Maryland, Michigan State on Big Ten collision course with conference play set to begin

Michigan State's Denzel Valentine looks for an opening around Northeastern's Caleb Donnelly and Jeremy Miller, rear, during the second half of Michigan State's 78-58 win over Northeastern in an NCAA college basketball game in Boston Saturday, Dec. 19, 2015. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson) ORG XMIT: MAWT113
Michigan State's Denzel Valentine looks for an opening around Northeastern's Caleb Donnelly and Jeremy Miller, rear, during the second half of Michigan State's 78-58 win over Northeastern in an NCAA college basketball game in Boston Saturday, Dec. 19, 2015. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson) ORG XMIT: MAWT113 (Winslow Townson / Associated Press)

It's difficult to gauge how good teams and leagues are in November and December, when there are few marquee matchups and most ranked teams spend more time emptying their athletic department's coffers to smaller schools looking for a payday than they do unveiling their playbooks for upcoming competition to scout.

In judging the merits of No. 4 Maryland and the Big Ten Conference, both have performed as expected.


The 11-1 Terps have won every game they were supposed to, lost a relatively close game (89-81) at North Carolina in their only true road test, and have shown the kind of talent and potential that had many in the preseason predicting a Final Four appearance.

The Big Ten has had a few impressive victories and limited the number of head-scratching losses, knocked off the Atlantic Coast Conference again in their annual competition and goes into the meat of its season with three teams in the top 15, including top-ranked Michigan State.

With conference play set to begin today, here's a look at how the Big Ten stacks up and some questions still to be answered.

Who's the best player in the league?

Without a doubt, Michigan State's Denzel Valentine has had a remarkable start to his senior year in East Lansing. The 6-foot-5 shooting guard is second in the conference in points (18.5), first in assists (7.1) and tied for third in rebounds (8.3) per game in leading the Spartans to a 13-0 start.

"I've always thought that the player of the year should be the best player on the best team, and right at the moment, that's Valentine, but we can have something entirely different by the time we get to the end of the year," Big Ten Network analyst Dan Bonner said Monday.

ESPN analyst Len Elmore said Valentine is clearly the most impressive player in the league this season.

"He does everything — and in a dominant way," Elmore said.

Elmore said Valentine's do-everything role under Michigan State coach Tom Izzo has helped showcase him.

"It's opportunity," Elmore said. "He's got great talent, but now he's been given the keys to the car. Before he was up front, but now he's got the keys."

It will be interesting to see how fast Valentine can recover from arthroscopic surgery last week, which is expected to keep him out for the early portion of the Big Ten schedule. A year ago, teammate Branden Dawson came back too quickly from a broken hand and was not as effective as he had been as a junior until late in the season.

While Valentine doesn't have the Big Ten Player of the Year award locked up, he seemingly has a fairly sizable lead over Maryland sophomore point guard Melo Trimble, who has sacrificed scoring (14.8 points per game, compared with 16.2 last season) — for the only Big Ten team with five players averaging double-digit points — while nearly doubling his assists (from three to 5.8 per game).

Two other candidates are Purdue senior center A.J. Hammons and Michigan senior wing Caris LeVert.

Hammons' numbers (13.3 points, 8.2 rebounds per game) are solid considering the 7-footer shares minutes with Isaac Haas at center and shares touches with super freshman Caleb Swanigan. LeVert is fourth in the league in points (17.3) and sixth in assists (4.8) per game.


LeVert "had that horrible game against SMU," Elmore said, referring to a 1-for-13 shooting night in an 82-58 loss to the Mustangs. "But he's the kind of guy who does everything. He'll score when you need him to, get rebounds. He'll make other guys better."

How many bids should the Big Ten receive?

The consensus among experts seems to be that the Big Ten will receive six NCAA tournament bids, though some believe the strength of the league will help a seventh get in. Aside from the three favorites, with Michigan State, Maryland and Purdue all having a shot at top-two seeds, the teams with the best postseason chances appear to be Michigan (10-3) and Iowa (9-3).

"Based on what I've seen on tape, Iowa certainly has potential" to win the league, Bonner said. "I would not totally count Iowa out of the equation."

The Hawkeyes can help their cause with a win over the Spartans tonight in Iowa City. The Wolverines, who need to keep point guard Derrick Walton Jr. playing on two healthy feet, play at No. 14 Purdue and host Maryland in two of their first four games.

The last spots will depend mostly on what happens over the next two months. Indiana (10-3) will have to do quite a bit to erase the memory of an embarrassing loss at Duke in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, and Wisconsin (8-5) needs a few upsets as it goes through a coaching transition.

"Everybody is wringing their hands about them, but I certainly think Indiana is capable," Bonner said. "It's much too early to give up on Indiana."

Who's the top newcomer in the league?

Swanigan, the 6-9, 250-pound power forward who initially committed to Michigan State, is leading the league in rebounding (9.2 per game) and is averaging 11.3 points. He had a career-high 25 points on 10-for-14 shooting in the Boilermakers' lone defeat, to Butler.

"Swanigan's really helped Hammons because he's taken away a lot of responsibilities in terms of rebounding and doing the dirty work," Elmore said.

It looked early on as if Swanigan might not have much competition, but the tear Maryland freshman center Diamond Stone has been on since coming off the bench five games ago is a good sign for the Terps. Stone tied his career high of 16 points for the third time in that stretch Sunday against Marshall.

Among freshmen, the two young big men are at the head of the class, with fast-improving Deyonta Davis of Michigan State making up ground. In terms of players new to the Big Ten, Michigan transfer Duncan Robinson is doing in Ann Arbor what he did at Division III Williams.

Robinson leads the league in 3-point shooting at 59.5 percent (47 of 79) and is second on the team in scoring (12.5 points per game).

What will be the biggest games of the year?

The Jan. 23 game between the Spartans and Terps in East Lansing looks to be huge, but Michigan State needs to prove it can play as well without Valentine as it did against Oakland. After facing the Hawkeyes, the Spartans play at Minnesota to start their league schedule.

The same scenario can play out for the Terps. On paper, the start of Maryland's Big Ten schedule appears to be pretty routine. The Terps also play back-to-back road games Jan. 9 at Wisconsin and Jan. 12 at Michigan.

Some of the league's traditional rivalry games — Ohio State-Michigan, Michigan-Michigan State, Purdue-Indiana, Wisconsin against whoever happens to be contending — might not have the same buzz as in the past. Considering the tension in a few games for Maryland last year, visits to Michigan State, Purdue and Indiana should all have that kind of feel.


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