Matt Hazlett
December 29, 2015

Maryland came into the season the popular choice to win the Big Ten, and the Terrapins have done nothing to shake the favorite's label heading into conference play.

They probably will have lots of company in the race for the championship.

Top-ranked Michigan State was off to its best start ever at 13-0 before losing its league opener 83-70 at Iowa on Tuesday night. Purdue, which won 61-55 at Wisconsin, and Indiana also have what it takes to win the league. Iowa, Michigan and even Northwestern could be factors.

Fourth-ranked Maryland is off to an 11-1 start against a mostly soft schedule, with its only loss against another top-10 team in North Carolina. Coach Mark Turgeon has assembled one of the most talented rosters in the country, one that should get stronger as the season progresses.

National player of the year candidate Melo Trimble (15.0 points, 5.7 assists) holds everything together. Georgia Tech transfer Robert Carter and Jake Layman provide consistent double-figure scoring. The Terps also have graduate transfer Rasheed Sulaimon, who played on Duke's national championship team last season, and freshman center Diamond Stone, who could be the Big Ten's first player taken in the 2016 NBA draft.

Michigan State overcame 13-point deficits to beat both Kansas and Louisville and came back from 15 down against Oakland last week in its first game without injured star Denzel Valentine. The senior guard had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee on Dec. 21 and might not return until Jan. 7 against Illinois. The Spartans fell behind Iowa quickly and never got closer than 10 points in the second half.

Purdue's A.J. Hammons has come off the bench in all 12 of his games but still leads the team with 14.2 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.8 blocks a game. The Boilermakers (13-1, 1-0) are starting three sophomores along with freshman Caleb Swanigan, one of the nation's most celebrated recruits.

Indiana (10-3), led by senior point guard Kevin ''Yogi'' Ferrell, came out of nonconference playing leading the Big Ten in scoring (89.1 ppg), field-goal percent (53.7), 3-point percent (45.1) and turnovers forced (14.7).

As conference play begins, here are a few key story lines for the Big Ten, which is currently a distant No. 6 in RPI behind the Big 12, Pac-12, Big East, SEC and ACC:

IS NORTHWESTERN FOR REAL?

The Wildcats (12-1), voted the league's ''sleeper team'' in the preseason, have won nine straight and are off to their best 13-game start since 1930-31. They're just No. 85 in the RPI after playing a nonconference schedule that, according to kenpom.com, ranks 342nd out of 351 teams. Bryant McIntosh is scoring 16.2 points a game and will attract a lot of attention from opposing defenses with 7-foot senior Alex Olah out indefinitely with a foot injury. Dererk Pardon, a 6-8 freshman, was pulled out of a redshirt Sunday and will get many of his minutes.

BIG AND YOUNG

Maryland's Stone leads an influx of freshman big men. The 6-11, 255-pounder is averaging 14.2 points and 6.4 rebounds since he went from starter to sixth man five games ago. Indiana's 6-10, 245-pound Thomas Bryant (12.2 ppg, 5.2 rpg) is shooting 72 percent from the field and Purdue's 6-9, 250-pound Swanigan (11.3 ppg) is averaging a conference-leading 9.2 rebounds. Also keep an eye on Michigan State's 6-10, 240-pound Deyonta Davis (8.4 ppg, 5.5 rebounds).

TOUGHEST SCHEDULE

The schedule-maker did Iowa no favors. The Hawkeyes' first four conference games: Michigan State, at Purdue, Nebraska, at Michigan State. They play Purdue again, at home, on Jan. 24. Their other two-play opponent is Michigan, and there's a trip to Maryland on Jan. 28.

BATTLING BADGERS

Defending conference champion Wisconsin, which made it to the national title game and won 36 games last season, will be hard-pressed to make it back to the NCAA Tournament, let alone a third straight Final Four. The Badgers lost to Western Illinois and Milwaukee before Bo Ryan announced his retirement Dec. 15. Interim coach Greg Gard has a star in Nigel Hayes and a proven point guard in Bronson Koenig but not a lot beyond that. Plus, the Badgers must play Michigan State and Purdue twice each.

GOPHERS IN HOLE

Minnesota starts the conference schedule 6-6, marking the first time since 2006 and second time since 1978 they've been .500 or worse after nonconference play. Embarrassing home losses to South Dakota, South Dakota State and Milwaukee have dropped Minnesota to No. 213 in the RPI.

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