The Big Ten moved up the start of men’s basketball conference play this season by a month to accommodate a schedule that will end with its annual postseason tournament at New York’s Madison Square Garden a week earlier than normal.
The shift resulted in more two-day turnarounds, including this weekend and early next week when teams play one home game and one road game and again the first week in January when league play is resumed and nonconference games finally end.
The first three weeks of the season have been rough for the Big Ten.
Until Purdue beat then-No. 2 Arizona in the seventh-eighth-place game in the Battle for Atlantis tournament last week after both teams had lost twice in the Bahamas, the Big Ten was 0-for-the-Top 25. Then the Big Ten went out and got demolished by the Atlantic Coast Conference this week, 11-3.
Going into Friday’s games, here is a look at how the teams and players have looked to date:
Most impressive team
Except for its loss to No. 1 Duke in the Champions Classic in Chicago to open the season, Michigan State has looked very much like a team that could run away with the Big Ten this season. The Spartans go into their Big Ten opener against Nebraska on Sunday on a roll.
Michigan State showed both its defense and its depth in crushing then-No. 5 North Carolina, 63-45, on Sunday in the PK80 Invitational in Portland, Ore., and did pretty much the same Thursday to new-No. 5 Notre Dame, 81-63, in the last Big Ten/ACC Challenge game of the season in East Lansing.
Even with sophomore forward Miles Bridges trying to play through an ankle injury, the Spartans have plenty of star power.
Fellow sophomores Nick Ward, Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford have raised their games from impressive freshman years. Freshman center Jaren Jackson Jr. adds to an already big frontcourt. A deep bench allows Tom Izzo not to wear out his starters.
Most perplexing team
A year ago, Northwestern flew under the radar until making a run, and then earning a spot, in the NCAA tournament for the first time. With nearly all seniors in their starting lineup, the Wildcats were expected to be one of the dark horses to chase down Michigan State.
That is not the way it is looking going into the Big Ten opener Friday night against in-state rival Illinois at AllState Arena, the Wildcats’ home this season while Welsh-Ryan Arena gets renovated. Chris Collins has more to worry about than just the notoriously bad traffic on the Dan Ryan Expressway.
While individually Northwestern seems to be the same balanced team led by senior guards Bryant McIntosh and Scottie Lindsey, the Wildcats can’t seem to put it all together at both ends. Still the struggles have clearly been more on defense.
Coming into the season with the first preseason ranking in school history — at No. 20 — Northwestern barely got by Loyola Maryland in the opener, beating the Greyhounds, 79-75. The Wildcats lost a shootout at home to Creighton, 92-88.
The worst loss came against Texas Tech in the Hall of Fame Tipoff tournament, an 85-49 thumping that was the most one-sided in Collins’ five years in Evanston. The Wildcats improved their defense in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge at Georgia Tech, but lost on a layup at the buzzer, 52-51.
Most impressive player
Even though Bridges was voted the consensus Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year, he’s getting some early competition from a player who wasn’t even voted among the 10 all-league selections despite the fact that two of his teammates were chosen.
Junior forward Jordan Murphy has been a solid contributor to Minnesota’s recent revival under Richard Pitino, averaging more than 11 points and eight rebounds in his first two seasons with the Golden Gophers.
Nobody expected Murphy to suddenly turn into Caleb Swanigan.
Starting with a 35-point, 15-rebound explosion in the season opener against South Carolina-Upstate, Murphy has double doubles in every game. Murphy goes into Sunday’s Big Ten opener Sunday against Rutgers leading the Big Ten in scoring (21.2) and rebounding (12.5).
It bodes well for Minnesota, which had been unbeaten until Wednesday’s home loss to No. 10 Miami. With nearly all of its key players back from last year’s NCAA tournament team, including preseason All-Big Ten first-team picks Nate Mason and Amir Coffey, the improvement of Murphy could make the Golden Gophers even more legit.
Most perplexing player
Justin Jackson was the only Maryland player selected to the Preseason All-Big Ten team, and he’s one of the few players on that list aside from Bridges who had been widely mentioned as a potential high first-round pick in next year’s NBA draft.
Going into Friday’s Big Ten opener against Purdue, Jackson is now the only player on that list to have seen his offensive production nose-dive into single digits and his 3-point shooting plummet from a team-high 43.8 percent as a freshman to 25 percent on 7-for-28.
It’s not that the 6-foot-7 Canadian forward has been a complete disappointment, raising his rebounding numbers from a solid six a game to an impressive 8.8, including three games in double figures. Jackson’s defense has also improved.
But given his lack of productivity — only three games in double figures, with a 16-point performance against New Mexico last Saturday being the season high — Jackson needs to regain his freshman swagger and help fellow sophomores Anthony Cowan Jr. and Kevin Huerter lead the Terps.
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