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Big Ten Conference Reset: Michigan State, Purdue are running away with the league

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College basketball’s non-conference season is finally coming to a close.

To help you shake off post-holiday haze and the hangover of losing in your fantasy football playoffs, we’ll be providing you with some midseason primers to get you caught up on all the nation’s most important conferences.

Who has been the best player in the biggest leagues?

Who is on track to get an NCAA tournament bid?

What have we learned about the conference hierarchy, and what is left for us to figure out?

We break it all down here.

Today, we’ll be taking a look at the Big Ten.

MIDSEASON BIG TEN PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Jordan Murphy, Minnesota

One of the pleasant surprises in college basketball this season, the 6-foot-6 junior has emerged into one of the sport’s most consistently productive players. Owning 15 double-doubles in 15 Minnesota games this season, Murphy is the Big Ten’s leading scorer at 19.1 points per game and is second in the nation at 12.6 rebounds per game.

Not only is Murphy beating up on low-major opponents, he’s getting it done against postseason-worthy teams. The Gophers have already played Providence, Arkansas, Miami and Alabama. Murphy was productive against all of them. It’ll be fascinating to see if Murphy can sustain this double-double production going against a league that has played him for two seasons.

THE ALL-BIG TEN FIRST TEAM

  • JORDAN MURPHY, Minnesota
  • DAKOTA MATHIAS, Purdue: One of the nation’s premier perimeter defenders has also had a quality offensive season. The senior is third in the league in assists (4.9 per game) while also playing incredibly efficient ball.
  • KEITA BATES-DIOP, Ohio State: Third in the Big Ten in scoring and rebounding, the junior forward is finally playing like the high-end four-star prospect he was out of high school. Bates-Diop is also averaging more than one block and one steal per game while shooting 38 percent from three.
  • MILES BRIDGES, Michigan State: Averaging similar numbers to last season, it’s no surprise to see Bridges on this list. Although the sophomore has much more talent around him this season, he can still take over a game.
  • TONY CARR, Penn State: The sophomore has put up big numbers all season as the Nittany Lions are off to a solid start. Putting up efficient shooting splits (including 52 percent from three) Carr can score on any team in the country.

POSTSEASON PREDICTIONS

  • NCAA: Michigan State, Purdue, Michigan, Maryland, Minnesota
  • NIT: Northwestern, Illinois, Ohio State, Penn State
  • OTHER/NO POSTSEASON: Iowa, Rutgers, Indiana, Wisconsin, Nebraska
MINNEAPOLIS, MN – NOVEMBER 21: Jordan Murphy ( Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

THREE THINGS WE’VE LEARNED

1. MICHIGAN STATE IS A LEGIT TITLE CONTENDER: We had a feeling Michigan State was going to be very good entering this season and there is a reason many had them as a top-five team. With depth, experience and star power, Sparty had all of the necessary ingredients to be a major title contender. And that isn’t even factoring the ever-popular “Izzo in March” trope.

So far, Michigan State has lived up to its preseason hype. With only a loss to Duke during the first week of the season at the Champions Classic, the Spartans have been on a roll ever since as they continue to figure out new weapons to utilize. They’ve scored at least 100 points in four consecutive games. Michigan State has blowout wins over ACC contenders like North Carolina and Notre Dame. This team is everything we wanted them to be and they still have room to get better.

2. PURDUE IS FINE WITHOUT CALEB SWANIGAN: Losing All-American big man Caleb Swanigan was a major (and expected) blow for Purdue. The man known as “Biggie” was a double-double force of nature who made everything easier for the Boilermakers last season.

So far, Purdue has been very good without its former Player of the Year candidate. Despite a sluggish trip to the Battle 4 Atlantis that saw them lose two out of three, Purdue has looked very good for most of this season. A veteran team at multiple spots, seniors like Vincent Edwards, Dakota Mathias and Isaac Haas have all remained steady. Sophomore guard Carsen Edwards has also emerged as one of the Big Ten’s most potent scorers — capable of taking over a game if he gets hot from the perimeter. With conference wins over Maryland and Northwestern already in the fold, Purdue is off to a great start in conference play as well. Right now, they clearly look like the second-best team in the Big Ten.

3. THE REST OF THE BIG TEN IS WAY DOWN: With many new coaches and players throughout the Big Ten, this was expected to be an odd transition year in the conference. But with the way veteran teams like Minnesota and Northwestern struggled at times in non-conference play, things are even worse than they appear in the Big Ten this season.

This is a wide-open league with a lot of question marks outside of Michigan State and Purdue. When Big Ten teams played two early-December conference games, only three teams finished 3-0 in that stretch. If teams in the league continue to beat up on each other, then where does that leave the Big Ten in March? Are we only going to see four or five teams from the storied league make the NCAA tournament?

Miles Bridges (J Pat Carter/Getty Images)

THREE STORYLINES TO FOLLOW

1. WHO EMERGES AS THE THIRD TEAM IN THE BIG TEN?: As previously noted, the Big Ten only had three teams start the conference season at 2-0. One of them is Ohio State (more on them in a minute). No disrespect to the Buckeyes, but not many are counting on them to sustain that kind of success.

That means the Big Ten needs someone to step up behind Michigan State and Purdue. Minnesota and Northwestern are both capable of stringing together wins but they haven’t proven anything yet. Maryland is still young and inconsistent as they try to figure out how to close tight games without Melo Trimble. Michigan has been up and down with some puzzling stretches of poor play. Wisconsin is no longer Wisconsin.

So who breaks through and makes a run here? Somebody is bound to start a winning streak and emerge as a threat. But that answer, right now, isn’t blatantly obvious.

2. IS OHIO STATE A CREDIBLE THREAT?: With a surprising 11-4 start and 2-0 beginning in the Big Ten, Ohio State is one of three unbeaten teams in conference play in the Big Ten right now. Considering that head coach Chris Holtmann took the job in June, and had a limited number of scholarship players due to roster turnover, and this is a pretty solid accomplishment.

Can Ohio State keep this going? We know the Buckeyes are going to be a tough out on any given night. Being a tough out also doesn’t always equate to making the NCAA tournament. Ohio State is going to need to keep winning games if they want turn this surprising start into actual success. Thankfully for the Buckeyes, junior Keita Bates-Diop has developed into one of the league’s better players and veterans like C.J. Jackson and Jae’Sean Tate are also producing at a solid rate. Freshman big man Kaleb Wesson has been a pleasant surprise. With the league being so down, it wouldn’t be a shock if Ohio State continued to stay high in the standings but they have to prove they’re for real.

3. WILL WISCONSIN TURN IT AROUND?: In the past, we could always count on Wisconsin to make the NCAA tournament and to figure things out if they were off to a sluggish start. But after this season’s 8-7 start that saw the Badgers lose five of six games at one point, Wisconsin doesn’t look anywhere close to an NCAA tournament team.

Ethan Happ is still one of the league’s best players. Head coach Greg Gard hasn’t found a lot of consistent production around him. A young team that has struggled to compete against power-conference competition, Wisconsin needs to figure things out in a hurry if they want to make any kind of postseason.

For a program that hasn’t missed the NCAA tournament since 1998, this has been a difficult year for the Badgers. But you also have to keep in mind that Gard turned around a sluggish Wisconsin team that was 8-7 entering conference play in 2016. That team eventually went to the Sweet 16. Obviously, Wisconsin doesn’t have veterans from back-to-back Final Four teams to right the ship this time, but Gard has worked miracles before. Can Wisconsin pull another one this season?

THREE PREDICTIONS

1. MICHIGAN STATE MAKES THE FINAL FOUR (BUT FALLS SHORT OF THE TITLE): It’s been noted that the Big Ten hasn’t won a national title since Michigan State hoisted the trophy back in 2000. And with the way the Big Ten dominated the Bowl season in College Football the past few weeks — with no team in the College Football Playoff to show for it — the league is hungry to prove themselves on a national stage in a different sport.

In a year with no juggernaut teams, this is a huge chance for Michigan State to end the title drought. Miles Bridges is a major star. The team’s other best players, Nick Ward, Cassius Winston, Joshua Langford and Jaren Jackson Jr., are all underclassmen with room to grow. It’s scary to think that Michigan State could actually get better as the season goes on, but that is certainly possible. The Spartans might have the highest floor of any team in the country.

But the Spartans don’t have the highest ceiling. The Duke loss already showed us that. Other teams like Arizona have more go-to star power. It’ll be fascinating to see if Michigan State can make a title run, but the Big Ten isn’t going to prepare them as well as it would in most seasons.

2. NORTHWESTERN MISSES THE NCAA TOURNAMENT: Expectations were sky-high for Northwestern entering this season. Coming off of the first NCAA tournament run in school history and returning most of that roster will do that to you.

The Wildcats, unfortunately, haven’t lived up to the high billing.

Playing as the hunted has been far more difficult for Northwestern this season. Stumbling against most of the good teams on the non-conference schedule, the best win the school might have at the moment is a two-point road win at local rival DePaul. Northwestern hasn’t beaten any good teams yet. Now that senior point guard Bryant McIntosh is dealing with a knee injury, that’s something else to keep an eye on.  Home-court advantage disappeared for Northwestern this season when the team had to move to AllState Arena as Welsh-Ryan Arena (rocking by the end of last season) undergoes renovations. Things just aren’t adding up for Northwestern right now. They have a lot of work to do to make it back to the Big Dance.

3. MICHIGAN EMERGES AS THE BIG TEN’S OTHER TEAM TO WATCH: It’s hard to get a feel for Michigan this season. Lately, the Wolverines have put together some solid wins against UCLA and Texas. There’s still also the lingering reminder that Michigan has blown second-half leads to teams like LSU and Ohio State.

So which Michigan are we going to see in conference play? Knowing what we know about head coach John Beilein, his teams tend to get better as the season rolls along. Last season’s Michigan team that peaked in March is proof of that. So I’m banking on Michigan to emerge as another team to watch in the Big Ten.

Charles Matthews has emerged into a solid two-way player for the Wolverines and vets like Mo Wagner, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson are also still capable scorers. The big key for Michigan is point guard play. Sophomore Zavier Simpson hasn’t been steady enough to take the job full time and graduate transfer Jaaron Simmons hasn’t lived up to the preseason expectations placed on him. If Michigan figures out point guard, they have intriguing weapons all over the floor.

College Basketball Power Rankings: Kentucky drops out of the Top 25

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I’m not sure that this Kentucky season can be considered a worst-case scenario.

Kentucky fans have seen a worst-case scenario.

That came during the 2012-13 season, when a Wildcat team that was trending towards the back end of the top 25 lost their star center Nerlens Noel to a torn ACL in February, dooming them to the NIT, where they lost in the first round to Robert Morris.

That is a worst-case scenario, and barring something totally unforeseen, this Kentucky team is not going to turn into that Kentucky team.

This group looks much more like the team we saw the following year, the one that featured Julius Randle, James Young, the Harrison twins and Willie Cauley-Stein and entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 8 seed with a 24-10 record before making a run to the national title game. That team had plenty of talent, but they never quite gelled until March.

This year’s team does not have that same level of talent, but they are running into some of the same problems.

The question is whether or not this group actually has the potential to come together and make a run like that 2014 team.

RELATED: Kentucky just is not that good

And frankly, I still think they do. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has emerged as a go-to guy while Kevin Knox had seemingly regained his confidence before a poor performance in the home loss to Florida. Quade Green has returned to the lineup, as has Jarred Vanderbilt, who might be the key to unlock the potential on this roster.

In an ideal world, Kentucky’s length and athleticism allows them to be one of the nation’s best defensive teams while the playmaking of Vanderbilt and Green makes their offense fluid enough that they overcome some of their shooting issues. I can still tell myself a story where Kentucky finds a way to put it all together for six straight games in March.

But that’s not who they are right now.

And with each passing game, I grow less and less confident that the elite will ever come out of this group.

Kentucky is not a top 25 basketball team right now. They are nowhere near one of the favorites to win a national title right now. And, at this point, Kentucky fans would do well to adjust their expectations, as a trip out of the Sweet 16 should be considered a success.

Here is the full top 25.

1. Villanova, 18-1 (Last Week: No. 1)
2. Purdue, 19-2 (2)
3. Virginia, 18-1 (5)
4. Kansas, 16-3 (13)
5. Michigan State, 17-3 (7)
6. Duke, 17-2 (10)
7. West Virginia, 16-3 (4)
8. Arizona, 16-4 (8)
9. Xavier, 18-3 (11)
10. Oklahoma, 14-4 (6)
11. North Carolina, 16-4 (17)
12. Texas Tech, 15-4 (3)
13. Cincinnati, 17-2 (19)
14. Ohio State, 17-4 (22)
15. Auburn, 17-2 (18)
16. Tennessee, 13-5 (23)
17. Wichita State, 15-4 (9)
18. Clemson, 16-3 (20)
19. Saint Mary’s, 19-2 (NR)
20. Gonzaga, 17-4 (16)
21. Nevada, 18-3 (NR)
22. Florida, 14-5 (NR)
23. Rhode Island, 15-3 (NR)
24. Arizona State, 15-4 (14)
25. TCU, 14-5 (25)

DROPPED OUT: No. 12 Seton Hall, No. 15 Kentucky, No. 21 Michigan, No. 24 Miami

NEW ADDITIONS: No. 19 Saint Mary’s, No. 21 Nevada, No. 22 Florida, No. 23 Rhode Island

VIDEO: Northern Colorado wins game with halfcourt buzzer beater

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Northern Colorado knocked off North Dakota on Saturday night thanks to a half court buzzer-beating three from Andre Spight.

Spight is averaging 20.3 points on the season and finished with 34 points and six assists in the 94-91 win.

Clemson’s Grantham tears ACL

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The news on Donte Grantham’s knee was not good.

No. 20 Clemson announced on Sunday morning that Grantham, the team’s second-leading scorer and rebounder, would miss the rest of the season after tearing his ACL in a win over Notre Dame on Saturday.

“I’m disappointed that Donte’s career at Clemson had to end this way,” head coach Brad Brownell said. “He was putting together a terrific season statistically, but he really helps this team is so many ways. He’s been a pleasure to coach and it has been fun to watch him mature and grow into the leader of our program.”

Grantham was averaging 14.2 points and 7.1 boards this year.

The Tigers are 16-3 on the season and in line to make a run at an NCAA tournament bid.

VIDEO: West Virginia honored Andrew Jones before game vs. Texas

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The West Virginia basketball team donned burnt orange ‘Big 12 Strong’ warmup shirts with the No. 1 on the back in honor of Texas point guard Andrew Jones.

Jones was diagnosed with leukemia earlier this month.

Texas Tech also honored Jones before a game this week, and Texas has raised more than $100,000 for his medical expenses.

Saturday College Basketball Recap: No. 7 Wichita State, No. 8 Texas Tech lose

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PLAYER OF THE DAY

It’s hard to argue with the performance that J.P. Macura had on Saturday. No. 11 Xavier went into Newark and knocked off No. 19 Seton Hall, 73-64, behind 27 points, five boards and three assists from Macura.

This win was particularly important for Xavier, who remain just a game out of first place in the Big East and in great position to make a run at getting a top three seed, which would mean they likely won’t have to play Villanova until the Big East title game. The loss is the second in a row for Seton Hall and the their third loss in four games.

THE REST OF SATURDAY’S STARS

  • CARSEN EDWARDS, Purdue: Edwards finished with 22 points, eight assists, two steals and no turnovers as the No. 3 Boilermakers blew out Iowa on the road.
  • MALIK NEWMAN, Kansas: Newman finished with 24 points and seven boards, including a personal 7-0 run with three minutes left to help No. 10 Kansas remain in sole possession of first place in the Big 12 with a 70-67 win over Baylor.
  • BRYCE BROWN, Auburn: Brown finished with 28 points as Auburn erased a 14-point halftime deficit to knock off Georgia 79-65 and remain within a game of first-place in the SEC.
  • DEAN WADE, Kansas State: In a win over No. 24 Kansas State, TCU’s second-straight win over a ranked team, Wade went for 20 pints, six boards, six assists, two blocks and two steals.

TEAM OF THE DAY

Houston landed themselves their first marquee win of the season as they pounded No. 7 Wichita State in Houston, 73-59. Rob Gray led the way with 24 points and four assists, putting the Cougars in a position where earning an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament is feasible. There is still plenty of work left to do, but this is the start they needed.

The bigger question mark, however, is Wichita State, who also lost at home to SMU this week. The Shockers are nowhere near as good as many expected them to be. Their offense isn’t good enough to make up for the fact that they aren’t guarding anyone.

GAME OF THE DAY

Trae Young went for 48 points, 34 of which came after halftime as the Sooners erased a 19-point deficit, but thanks to a Kendall Smith three at the end of regulation, this game went into overtime. Young had shots at the buzzer in regulation and in overtime to win the game and missed both, as the Pokes escaped with an 83-81 win.

Young needed 39 shots to get those 48 points. We went through whether or not that is too many shots for him here.

WTF???? OF THE DAY

Iowa State, who can’t guard anyone and is probably the worst team in the Big 12 this season, knocked off No. 8 Texas Tech, 70-52. The Red Raiders have now lost three of their last four games – all of which came on the road – after winning at Kansas. Texas Tech is also now just 1-3 in the four games since Zach Smith broke his foot, but they also beat Baylor by 24 points and won at Kansas when Smith played 10 total minutes.

So you explain Texas Tech to me. Because I don’t get it.

WHAT ELSE DO YOU NEED TO KNOW?

The Florida Gators moved into sole possession of first place in the SEC thanks to a 66-64 win at No. 18 Kentucky on Saturday. It was hardly a pretty game – Florida shot 33 percent from the floor and 6-for-30 from three – but the Gators were able to hang on thanks to a questionable no-call in the final seconds.

No. 20 Clemson held on to beat Notre Dame at home on Saturday, 67-58, but missing out on a commitment from Zion Williamson wasn’t the only bad news of the day. Star forward Donte Grantham went down with a knee injury midway through the second half. He averages 14.3 points and 7.1 boards. Losing him would be disastrous for the Tigers.

No. 14 Arizona had to rally down the stretch, but the Wildcats did. Trailing by as many as 11 points late in the second half at Stanford, the Wildcats survived as Dorian Pickens missed a three at the buzzer. The win puts Arizona all alone in first place in the Pac-12.

Jalen Brunson scored 23 points and Donte DiVincenzo added 17 points off the bench as No. 1 Villanova blew out UConn in Hartford, 81-61.

No. 13 Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s both won, meaning that the Gaels still hold a one game lead over the Zags in the WCC. Nevada knocked off Boise State, giving the Wolf Pack a two-game lead in the Mountain West.

At this point, Pitt barely counts as ACC competition. But they are and No. 5 Duke beat them 81-54 tonight.

Jevon Carter went for 22 points and eight assists as No. 6 West Virginia knocked off Texas, 86-51. The game was closer than the final score indicates, as the Mountaineers pulled away late.

The star of the day for No. 12 Cincinnati was Gary Clark, who finished with 14 points, 14 boards, two assists, two steals and two blocks, in an 86-60 win over East Carolina.

Luke Maye went for 17 points and 11 boards to lead four players in double figures as No. 15 North Carolina held on to beat Josh Pastner and Georgia Tech, 80-66.

It ended up not being much of a game when the Big Ten invaded Madison Square Garden as No. 22 Ohio State put a beating on Minnesota, 67-49. Minnesota lost Jordan Murphy to an ankle injury in the game as well.