Kathy Willens
December 29, 2014

After the way the non-conference season played out, a lot of Big Ten teams are glad to get a fresh start as the new year arrives.

The conference had a dozen embarrassing losses in November and December, notably New Jersey Institute of Technology's upset at Michigan and Incarnate Word's stunner at Nebraska.

Is the league in a bit of a funk? Only Wisconsin (No. 4), Maryland (No. 12) and Ohio State (No. 20) are in the Top 25 this week. A year ago, three of the top five teams were from the Big Ten, and six teams appeared in the Top 25 at least one week in 2013-14.

Preseason favorite Wisconsin (12-1) is right on track as Big Ten play begins Tuesday. The fourth-ranked Badgers have beaten everybody they should - their only loss was to No. 2 Duke - and they're allowing just 52 points a game.

Ohio State (11-2) is beating opponents by an average of 26.8 points, the second-best mark in the nation, but the Buckeyes' wins have come against undistinguished competition.

Michigan State (9-4), picked third in the preseason media poll behind the Badgers and Buckeyes, need not be ashamed of losses to nationally ranked Duke, Notre Dame and Kansas. The Spartans, however, will have a hard time living down a seven-point loss to Texas Southern.

A look around the Big Ten as league play arrives:

BIGGEST SURPRISES

Maryland (12-1) and Penn State (12-1) are off to better-than-expected starts for a couple teams picked to finish in the lower half of the conference. Maryland freshman Melo Trimble is fast becoming one of the Big Ten's best all-around players, and forward Jake Layman has posted 13 straight double-figure scoring games to alleviate the absence of the injured Dez Wells.

The Terps' win over Iowa State was their first over a ranked non-conference opponent since 2008, and they have won 21 of 25 December games since coach Mark Turgeon arrived in 2011-12. But Maryland, about to embark on its first Big Ten campaign, hasn't had an above-.500 conference record since 2009-10.

Penn State set a program record with 12 non-conference wins and is off to its best start since 1995-96. The Nittany Lions, led by D.J. Newbill's 21.4 points per game, carry a 10-game win streak into their Big Ten opener at Wisconsin on Wednesday.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Michigan (7-5), off to its worst start since 2009-10, lost three underclassmen to the NBA draft and has been hit by a spate of injuries. The Wolverines were picked fifth in the Big Ten, but an upper-half finish is hard to fathom if Zak Irvin, Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton Jr. aren't healthy and if there isn't more production from their big men.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR, SO FAR

Big Ten preseason player of the year Frank Kaminsky of Wisconsin might end up as national player of the year come April. The 7-foot, 242-pounder is almost as dangerous on the perimeter as he is near the basket. The guy is a near-impossible matchup.

FANTASTIC FRESHMEN

James Blackmon Jr. is everything Indiana coach Tom Crean hoped he would be when he recruited him away from Kentucky, where his dad, James Sr., was a three-year starter in the mid-1980s. Blackmon scored 26 points against SMU and is the nation's top-scoring freshman at 17.9 per game.

Ohio State's DeAngelo Russell is averaging 17.7 points and better than five assists. Maryland's Trimble is scoring 15.8 a game, and his 31 against Arizona State were the most by a Terps freshman since 1993. Purdue's Isaac Haas and Vince Edwards are among two freshmen tandems in the nation to average 10 points and five rebounds apiece.

BEST WIN-WORST LOSS

Maryland built a big lead and held on to upset then-No. 13 Iowa State 72-63 in the CBE Classic championship game in Kansas City, Missouri, on Nov. 26.

For shock value, nothing beats NJIT's 72-70 win over then-No. 17 Michigan in Crisler Arena on Dec. 6.

GAMES TO WATCH

Maryland at Michigan State, Tuesday; Nebraska at Wisconsin, Jan. 15; Michigan at Michigan State, Feb. 1; Michigan State at Wisconsin, March 1; Wisconsin at Ohio State, March 8.

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