks fourth on the team in scoring.

This week: vs. Holy Cross, 5:30 p.m. Saturday

[RELATED: A Saturday of statements for the Big Ten]

Michigan State Spartans (10-1)

AP rank: 5

Tom Izzo's team bounced back from a weak showing against Oakland — a game Sparty trailed in and won by just four points — with back-to-back beat downs of North Florida and Texas. The 14-point win over the Longhorns came in Austin and was quite impressive. The Spartans were in need of a game that reestablished just how good a team they are, and they got it vs. Texas, led by Adreian Payne's 33 points. Michigan State gets a tune up in the non-conference finale against New Orleans before kicking off Big Ten play at Penn State on New Year's Eve. Though Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year Gary Harris has been limited to eight games with injuries, Payne has played terrifically, ranking in the top five in the conference in both scoring (18.1) and rebounding (eight).

This week: vs. New Orleans, 3:15 p.m. Saturday

Minnesota Golden Gophers (10-2)

AP rank: Not ranked

The Fightin' Richard Pitinos continue to remain hot after coming home from Maui. That trip to the islands featured the Gophers' only two losses of the season, but they've rattled off five wins since. And a weekend matchup with Texas A&M Corpus Christi figures to extend that streak to six. Minnesota is getting great offensive contributions from the Hollinses — unrelated Andre and Austin — who are combining to average just fewer than 30 points per game. And things are going well on the defensive side, too. The Gophers lead the Big Ten in steals and only thrice in 12 games has an opponent scored 70 points.

This week: vs. Texas A&M Corpus Christi, 7:30 p.m. Saturday

[WATCH: Illini celebrate after Braggin' Rights victory]

Nebraska Cornhuskers (8-3)

AP rank: Not ranked

The lone Big Ten team with an actual challenge left on its non-conference schedule, the Huskers head to Cincinnati this weekend to take on a 10-2 Bearcats team that leads the American Athletic Conference in scoring defense, allowing just 56.2 points per game. That's better even than defending national champion Louisville. The good news for the Huskers is that the Bearcats are the second-lowest scoring team in that conference, putting up 73 points per game. So if Terran Petteway — the Big Ten's sixth-leading scorer at 16.8 points per outing — and the rest of the Nebraska offense can get hot, a win on the road would be a terrific way to end the non-conference season for Tim Miles' squad.

This week: at Cincinnati, 3 p.m. Saturday

Northwestern Wildcats (7-5)

AP rank: Not ranked

The rocky road continues for Chris Collins and Northwestern. Last weekend's showdown with Brown wasn't pretty, with the Cats' trailing at halftime and needing an eight-point edge in the second half to squeak out a win. Drew Crawford continues to score well, contributing 24 points in that game vs. Brown — his third 20-plus-point game of the season — but accounting for almost half of Northwestern's scoring output. The non-conference finale against DePaul features another underwhelming Chicago team, also at 7-5. But the Demons do have a win over another major-conference team in Oregon State.

This week: vs. DePaul, 8 p.m. Friday

[MORE: Northwestern needs big second half to squeak by Brown]

Ohio State Buckeyes (12-0)

AP rank: 3

Throughout their march to the country's No. 3 ranking, the Buckeyes have blown teams out and rarely been tested. That changed last weekend when Big Ten thorn-in-the-side Notre Dame pushed Ohio State to the limit. The Buckeyes trailed the Irish by eight points with 50 seconds left in the game, yet Thad Matta's undefeated crew miraculously pulled out a win, keeping its record unblemished. Aaron Craft led the way in that game, and he's led the way all season long. He leads the conference in steals per game and ranks fourth in assists per game. Ohio State has one final non-conference matchup with Louisiana-Monroe before its New Year's Eve conference opener at Purdue.

This week: vs. Louisiana-Monroe, 6 p.m. Friday

Penn State Nittany Lions (9-4)

AP rank: Not ranked

The Lions rebounded from that embarrassing fall-from-ahead loss to Princeton with a 10-point win over Mount St. Mary's, but that sting from the overtime home defeat will likely continue to resonate. The Lions' habit of losing is a tough one to explain when you see a pair of Penn Staters sitting atop the Big Ten's scoring list. Guards D.J Newbill and Tim Frazier rank first and third, respectively, with 18.9 points per game and 18.2 points per game. And on top of that, Ross Travis ranks fourth in the conference in rebounding. Perhaps Penn State will be able to translate great stats into wins now that the non-conference season is over, but Big Ten play starts with quite the challenge, as the Lions open up against Michigan State.

This week: No games

[RELATED: Illini win Braggin' Rights, knock off Mizzou, 65-64]

Purdue Boilermakers (10-3)

AP rank: Not ranked

Though Saturday was the big day of big statements for the Big Ten, Purdue's road win over West Virginia on Sunday ranks as one of the more impressive from last weekend. The Boilermakers grabbed a 73-70 win to improve to 10-3 in the non-conference portion of their schedule, an unexpectedly successful run for this team considering its preseason expectations. In the win over the Mountaineers, the brothers Johnson — Ronnie and Terone — combined for 34 points, while Big Ten blocks leader A.J. Hammons came off the bench and recorded 12 rebounds and four rejections. Matt Painter's bunch has been one of several Big Ten teams that has had a quietly strong non-conference season, along with Nebraska and Minnesota. But neither of those teams has as impressive a win as Purdue's road win in Morgantown.

This week: No games

Wisconsin Badgers (12-0)

AP rank: 4

There hasn't been anything but winning so far this season in Madison. After an impressive stretch that featured consecutive wins over West Virginia, Virginia and Marquette, it was smooth sailing in the Badgers' last two bouts. Prairie View A&M figures to be more of the same, though Wisconsin will need to be aware that things could start off a tad rusty. These Badgers haven't played a game since Dec. 14, something to keep an eye on early Saturday. But this is another one of those tune-up games, a game that should serve as a nice way for the Badgers to flex their muscles ahead of the conference opener vs. Northwestern on Jan. 2.

This week: vs. Prairie View A&M, 1 p.m. Saturday