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College Basketball Conference Reset: The Big Ten’s best players and biggest story lines

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

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

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Caleb Swanigan, Purdue

This was a narrow race between Swanigan and Melo Trimble but Swanigan impacts the game in too many ways. Coming off of back-to-back 20-20 games — including 32 points and 20 rebounds in 30 minutes in a win over Norfolk State — Swanigan is averaging 18.4 points, 12.5 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game. The sophomore is also putting up ridiculous splits with 59 percent from the floor, 52 percent from three-point range and 75 percent from the charity stripe. If there is one gripe about with Swanigan, it’s his high turnover count, but that is nitpicking at this point. When a player returns from the NBA Draft process, you hope they take take a step forward and Swanigan has completely overhauled his game to become one of the country’s best players.

ALL-BIG TEN FIRST TEAM

  • Melo Trimble, Maryland
  • Caleb Swanigan, Purdue
  • Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin
  • Malcolm Hill, Illinois
  • Peter Jok, Iowa

RESETS: ACC | Big Ten | Big EastPac-12 | SEC | Big 12

WHAT WE’VE LEARNED

  1. Wisconsin looks great with this version of Nigel Hayes: Early in the season we saw the junior-year version of Nigel Hayes — the Nigel Hayes that jacked a lot of bad perimeter looks and had a low field goal percentage. Since returning home from the Maui Invitational, Hayes has looked like a complete weapon and Wisconsin looks like the Big Ten favorites. Hayes has shot 59 percent from the floor since Maui and he’s averaging a team-leading 3.4 assists per game for the season. His ability to find teammates from the elbows makes Bronson Koenig more valuable as an off-the-ball floor spacer while Hayes and Ethan Happ can go to work on the interior. The Badgers are dangerous when Hayes plays this way and they’re fun to watch.
  2. Indiana is a legitimate Big Ten contender: We quickly learned on opening night that Indiana was legitimate as we watched the Hoosiers get up and down with Kansas during a thrilling overtime win in Hawaii. The Hoosiers also looked great in a home win over North Carolina and they’re shooting 40 percent from three-point range as a team this season. Indiana had some in-state hiccups with losses at Fort Wayne and against Butler in Indianapolis, but they remain very tough at home and their offensive balance will win them a lot of games in conference play.
  3. Purdue is much better at perimeter shooting: One of the fun wrinkles of Purdue’s attack this season is how much more effective they are shooting from three-point range. It seems like the last few years the Boilers had the interior scorer but didn’t have the shooters around to have a true impact team. This year’s team still has two impact interior players in Swanigan and junior center Isaac Haas but now this group is shooting 41 percent from three-point range. Dakota Mathias, Ryan Cline, Vince Edwards and P.J. Thompson have all shot with good reliability from three while freshman Carsen Edwards is streaky enough to get hot from there. Swanigan will step out and hit shots sometimes. If Purdue continues shooting like they have been they have a chance to win the Big Ten.
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 26: Melo Trimble #2 of the Maryland Terrapins celebrates after hitting the game winning shot as they defeated the Kansas State Wildcats 69-68 during the championship game of the Barclays Center Classic at Barclays Center on November 26, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
(Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

KEY STORY LINES IN LEAGUE PLAY

  1. How does Michigan State rebound from a sluggish start?: Things haven’t been easy for the Spartans but the start of Big Ten play should help Tom Izzo’s team. Freshman Miles Bridges should return to action soon and Nick Ward and Cassius Winston have had some strong performances the last five games. If Eron Harris becomes more consistent — or Josh Langford can step up and produce more — the Spartans should have enough to make another NCAA tournament this season.
  2. Outside of Melo Trimble, who steps up for Maryland?: Melo Trimble is having an outstanding junior year and Maryland is 12-1 but is this team really that good? Sure, the Terps have wins over Georgetown, Kansas State and Oklahoma State but all of those came by one point each. Melo needed to play hero to bail Maryland out in another overtime win over Richmond. The Maryland freshmen — Justin Jackson, Anthony Cowan and Kevin Huerter — have been solid as Trimble’s main weapons, but will the Maryland veterans be more consistent in conference play? Will those freshmen show up the same in the Big Ten now that some film exists on them?
  3. Can Northwestern make its first ever NCAA tournament?: Northwestern has never made the NCAA tournament. With an 11-2 start and neutral wins over Texas and Dayton and losses on the road at Butler and neutral against Notre Dame, the Wildcats have some respectable results against good competition. They’re also winning even though junior point guard Bryant McIntosh has struggled to make shots so far this season. Scottie Lindsay and Vic Law are both off to great starts, and if McIntosh plays like he’s shown he can the last two seasons, the Wildcats could have a historic season and make its first Big Dance.

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BETTER THAN THEIR RECORD: Michigan State started the season with back-to-back losses against Arizona and Kentucky before running into a red-hot Baylor team and having to play Duke on the road. Between the injuries and the inexperienced roster it was a recipe for a tough start and that’s what we’ve seen from the Spartans as they sit at 8-5. But we know Tom Izzo teams always get better as the season rolls on and this team should get healthier soon. Freshman Miles Bridges has been injured and earned the most headlines but freshman big man Nick Ward is showing strong flashes and freshman point guard Cassius Winston should get better.

BEAT SOMEONE AND WE’LL TALK: Minnesota is off to a 12-1 start on the season but their schedule hasn’t exactly been tough. The Gophers have played only two games away from home. They’re o-1 in true road games with a neutral court win over Vanderbilt. Wins over UT-Arlington and Arkansas could look good later this season but Minnesota doesn’t have a win over a team firmly in the NCAA tournament field yet.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Nebraska has struggled to a 6-6 start as it looks like the Cornhuskers and head coach Tim Miles will miss the NCAA tournament for the third consecutive season. After a home loss against Gardner-Webb in front of only a half-full arena (weather did play a factor) this was an alarming quote from Miles: “I never dreamt in five years this is where we would be, losing to Gardner-Webb. We’re not where we should be. The issue is us. It’s us and our mindset.”

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 15: Miles Bridges #22 of the Michigan State Spartans reacts against the Kentucky Wildcats in the first half during the State Farm Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden on November 15, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Miles Bridges (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

POWER RANKINGS, POSTSEASON PREDICTIONS

Tourney teams

  • 1. Wisconsin: The Badgers are getting great starts from Nigel Hayes, Ethan Happ and Bronson Koenig this season and role players like Vitto Brown, Zak Showalter, D’Mitrik Trice and Khalil Iverson have been solid. The Wisconsin offense has become efficient and its defense remains very good.
  • 2. Indiana: Indiana’s high-octane offense makes them one of the most fun teams to watch in college basketball as they’re capable of putting up points in a hurry. James Blackmon has recovered nicely and Thomas Bryant, Robert Johnson and O.G. Anunoby remain major threats.
  • 3. Purdue: This team has a chance to make a special run thanks to the outside shooting to match Swanigan and Haas inside. With eight reliable rotation players and a backcourt that is capable of giving some scoring punch, Purdue is going to be fun to follow these last few months.
  • 4. Michigan State: We’ve gone over how the Spartans have to play well to make the NCAA tournament. The key could be increased minutes for Cassius Winston. Winston is leading the Big Ten is assists — despite only 20 minutes per game — and his recent uptick in offensive production has been important for the offense.
  • 5. Maryland: This Maryland team doesn’t have any marquee wins to speak of and has relied a lot on freshmen to produce outside of Melo Trimble. The Terps need more from veterans like Jared Nickens and Dion Wiley to be a contender.
  • 6. Michigan: The Wolverines don’t have any bad losses and they have enough depth, balance and experience to navigate the league and back into the tournament. Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton have more help this season.
  • 7. Northwestern: More from the bench is going to be necessary for Northwestern to be a Big Ten factor. The Wildcats have some solid role guys like Gavin Skelly and Sanjay Lumpkin but more production outside of those guys could be the difference in making the tournament.

NIT teams

  • 8. Ohio State: It’s hard to tell how good Ohio State is since they haven’t beaten anyone of note. The Buckeyes have minimal depth outside its six double-figure scorers and they shoot only 32 percent from three-point range.
  • 9. Illinois: Six straight wins has Illinois in strong position entering conference play but the start to Big Ten schedule is brutal and this team is inconsistent. Senior Malcolm Hill remains an underrated All-American candidate.
  • 10. Minnesota: Four more wins than all of last season is a great start but the Gophers haven’t beaten a guaranteed NCAA tournament team and a good chunk of the roster has never played a Big Ten schedule.
  • 11. Iowa: The Hawkeyes have responded nicely with wins over Iowa State and Northern Iowa since a four-game losing streak but Peter Jok doesn’t have enough help to make the NCAA tournament.

Autobid or bust

  • 12. Penn State: The Nittany Lions already have home losses to Albany and George Mason so its hard to expect a huge turnaround in Big Ten play. This team has the talent to win some unexpected games but they’re a year away.
  • 13. Rutgers: The 11-2 start is commendable but the Scarlet Knights have played next to nobody and open with three of four on the road in conference play. Forward Deshawn Freeman could be an all-league candidate.
  • 14. Nebraska: Senior Tai Webster is having an outstanding start to his senior season but he needs more help outside of sophomores Glynn Watson and Ed Morrow. The Huskers need to regain its homecourt advantage.

Caleb Homesley, No. 12 Liberty upset No. 5 Mississippi State

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East Region No. 12 Liberty entered Friday’s matchup with No. 5 Mississippi State without an NCAA tournament victory to its credit. That changed thanks in large part to Caleb Homesley, who scored 30 points to lead the Atlantic Sun tournament champion Flames to the 80-76 victory in San Jose.

Liberty is the third 12-seed to win a first round game in this year’s tournament, joining Oregon (South Region) and Murray State (West). This is the first time in five years that three 12-seeds have won their first round games in the same NCAA tournament.

Mississippi State had no answer for Homesley, who shot 10-for-16 from the field (5-for-11 from three) and also accounted for four rebounds. Lovell Cabill Jr., the winningest player in Liberty program history, hit a three-pointer with 1:21 remaining that gave Liberty a 72-70 lead. The Flames would score their final eight points from the foul line, with Cabill and Myo Baxter-Bell responsible for seven of them.

Cabill Jr. finished the game with 18 points, five assists and two steals, and Baxter-Bell chipped in with 13 points and four rebounds off the bench.

Playing in his final college game Quinndary Weatherspoon paced the Bulldogs with 27 points, with junior guard Lamar Peters sinking four three-pointers and adding 21 points. Robert Woodard II added 13 points and seven rebounds off the bench, but Mississippi State shot 8-for-22 from three and was outscored by 12 points from beyond the arc.

The double-digit seed has won each of the first three games in San Jose, with No. 13 UC Irvine and No. 12 Oregon winning South Region games during the afternoon session. Next up for Liberty will be a matchup with either No. 4 Virginia Tech or No. 13 Saint Louis on Sunday.

WATCH: RJ Barrett, Zion Williamson lead No. 1 Duke past North Dakota State

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Top overall seed Duke played its first game of the 2019 NCAA tournament Friday night in Columbia, South Carolina, and after a slow start Mike Krzyzewski’s team did what was expected in the second half. RJ Barrett led the way with 26 points and Zion Williamson added 25 as the Blue Devils beat North Dakota State by a final score of 85-62.

The two freshman forwards scored ten points apiece in the first half, but Duke led by just four (31-27) at the intermission as North Dakota State managed to do enough on both ends to hang around. The ACC champions grabbed control of the game just after halftime, as Williamson scored 11 points in a five-minute stretch. Duke stopped settling offensively, passing up challenged jump shots to attack the basket on a more consistent basis.

In addition to his 26 points Barrett tallied 15 rebounds and three assists, with Cam Reddish hitting two three-pointers and adding 12 points. Tre Jones accounted for five points and four assists, and junior forward Marques Bolden saw his first action since he suffered a sprained knee in Duke’s regular season finale. Bolden played 17 minutes off the bench, finishing with two points, two rebounds and two assists.

Barrett and Williamson are the first Duke freshmen to score 22 points or more in the same NCAA tournament game in program history.

North Dakota State, winners of the Summit League’s automatic bid, had just one double-digit scorer as Vinnie Shahid knocked down three three-pointers and finished with 20 points.

In addition to not having an answer for Williamson — there’s no shame in that — the Bison shot just 8-for-29 from beyond the arc and 36.2 percent from the field overall. The combination of NDSU’s struggles shooting the basketball and Duke’s high-level talent was too much for the underdogs to overcome, which is to be expected of a 1 vs. 16 matchup.

Duke, which has won at least one NCAA tournament game in each of the last five seasons since losing to Mercer in its 2014 NCAA tournament opener, will face either No. 8 VCU or No. 9 UCF on Sunday.

Corey Davis Jr. puts on a show as No. 3 Houston cruises

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Corey Davis finished with 26 points, seven boards and six assists as No. 3-seed Houston jumped out to a 15-3 lead on Georgia State and never looked back, cruising to an 84-55 win over the 14th-seeded Panthers.

This win comes on the heels of Houston falling to Cincinnati in the finals of the AAC tournament, a loss might have dropped Houston off of the No. 2-seed line. This is the second straight season that Houston will advance to the second round of the NCAA tournament. Last year, they lost at the buzzer to No. 3 Michigan in the second round. This year, they are set to face the winner of Friday’s first round game between No. 6 Iowa State and No. 11 Ohio State.

The hero was Davis, who had 15 points and five assists in the first half and carried a Cougar team that struggled to get it going from deep. Fabian White added 14 points and 11 boards while Breaon Brady added 13 points and eight boards. This performance gives you a bit of a taste of just how high the ceiling for Houston can be. Georgia State has toppled monsters before. In 2015, Ron Hunter led the Panthers to an upset win over Baylor, a No. 3 seed, in the first round of the tournament. They also won a game in the 2001 NCAA tournament.

And Houston won running away.

Dickerson, Nowell lead No. 9 Washington past No. 8 Utah State

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For one game at least, the Pac-12 proved their superiority over the Mountain West.

Washington, the Pac-12’s regular season champion, got 20 points and 12 boards from Noah Dickerson and 19 points and five assists from Jaylen Nowell as U-Dub rolled to a 78-61 win over Utah State.

The No. 9-seed Huskies advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2011, where they will face, in all likelihood, No. 1-seed North Carolina.

This has not been a banner season for the Pac-12 conference. They managed to get just three teams into the NCAA tournament, and one of the three qualified via automatic bid. Think about that for a second. The only difference between the Pac-12 and, say, the Mountain West or the Ohio Valley this year was that Oregon knocked off the Huskies in the Pac-12 title game.

But Washington’s win is a sign of life, and the way they earned that win is notable. Washington jumped to a 12 point halftime lead and, with the exception of one second half Utah State run, held a sizable lead for the entire second half. They took Sam Merrill completely out of his comfort zone — he entered the night having averaged 27 points in his last five games and finished with ten points on 2-for-10 shooting with six turnovers — and Neemias Queta finished with 11 points and eight boards, but he was 4-for-12 from the field and never seemed to find a rhythm.

Part of the reason for this was Washington’s zone.

It’s not a secret that the reason Jim Boeheim originally made the decision to go to a zone full time was because of the position that it put his opponents in. Every team’s zone offense is their second best offense, and no one in college basketball is ever comfortable playing against a zone. So he figured he would just do it all the time, and eventually it morphed into the defense that has allowed the Orange to be a pesky team in the NCAA tournament seemingly every year.

Might that be the case for Washington, too?

It’s not a secret that the Huskies are coached by a Boeheim disciple in Mike Hopkins, and anyone that watched the Huskies play on Friday night will know just how much trouble Utah State has with that defense.

If this is the start of Washington perennially playing deep into March, I hope it means we get more plays like this:

No. 12 Oregon beats No. 5 Wisconsin, extends win streak

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After suffering a 90-83 loss at UCLA on February 23, South Region No. 12 Oregon has been one of college basketball’s hottest teams. Dana Altman’s team entered the NCAA tournament on an eight-game win streak, and the Ducks extended the run to nine with a 72-54 win over No. 5 Wisconsin Friday afternoon in San Jose.

Since the loss to UCLA, a game in which Oregon (24-12) allowed a shocking 62 second-half points, seven of the Ducks’ nine opponents have failed to reach the 60-point mark. Oregon pulled away with a 16-2 second half run, as Wisconsin went cold from the perimeter and forward Kenny Wooten thwarted multiple attempts around the basket.

Wisconsin (23-11), which was outscored 47-26 in the second half, shot 6-for-30 from beyond the arc on the day.

Payton Pritchard, the Most Outstanding Player of the Pac-12 tournament, led the way with 19 points, nine assists and five rebounds, and Louis King and Paul White added 17 and 14 points, respectively. While Pritchard controlled the pace it was Wooten who provided the spark after suffering a shoulder injury in the first half, as he blocked four shots while also scoring nine points and grabbing six rebounds.

Happ, whose collegiate career came to an end with the defeat, and Khalil Iverson led the way offensively for the Badgers with 12 points apiece. Wisconsin’s loss in the Big Ten’s first in this year’s tournament, with five teams having already advanced to the second round.

The Badgers and Ducks went into the half tied at 25, but Oregon not only got going offensively but also remained stout on the other end of the floor in the second stanza. As a result the Ducks are off to the second round, where they’ll face No. 13 UC Irvine on Sunday.