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.

Northwestern beats No. 20 Michigan State in Big Ten opener

Nick King/Lansing State Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK
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EAST LANSING, Mich. – Boo Buie scored 20 points and Northwestern beat No. 20 Michigan State 70-63 on Sunday night in the Big Ten opener for both teams.

Chase Audige added 15 points and Ty Berry had 13 for Northwestern (6-2), which ended a two-game losing streak.

“Needless to say, this was a huge win for us,” coach Chris Collins said. “Coming off our performance in the ACC-Big Ten challenge, where we lost badly on our home floor (to Pittsburgh), I was really pleased with our resolve the past couple days.”

Mady Sossoko and A.J. Hoggard each had 12 points for Michigan State (5-4) and Joey Hauser added 10. The Spartans have lost two in a row, falling to Notre Dame earlier in the week.

Hoggard cut Northwestern’s lead to 64-63 with 46 seconds left. After a timeout, Buie scored on a layup with 23 seconds left.

“We got out-toughed,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said.

Northwestern took the lead late in the first half on a layup by Buie and never relinquished it, leading by as many as nine points.

“We put (the loss to Pittsburgh) under the rug,” Buie said. “We turned the page, just like we do with any win or loss. The season is so long you can’t get caught up on one single game. Just like tonight. We’re super happy with the win, but after tonight it’s over. You can’t dwell on things.”

The Wildcats went 21 of 24 on free throws, while the Spartans were 9 of 12.

“I was concerned about a knockout punch early,” Collins said. ‘I knew they would be revved up after the Notre Dame loss. They hit us early and got a seven-point lead, and then we settled down.”

UP NEXT

Northwestern: Hosts Prairie View A&M on Dec. 11

Michigan State: At Penn State on Wednesday night.

Miles, No. 7 Notre Dame women beat No. 3 UConn; Fudd hurt

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Olivia Miles had 21 points and eight rebounds for No. 7 Notre Dame, and UConn star Azzi Fudd suffered a knee injury in a collision with a teammate, as the Fighting Irish handed the third-ranked Huskies their first loss of the season, 74-60 on Sunday.

“I think she’ll be all right,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said afterwards of Fudd, who went into the day averaging 24.0 points, but finished scoreless on two shots over 13 minutes.

Fudd exited in the final minute of the first quarter after teammate Aaliyah Edwards fell on her. She returned midway through the second period to play four hobbled minutes, but sat the rest of the way as a precaution, according to Auriemma.

Maddy Westbeld had a season-high 17 points and nine rebounds for Notre Dame (7-1), which bounced back from a 74-72 loss to No. 20 Maryland three days earlier.

“I think Thursday’s loss really fueled us today,” Irish coach Niele Ivey said. “We learned a lot from that game. We have incredible scorers on our team, a lot of balance offensively, but it’s our defense that’s gonna win games, so that was our focus the last 48 hours. (The players) took the challenge and came out and played with heart and defensive intensity. I feel like if we can play that way, we can beat anyone in the country.”

Notre Dame shot 56% from the field while limiting the Huskies to 37%.

“We played very badly (Thursday), but we were still two points away,” Miles said, “so it’s kind of scary what we can do when we play really well.”

Led by Miles, the Irish roared to a 41-24 lead by intermission, outscoring the Huskies 30-11 over the final 11 minutes of the first half.

Miles scored 13 of Notre Dame’s 18 first-quarter points, going 6 of 7 from the field. Westbeld provided her scoring punch after averaging 5.2 points over her previous five outings.

Lou Lopez Senechal led UConn (6-1) with 21 points. Edwards added 14.

“We didn’t win the rebound battle and that hurt us,” said Auriemma, whose club was outboarded 39-26 and outscored in the paint. 46-16. “We just didn’t have enough scoring on the court and enough people playing at a real high level to get enough buckets when we needed them.”

The Huskies got as close at 49-44 at the 3:44 mark of the third quarter, but the Irish stretched their lead back to as high as 70-53 at the midway mark of the fourth period.

Notre Dame ended a seven-game head-to-head losing streak against UConn in regular-season play, prevailing for the first time since a triple-overtime decision in March 2013.

BIG PICTURE

UConn: The Huskies faced a top-10 opponent for the fourth time this season, but this one was their first true road game. If Fudd’s injury doesn’t turn out to be serious, UConn ought to still have a chance to do what it’s done for decades: craft a resume that will make them a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Notre Dame: The Irish, coming back from that loss at the buzzer to Maryland, showed that Thursday’s outcome may just be a blip on their promising season. Notre Dame matched last season’s win over No. 3 North Carolina State for the highest-ranked team it has beaten in its third year under Ivey.

UP NEXT

UConn: The Huskies host Princeton on Thursday before visiting Maryland next Sunday.

Notre Dame: The Irish have a couple apparent mismatches coming up as they visit Lafayette (2-7) on Thursday and host Merrimack (1-6) on Saturday.

Brink leads No. 2 Stanford women over No. 23 Gonzaga 84-63

Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports
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STANFORD, Calif. – Gonzaga may be rolling out an injury-depleted roster, but the Bulldogs nevertheless left a lasting impression on their West Coast rival in Stanford.

And that leads the Cardinal to wonder if the two power programs might meet again on college basketball’s biggest stage come March.

“This is a team that is a Top-25 team,” Hall of Fame Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. “I think if we can do it, they’re going to be in Seattle (for the NCAA Tournament).”

Cameron Brink had 14 points and a season-high 16 rebounds and Brooke Demetre made a career-high five 3s and scored 17 points, leading second-ranked Stanford past No. 23 Gonzaga 84-63 on Sunday.

The Cardinal (10-1) have now won five straight games after falling to top-ranked South Carolina in overtime on Nov. 20.

“I kind of call Brooke my secret weapon,” VanDerveer said. “She is a really special young lady, and when you have both Cam out there and Brooke, it’s a two-headed monster.”

“She has one of the highest releases I’ve ever seen, one of the quickest releases,” Brink said of Demetre. “She can shoot it, and we’ve always had confidence in her.”

Hannah Jump hit four 3s and scored 14 points, and Haley Jones had 12 points for Stanford.

Short-handed Gonzaga (7-2), limited to seven players because of illness and injuries, had won three in a row.

The Zags kept the pressure on Stanford early in the game, thanks to a 20-point first half from Kaylynne Truong.

Truong shot 4 of 9 from deep and finished with a career-high 22 points.

Brynna Maxwell contributed 19 points. Yvonne Ejim, Gonzaga’s leading scorer, was held to two points in the first three quarters but added six points in the fourth.

“We try to focus on a leading scorer and try to limit them,” VanDerveer said. “But you can’t just focus on (Ejim) because they’ve got Truong, they’ve got Maxwell. . I think we did a much better job (on defense) in the second half.”

STAT OF THE GAME

The Cardinal were able to pull away due to a strong game from beyond the arc, making 15 3-pointers on 15 of 28 (53.6%) shooting. A season-high eight different Stanford players made a 3, led by Demetre’s five and Jump’s four.

BIG PICTURE

Gonzaga: Lost its fourth straight in the series with Stanford and dropped to 1-7 on the Cardinal’s home floor. The Zags haven’t won any matchups since a 79-73 victory at home on Dec. 2, 2018. … Despite playing short-handed, Gonzaga did not yield an easy win to its higher-ranked opponent, trailing by just one point after the first quarter before fading in the second half.

Stanford: Held a 37-23 rebounding advantage. … This win marked the beginning of a crucial stretch in the Cardinal’s season. Stanford’s next two games come against Tennessee – receiving votes in The Associated Press Top 25 poll – and No. 13 Creighton, followed by the start of Pac-12 Conference play against rival California on Dec. 23.

UP NEXT

Gonzaga: The Bulldogs return to McCarthey Athletic Center to start a five-game homestand, starting with a Tuesday matchup vs. Queens University of Charlotte.

Stanford: After a two-week break for final exams, the Cardinal will continue their seven-game homestand vs. Tennessee on Dec. 18.

Top-ranked Houston grinds out 53-48 win over Saint Mary’s

Chris Jones-USA TODAY Sports
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FORT WORTH, Texas – J’Wan Roberts scored 15 points, Marcus Sasser added 13 and top-ranked Houston held on to beat Saint Mary’s 53-48 on Saturday night.

The Cougars (8-0) won twice in their first week as the No. 1 team since the final poll of the 1982-83 regular season, when Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon led high-flying Phi Slama Jama.

Logan Johnson scored 17 points and Aidan Mahaney had 14 for the Gaels (6-3), who lost their third in a row following a 6-0 start.

Houston was the favorite to win it all in the second of three consecutive trips to the Final Four nearly 40 years ago, but lost to Jim Valvano and North Carolina State in one of the iconic championship games.

Coach Kelvin Sampson’s first top-ranked team is coming off trips to the Final Four and Elite Eight the past two seasons.

For the third straight year, the postseason path will start at Dickie’s Arena, where Sampson likes to bring his team during the regular season as prep for the American Athletic Conference tourney.

This victory in the Battleground 2k22 series improved the Cougars to 9-0 in the arena near downtown Fort Worth, where they have won AAC tournament titles each of the past two years.

Saint Mary’s whittled a 12-point deficit to a single possession when Mahaney hit a 3, and he made it a three-point game again at 46-43 with another from long range.

Roberts answered by backing down for a short jump hook before Sasser converted a three-point play to put the Cougars up 51-43.

Houston broke a 17-all tie with a 14-3 run to finish the first half, with Saint Mary’s going 1 of 11 from the field in that stretch against the vaunted Cougars defense. Both teams shot 37%.

BIG PICTURE

Saint Mary’s: Facing the No. 1 team isn’t foreign to the Gaels, who play in the West Coast Conference with Gonzaga. St. Mary’s is 2-7 against the Zags when they have the top ranking, with one of the victories coming last season.

Houston: The Cougars had no trouble in their debut with the No. 1 ranking, blowing out Norfolk State 100-52 at home Tuesday. A disciplined and tournament-tested opponent for the second game was just the threat Sampson’s club figured it could be.

UP NEXT

Saint Mary’s: Missouri State at home Wednesday.

Houston: North Florida at home Tuesday.

Clowney, No. 11 Alabama recover to beat South Dakota State

Gary Cosby Jr.-USA TODAY Sports
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Freshman Noah Clowney’s breakout game – 22 points, nine rebounds, four assists and a steal – helped No. 11 Alabama recover from blowing a 20-point lead and beat South Dakota State 78-65 on Saturday night.

Clowney shot 8 of 17, including 5 of 12 on 3s, in his highest-scoring game of the season.

“We’ve encouraged him to shoot it, I’m glad he did,” Alabama coach Nate Oats said. “His senior year of high school, he started out pretty poorly from 3 then shot it 40% after that, so I kind of referenced that.”

Alabama (7-1) led 37-17 with 6 1/2 minutes left in the first half. South Dakota State (3-6) rallied to go ahead 51-50 on Alex Arians’ 3-pointer with 11 1/2 minutes remaining.

Nimari Burnett’s foul shot a minute later put the Crimson Tide ahead for good at 54-53. Alabama used a 9-0 run to pull away.

Mark Sears scored 19 points and Brandon Miller had 16 points and nine rebounds for the Crimson Tide

Alabama made 14 of its first 26 shots to build a big lead before it slipped away.

“I’m not going to call them mature, we still have some room to grow,” Oats said. “Our guys have to understand, no matter who we’re playing, even if their record isn’t great, they’re Division I basketball players, they’re good teams. Last year, we had issues with this going down the road.”

Charlie Easley and Arians each scored 17 points for the Jackrabbits. Zeke Mayo added 12 points and Matt Dentlinger contributed nine rebounds.

BIG PICTURE

Sears continues to be a force at home for Alabama. In Alabama’s last three home games – wins over Liberty, Jacksonville State and South Dakota State – he has scored 22, 18 and 19 points, making at least three 3-pointers in all three games. Alabama’s next home game comes against a Memphis team that already has two wins over SEC competition.

SECOND HALF SPRING

South Dakota State coach Eric Henderson noticed that in Alabama’s first two home games, Longwood and Liberty both trailed by fewer than 10 points at halftime before losing by 21 and 36 points, respectively. He viewed the first five minutes of the second half as critical in both instances, seeing an Alabama team using the home environment to its advantage.

Henderson stressed to his team that it had to win those five minutes to have a chance. Down 42-35 at the break, it did, and ultimately took the lead.

“They really increase the pressure, they try to play a little faster, they get downhill and they really spray it,” Henderson said. “I thought we were getting some 50-50 balls, I thought we were playing with some confidence. There’s been a lot of schools to come in here and have a good first half and it ends up being a 30- or 40-point game.”

UP NEXT

South Dakota State stays on the road to face Montana on Tuesday.

Alabama takes a weeklong break before its second game against the current No. 1 team in the nation, this time a road game against Houston on Saturday. The Crimson Tide beat former No. 1 North Carolina in its first shot at the top-ranked team, winning 103-101 in four overtimes on Nov. 27.