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Big Ten Reset: Is this Michigan’s league to lose?

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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 recaps 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?

What is still 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: Ethan Happ, Wisconsin

It’s not hard to draw a parallel to Happ’s success this season and Wisconsin’s return to form after the program’s first season without an NCAA tournament in two decades. Happ put up numbers last year – 17.9 points, 8 rebounds and 3.7 assists – but it was a grind and things never seem to come as easily to him as they appeared two in his first seasons in Madison. He and the Badgers didn’t seem to adapt well to a more usage-heavy role with a supporting cast that was unable to do much supporting.

Now, though, Happ is beasting and the Badgers are rolling. The 6-foot-10 throwback pivot has the look of a National Player of the year, averaging 19.2 points, 10.7 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 1.2 blocks per game while shooting 56.9 percent from the floor. He’s dominating the game by being excellent in nearly every one of its phases. It’s no accident Wisconsin is now 10-3 with a 2-0 headstart to B1G play. Happ’s game may not endear him to NBA scouts – he’s shot just three 3s this year – but he’s unquestionably one of the best players in college basketball right now.

THE ALL BIG TEN FIRST TEAM

  • ETHAN HAPP, WISCONSIN
  • CARSEN EDWARDS, PURDUE: The Boilermaker point guard has a decent argument for the top spot here given the season he’s having. Edwards leads the Big Ten in scoring with 25.8 points per game as he’s moved into a bigger role in West Lafayette and thrived. He’s shooting nearly 40 percent from 3-point range and is dishing out 3.5 assists per game.
  • JAMES PALMER, NEBRASKA: Palmer’s efforts are a big reason the Cornhuskers look poised to snap a four-year NCAA tournament drought. The 6-foot-6 senior is picking up where he left off following his breakthrough season last year after transferring from Miami, averaging 19.6 points along with 3.8 rebounds, 1.2 steals and 2.8 assists per game.
  • CASSIUS WINSTON, MICHIGAN STATE: The Spartans’ floor general is having a superb season to help power Michigan State to an 11-2 record with a 2-0 B1G mark. He’s doing it all, averaging 17.5 points and 7.5 assists per game.
  • BRUNO FERNANDO, MARYLAND: The sophomore has shown a lot of growth this season, and his game is starting to match his for foreboding 6-foot-10, 240-pound frame. He’s averaging 14.5 points, 9.7 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game while shooting 70.2 percent from the floor.
(Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

POSTSEASON PREDICTIONS

  • NCAA: Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Indiana, Nebraska, Purdue, Maryland, Iowa
  • NIT: Northwestern, Minnesota, Penn State
  • OTHER/NO POSTSEASON: Illinois, Rutgers

THREE THINGS WE’VE LEARNED

1. MICHIGAN IS A NATIONAL TITLE-CONTENDER

We anticipated the Wolverines would be pretty good this season coming off last year’s surprise NCAA tournament title game appearance. It’s never wise to bet against John Beilein, and Michigan, despite losses of Mo Wagner, Duncan Robinson and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, still had talent on the roster. What Michigan is doing now, though, well, that’s been a big of a surprise.

The Wolverines are absolutely red-hot, roasting opponents and establishing themselves as a no-doubt, no-argument national title contender. They more than hinted at that fact when they thrashed Villanova in November and then followed it up with wins against Providence, Northwestern, Purdue and North Carolina to head into 2019 with a perfect 13-0 record.

Michigan’s defense is about as good as it gets, with opponents shooting just 41.4 percent on 2-point shots with an effective field goal percentage of 43, good for 11th in the country. The Wolverines also keep opponents off the offensive glass and the free-throw line, a time-tested formula for defensive excellence. Offensively, they’re playing Beilein’s offense methodically, taking care of the ball and making shots. They may not be overloaded with talent ala Duke, but the Wolverines are stacked with the likes of Charles Matthews, Jordan Poole, Zavier Simpson, Jon Teske and freshman sensation Ignas Brazdeikis.

The Wolverines look to be very much in line for a third title game under Beilein, and this could be the time they’re the last team standing, atop a ladder with cut nets in hand.

(Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

2. IT DIDN’T TAKE ARCHIE MILLER LONG TO TURN INDIANA AROUND

It’s not hard to imagine that last year wasn’t a whole heck of a lot of fun for Archie Miller. In his first year as Indiana’s coach, the Hoosiers went 16-15 overall and 9-9 in the Big Ten after Miller spent the previous four years in the NCAA tournament at Dayton. There weren’t a long list of doubters about Miller’s long-term viability in Bloomington, but a difficult year that included Big Ten losing streaks of four and three games maybe made the timeline look a little extended.

Or the Hoosiers would figure it out immediately, like it appears they have.

Landing five-star homegrown talent Romeo Langford was obviously the key as the freshman is averaging 17.5 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game while shooting 50.3 percent from the floor (though a ghastly 21.3 percent on more than three attempts from 3-point range per game). He hasn’t been alone, though, as Juwan Morgan has been spectacular while the Hoosiers sport a top-20 defense.

3. THE B1G IS BACK

It’s been a couple of years in the wilderness for the Big Ten. The expansion to 14 teams may have been a boon to the league’s coffers, it hasn’t exactly been a success on the hardwood. Since the move in 2014-15, the Big Ten hasn’t ranked in the top-three in KenPom, and they’ve been fifth twice. They’ve averaged six NCAA tournament teams per year and haven’t had a one-seed since Wisconsin’s national runner-up season of 2015. They’ve only had five teams with a three-seed or better in that time frame, too. They’ve also played their conference tournament in Washington, D.C. and reworked the conference schedule into December to play in New York. So it’s been pretty nasty for a league that’s long prided itself on its basketball prowess.

This season looks to be a return to form.

The league currently has a pair of top-five KenPom teams (Michigan and Michigan State) while a whopping 11 programs are ranked in the top-50. Rutgers and Illinois look the only teams that are truly going to struggle while Minnesota is the third team outside the top-50 at 62 with wins against Washington and Nebraska on the resume.

The Big Ten is back in a big way.

(Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

THREE STORYLINES TO FOLLOW

1. ONE-SEED PURSUIT

The Big Ten hasn’t had a No. 1 seed in three seasons, but the conference now has a pair of teams that look squarely in the mix to secure one in Michigan and Michigan State. Can the Big Ten go from drought to deluge this season with a pair of top seeds?

It could be tough for the league to get two top seeds with Duke, Virginia, Gonzaga, Kansas, North Carolina and Nevada all building No. 1 seed resumes through two months, but it’s definitely not out of the realm of possibility. The Wolverines and Spartans will be bolstered by the fact the Big Ten is going to provide a plethora of quadrant-one wins this season, and the conference’s reputation appears to be on the upswing, which can sometimes matter as much as the numbers. If both teams can compile huge win totals – and perhaps split their season series with each other – it’s not hard to envision scenarios with them both on the one-line.

2. COACHING SITUATIONS

There didn’t appear to be any coaches whose seats were absolutely red-hot entering the season, but there were a few situations worth monitoring.

The first is Richard Pitino at Minnesota, where the son of the Hall of Famer has gone to just one NCAA tournament (featuring a first-round loss) in five seasons with an athletic director that didn’t hire him and a new university president on the way in. Pitino seems to have quieted much discussion about his job with a nice 11-2 start to the season, but it remains to be seen if a November loss to Boston College will be viewed as a hiccup or warning light.

Pat Chambers has gone 0-for-7 in his tenure in getting to the NCAA tournament during his tenure in University Park, though the Nittany Lions did take home the NIT title last season. Still, not many coaches can have that be the high-water mark over seven seasons and come to work for an eighth. Chambers has a win over Virginia Tech this season, but losses to DePaul and Bradley along with Ls courtesy of Maryland, Indiana, N.C. State and Alabama suggest trouble remains ahead.

Fran McCaffery has missed back-to-back NCAA tournaments in Iowa City, and the Hawkeyes’ best season during his tenure was a seven-seed and a first-weekend exit after being ranked in the top five at one point in 2015-16, but a new contract and huge buyout kept any questions about his job security to a whisper. Their 11-2 start to this season with wins against Oregon and Iowa State are having the same affect.

There’s been just one NCAA tournament in six seasons for Tim Miles at Nebraska, and that came in 2014. With a brand-new arena, the expectations in Lincoln are for more. But after narrowly missing the tournament last year thanks largely to the B1G being down across the board and this year’s strong start, things look to be pointed in the right direction.

3. HOW GOOD IS OHIO STATE

The Buckeyes have just one loss on the season, a home setback to Syracuse, and a bunch of nice-but-not-great wins on their resume with Ws against the likes of Cincinnati, Creighton, Minnesota and UCLA (whose blahness just got their coach canned).

Chris Holtmann’s team’s statistical profile is strong with KenPom rankings in the top-40 in both offense (35) and defense (22) while sophomore Kaleb Wesson is budding into one of the conference’s hardest-to-guard players.

How it all comes together when the schedule ramps up – starting with Michigan State on Saturday – will be one of the more interesting things to watch unfold in the Big Ten.The five game stretch of at Iowa, vs. Maryland, vs. Purdue, at Nebraska and at Mcihigan to finish January is going to tell a lot.

THREE PREDICTIONS

1. ETHAN HAPP IS A FIRST-TEAM ALL-AMERICAN

The Badgers big man will have stiff competition around the country, but if he keeps putting up numbers like he is now – and his entire career suggests he will – while Wisconsin continues its resurgence, it’s going to be impossible to keep him off a list of the country’s five best players.

2. AT LEAST EIGHT GO DANCING

Just a year removed from having four teams in the NCAA tournament – a 10-year low – the Big Ten is going to get at least eight teams into the Big Dance. Even with the expanded membership, that would be a historic achievement for one of the country’s most storied conferences.

3. THERE WILL BE A SURPRISE TOURNEY CHAMPION

We’re going to spend a ton of the next two-plus months talking about Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue and Wisconsin as the premier Big Ten teams, but it’ll be another team from the deep league – here’s looking at Ohio State, Indiana or Nebraska – that will cut down the nets at the United Center in the conference tournament.

Zach Norvell leads No. 5 Gonzaga over Loyola Marymount 73-55

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SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — Zach Norvell Jr. scored 17 points and No. 5 Gonzaga used a stout defense to beat Loyola Marymount 73-55 on Thursday night, the eighth consecutive win for the Bulldogs since a pair of losses knocked them out of the top spot in The AP Top 25.

Brandon Clarke added 13 points, Corey Kispert 12 and Rui Hachimura 10 for Gonzaga (17-2, 4-0 West Coast), which beat Loyola Marymount for the 20th straight time. The Zags have won 18 straight games at home.

James Batemon led Loyola Marymount (13-5, 1-3) with 12 points.

Loyola used a slow-down offense and stingy defense to keep the scoring low, and it mostly accomplished that goal.

Gonzaga, which averages 92 points a game, led just 17-16 midway through the first half.

The Zags went on a 19-6 run the rest of the half to take a 36-22 lead at halftime. The Lions shot only 36 percent in the first and committed 11 turnovers.

A 3-pointer by Norvell highlighted a 14-2 Gonzaga run to open the second half that lifted the Bulldogs to a 50-24 lead. Meanwhile, the Lions were missing eight of their first 10 shots.

Loyola Marymount made just five of its first 20 shots in the second half, and fell behind 61-35 with less than 8 minutes left.

BIG PICTURE

Loyola Marymount: The Lions opened the season 11-1, but have dropped off since … The Lions ranked 13th in the NCAA in defense at 61.2 points per game … Their last win in this lop-sided series was in 2010. They have not won in Spokane since 1991 … The Lions have already surpassed last season’s 11 wins.

Gonzaga: The Bulldogs are cruising toward another WCC title, outscoring conference foes by nearly 30 points per game… The Zags suffered back-to-back losses to No. 3 Tennessee and at No. 13 North Carolina in mid-December and have not lost since … They lead the nation in field goal shooting at 52.6 percent and are second in scoring at 92.2 points per game … Gonzaga and Marquette are the only programs with both men’s and women’s teams in the Top 15.

UP NEXT

Loyola Marymount hosts Pepperdine on Saturday.

Gonzaga plays at last place Portland on Saturday.

Cassius Winston’s career-high 29 lifts No. 6 Spartans over Huskers

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LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Four nights after Tom Izzo called out Cassius Winston for his poor play in Michigan State’s previous game, the Spartans’ star point guard responded better than his coach would have expected.

Winston scored a career-high 29 points to go over 1,000 for his career, had six assists and played tough defense on Glynn Watson Jr. while leading No. 6 Michigan State past Nebraska 70-64 on Thursday night.

“I told him before the game, ‘You’re going to get measured on how you bounce back,’ ” Izzo said.

Winston more than passed the test.

“Cassius, the way he ran that whole thing, he was like a quarterback dissecting a defense,” Izzo said.

In a win at Penn State on Sunday, Winston had seven turnovers, and his 11 points were his fewest since Florida held him to 10 on Dec. 8. Izzo told reporters it was one of the worst games Winston had played in his three seasons.

Of the Spartans’ first 18 field goals against Nebraska, Winston scored eight of them and had assists on five others. He held Watson, the Huskers’ hottest player the last week, to 3-of-13 shooting from the field and eight points.

Izzo’s criticism motivated him, he said.

“Just get back on track, playing at the level I was playing at,” Winston said. “I want to play at the highest standard, my best ability. I’ve got to do that for this team and put us in the best situation.”

Michigan State (16-2, 7-0) won its 11th straight game overall and extended its school-record Big Ten winning streak to 19 games. The Cornhuskers (13-5, 3-4) had their school-record 20-game home win streak end.

Nick Ward added 15 points and 10 rebounds for his second straight double-double. He also made his first 3-pointer of the season and second of his career.

“That should keep him happy for a week or 10 days,” Izzo said.

The Spartans led by 12 points in the final 2 minutes, but Nebraska cut the lead to four twice before Matt McQuaid made a pair of free throws for his first points with 14.2 seconds to put the game away.

Nebraska shot a season-low 32.8 percent and was just 5 of 26 on 3-pointers, 1 of 12 in the second half.

“I wasn’t very pleased with our offense in any way, shape or form,” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said.

James Palmer, who led Nebraska with 24 points, struggled mightily from the field, going 6 of 21, but he made all 11 of his free throws.

“Palmer’s a good player, and I feel like I did a pretty good job on him,” McQuaid said. “I just tried to do what I could. He’s a bigger, more physical guard. I tried to get a couple charges, but things weren’t going my way. So I had to figure out different ways to guard him.”

Nebraska had hoped to build off its win at No. 25 Indiana on Monday night but couldn’t get going. The Huskers were trying for their first win over a top-10 opponent in nine tries.

“You need to build and play from the front against these teams,” Miles said.

He found no consolation in playing the Spartans close for most of the game, which had 11 lead changes and six ties.

“There are no moral victories,” Miles said. “I’m utterly mad and disappointed.”

BIG PICTURE

Michigan State: This was a gut-check win for the Spartans, who were without Joshua Langford (ankle) for a fifth straight game and Kyle Ahrens (back) for a second in a row.

Nebraska: The Huskers were feeling pretty good about themselves after an impressive win at No. 25 Indiana on Monday, and they had an amped standing-room crowd on hand. But they could never find rhythm until it was too late against the nation’s No. 3 team in field-goal defense.

HE SAID IT

“We were paranoid of this game. They didn’t make shots tonight. Those things happen sometimes. Tim’s got a great team that’s going to be an NCAA Tournament team, and I hope they keep on winning now.” — Izzo.

UP NEXT

Michigan State hosts No. 19 Maryland on Monday.

Nebraska visits Rutgers on Monday.

WATCH: Ja Morant can’t be stopped

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The Ohio Valley Conference is just not equipped to deal with Ja Morant.

The Murray State guard just keeps dunking on anyone and everyone that stands in his way, the latest victim coming Thursday night at Eastern Illinois.

There’s just so much to love about this dunk. The athleticism. The explosiveness. The aggressiveness. The ferocity. It’s thunder meeting lightning at the rim.

If there’s someone who can stop Morant, a likely top-10 pick in June, it sure ain’t in the OVC.

UCLA, USC meet amid rocky seasons for crosstown rivals

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — A fired coach. A transfer. Suspensions. Injuries. UCLA and Southern California have experienced it all barely halfway through the season.

Things began promisingly enough for the Bruins. They were an AP Top 25 team and were predicted to finish second in the Pac-12 before early consecutive losses to ranked Michigan State and North Carolina knocked them out. Then came stunning defeats at home to mid-majors Belmont and Liberty. Those precipitated the biggest shocker of all: coach Steve Alford’s firing on New Year’s Eve.

Murry Bartow was quickly tabbed as interim coach for the Bruins (10-7, 3-1 Pac-12). They’ve won three out of four games under him.

“We had a lot of ups and downs,” UCLA freshman Moses Brown said, “but I think we caught our stride and the sky is the limit for us.”

USC was predicted to finish fifth in a weakened Pac-12. The Trojans got off to a 5-2 start before dropping four in a row. They regrouped to reel off four straight wins, including a home sweep to open conference play. But they dropped a pair on the road, where freshman Kevin Porter Jr. got suspended last weekend.

In the midst of rocky seasons, the crosstown rivals meet Saturday at Galen Center. The Bruins have won four in a row in the series and are 8-4 at USC’s arena since it opened.

“Coming off a two-game losing streak, we’re kind of hoping this is a game that we can bounce back,” USC’s Nick Rakocevic said. “We want to be put in a good position for the rest of the Pac-12.”

Both teams would likely need to win the Pac-12 tournament title to earn a berth in the NCAA Tournament.

Last March, the Bruins played in the First Four for the first time in school history and lost. The Trojans were snubbed by the selection committee despite finishing second in the Pac-12 for the first time in 25 years after losing twice to UCLA.

“We play UCLA twice, but there’s 16 other games. You have to do well the rest of the league,” USC coach Andy Enfield said. “Whether you win or lose these games, yes, it’s great for a rivalry, it’s great for another win in your conference, but it’s a long Pac-12 season. We try to keep that in perspective no matter who we play even if it’s UCLA.”

The Trojans (9-8, 2-2) have played over half their games with eight or fewer scholarship players because of injuries and the recent transfer of Jordan Usher, who was suspended before he left.

“Nothing surprises us at this point,” Enfield said. “The injuries and distractions have had a significant impact on our team.”

Porter was back practicing with the Trojans this week, but he hasn’t been cleared to play in games.

“He’s working on some things off the court. He has very clear expectations that he has to meet,” Enfield said. “As he progresses, we will reevaluate his status.”

Bartow said the Bruins will prepare as if Porter will play Saturday. Before his suspension, Porter missed time with a leg injury.

USC’s Bennie Boatwright, a local product who was recruited by UCLA, has been on an offensive tear in his last seven games. He scored a career-high 37 points in an overtime loss at Oregon State and is averaging a team-leading 17.1 points. The Bruins are led by Kris Wilkes at 17.3 points a game.

“Inside, they’ve got some really, really good players,” said Bartow, who has the Bruins playing at a faster pace and zipping the ball around.

One of the intriguing matchups on Saturday will be the 6-foot-11 Rakocevic and Brown, who at 7-1 is the tallest player at UCLA in decades. Rakocevic averages 14.9 points and a league-leading 9.5 rebounds. Brown averages 11.9 points and 9.0 rebounds

“It’s going to be fun going against somebody like that,” Rakocevic said.

A famous name associated with the rivalry won’t be on the court.

USC’s Chuck O’Bannon, the son of former UCLA star Charles O’Bannon, is expected to seek a medical redshirt. The sophomore broke his pinky finger in practice in November, had surgery, got the cast off in December and it hasn’t healed properly. He’s still has pain, too, Enfield said.

Report: Cam Reddish cleared for Saturday’s showdown with Virginia while Tre Jones’ injury isn’t as severe as feared for Duke

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Duke may not be at full strength for its showdown with Virginia on Saturday, but the Blue Devils are on their way to that eventuality.

Cam Reddish is expected to play after missing Monday’s loss to Syracuse with an illness while Tre Jones will not miss an extended amount of time and is not initially ruled out for Saturday after suffering a shoulder injury, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski told The Athletic on Thursday.

Reddish absence wasn’t expected to be a lengthy one, but there was fear that Jones’ might be after he suffered an AC sprain in a collision with Syracuse’s Frank Howard. Jones initially told coaches he thought he broke his collarbone, but x-rays revealed a sprain slightly more significant than a grade one.

“I don’t know if it’s for this game or the next game, but it’s not going to be long term, where it’s a month or something,” Krzyzewski told Dana O’Neil of The Athletic.  “He’s going to be back.”

While Jones hasn’t been ruled out for Saturday, he is unlikely to play against the Cavaliers, Krzyzewski said. That will diminish some of the luster for a game that pits The Associated Press’ top-ranked team vs. the coaches’ poll top team, but it’s ultimately fantastic news for the Blue Devils.

Losing Jones for any significant length of time would have been a significant blow to Duke. While Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Reddish headline the highlight reels and mock drafts, Jones’ skill, leadership and tenacity at the point guard position plays no small part in allowing that trio – and Duke at large – flourish. Without him, the machine doesn’t run as smoothly, as evidenced by the overtime home loss to the Orange.

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