Thursday December 31st, 2015

As conference play begins across the country, SI is resetting the races in the top nine leagues. Next up is the Big Ten:

Top three contenders

Michigan State. The Spartans had a regrettable start to their conference schedule, losing to Iowa by 13 on Dec. 29, but don’t discount their 13–0 start before that game. Michigan State was, after all, on the road against the Hawkeyes, and without national player of the year front-runner Denzel Valentine, who is out two weeks after minor knee surgery. Before losing Valentine the Spartans had been off to their best start ever under coach Tom Izzo, and there’s no reason to believe they won’t get back on track when Valentine returns. They’re a balanced team with both a top 15 offense and defense in adjusted efficiency. And in Valentine’s absence other players are getting more reps and more opportunities to emerge as auxiliary scoring threats. Michigan State isn’t a perfect team, but in this wide-open season the Spartans are as good a bet as any to cut down nets in March and April.

Maryland. The Terrapins are off to a great start, but they’re still somewhat difficult to judge. Their only loss was on the road to fully healthy North Carolina, which is forgivable, but their best win was probably their close victory over Connecticut in Madison Square Garden. In Maryland’s first Big Ten game of the season, the Terps were pushed to the brink at home by Penn State, which lost at home to Radford on Nov. 24. Maryland’s offense is soaring thanks to a versatile attack that features budding freshman big man Diamond Stone, senior shooters Rasheed Sulaimon and Jake Layman, and sophomore floor general Melo Trimble. We’ll learn a lot about the Terps as conference play begins: Between Jan. 12 and Jan. 28, they play at Michigan and Michigan State, and host Iowa.

Purdue. Before the season, all the attention on the Boilermakers was focused on their three big men: 7' 2" sophomore Isaac Haas, 7-foot senior A.J. Hammons and 6' 9" freshman Caleb Swanigan. None have disappointed. Haas and Hammons are No. 6 and No. 8, respectively, in’s player of the year metric. The two have excelled, with offensive ratings of 118.9 and 114.0, respectively, and both rank in the top 75 in the country in block percentage. Swanigan still isn’t the most efficient offensive player, but Matt Painter is giving him time to develop. And Purdue also boasts the most efficient defense in college basketball, mostly thanks to the frontcourt’s wall of big men.

Surprise team

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Purdue. Our projection system picked the Boilermakers to finish fourth in the conference, so it’s not surprising that they’re succeeding. What is surprising is just how successful they’ve been. If it weren’t for Tom Izzo’s magic, Purdue would be the odds-on favorite to win one of the toughest leagues in the country. With a strong defense and (because of the injuries to Gonzaga’s big men) the best frontcourt in college basketball, the Boilermakers still seem like a contender in the Big Ten and beyond.

Flop team

Ohio State. I haven’t forgotten the Buckeyes’ neutral-court win over KentuckyI was there for it. But Ohio State entered that game as a heavy underdog for a couple of reasons—home losses to Texas-Arlington and Louisiana Tech, and a 5–5 record. Our projection system didn’t think the Buckeyes were a threat to win the Big Ten, but it did predict them to make the NCAA tournament. The win over the Wildcats helps to pad Ohio State’s resume, but the Buckeyes will need more consistency in Big Ten play to get an at-large bid.

Player of the year so far

Denzel Valentine, Michigan State. Sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. There’s no doubt that the Spartans knew Valentine was their star before he was sidelined for two weeks, but they must be surprised at how quickly they are feeling the effects of his absence. Before Valentine’s injury, Michigan State had been beating opponents by an average of 23.7 points. In two games without him, the Spartans have needed overtime to beat Oakland at the Palace of Auburn Hills and lost to Iowa by 13 on the road. If Valentine can maintain the pace that he set in his first 12 games—18.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and 7.1 assists per game—he should have no problem scooping up this award.

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Best non-conference win

Michigan State over Kansas, 79–73, in Chicago (Nov. 17). No, Cheick Diallo wasn’t eligible for this game, but the Jayhawks’ freshman forward hasn’t proved to be a difference maker just yet either. This game is looking more like a Final Four preview every time these two teams take the court—and in Chicago, the Spartans beat KU thanks to the first of Denzel Valentine’s many breakout performances.  

Must-see game in January

Maryland at Michigan State (Jan. 23). Two national-title contenders clash in one of the best home arenas in college hoops. What’s not to like? If you can’t wait this long for great Big Ten basketball, try Iowa at Purdue on Jan. 2. The Hawkeyes are flying after beating the Spartans on Dec. 29, and hope to conquer another conference favorite at Mackey Arena. 

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