Commentary

Challenge was won, challenges remain

Originally Published: December 23, 2009
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

Wisconsin BadgersJeff Hanisch/US PresswireUW's upset of Duke came on a night when the league won its first-ever Big Ten/ACC Challenge.

Favorite: Michigan State
I know what the Purdue fans are thinking right now. Are you crazy? Have you seen Purdue play this season and win games like the one over Tennessee in the Paradise Jam? Did you see Michigan State lose to Florida, North Carolina and Texas? Yes, I did. But here's the deal. The Spartans won the Big Ten by four games last season. Purdue isn't as deep as the Spartans. This will be a much closer race, but I'm still giving the edge to MSU because of the experience it has and the coach who is in the first seat. Tom Izzo and Michigan State faced a tougher nonconference slate than Purdue, and that will better prepare the Spartans for a run to the league title.

Most surprising team: Wisconsin
The Badgers were never going to be the ninth-best team in the league, as was predicted in a preseason media poll. A Bo Ryan-coached team isn't going to finish that low. UW lost by 13 to Gonzaga in the Maui Invitational semifinals, but then turned around and won handily over Maryland and followed that up with a memorable home win over Duke. The Badgers slipped in a road overtime loss at Green Bay, but then beat Marquette at home. Expect Wisconsin to be an NCAA tournament team and one that won't be an easy out.

Most disappointing team: Michigan
Manny Harris has been one of the more consistent players in the Big Ten so far, averaging 20.1 points, 7.5 boards and over 5 assists a game. But the Wolverines have yet to find a consistent defensive streak and have gone through offensive droughts. Michigan lost four of six at one point and doesn't have a signature win yet. The Wolverines made the tournament last season and entered this season with a lot of hype, but they may not make the field. Feels kind of like Miami (Fla.), which made the tournament two seasons ago, entered last season with a lot of pub and then missed the tourney.

Top performance: Evan Turner, Ohio State
Turner, who is presently out with a fracture in his back, had multiple special games, including a triple-double to start the season against Alcorn State (14 points, 17 boards and 10 assists). Then, he had another triple-double against Lipscomb (16, 10, 11) and a 40-minute, 25-point, 13-rebound, 6-assist game in a win over Florida State. Turner was the league's runaway top player before the injury. If he comes back, he's got a great shot to grab the honor again.

[+] EnlargeJohn Shurna
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhJohn Shurna and Northwestern have a shot at the first NCAA tournament in school history.

Best player: John Shurna, Northwestern
At this point, with Turner hurt, Shurna may be the most valuable player in the league. He has picked up in the absence of injured forward Kevin Coble and had some special games (23 points and 7 boards in a win over Iowa State, 22 points in a win over Stanford, 25 in a win over Notre Dame. Expect Shurna to compete for Big Ten Player of the Year honors.

Mystery team: Ohio State
The Buckeyes are still talented enough to win plenty of games in the Big Ten and could earn an NCAA berth. But so much of their offense went through Turner. If he's out for most of the Big Ten season, it could be tough for them to do well against the league's upper echelon. The Buckeyes have talent with William Buford, David Lighty and Jon Diebler, but to be an elite team, they need Turner.

Strangest score: Texas-San Antonio beat Iowa 62-50 to open the season in Iowa City. That was a bad omen from the start.

What you may have not realized: Minnesota has not yet had the whole team it expected this season. The Gophers won't get Royce White this season (and likely ever) after the suspended White (shoplifting charge) announced on YouTube that he is not returning to the program. Trevor Mbakwe was also expected to be a major contributor but he's suspended pending an assault charge that may not be resolved until January. The Gophers still have the talent to be a major factor in the Big Ten race, but lost three straight games during a tough stretch in November and are still searching for a signature win.

Reason to brag: Purdue
The schedule hasn't been great, but the Boilermakers have handled every challenge. The biggest hurdle to come is against West Virginia on New Year's Day in West Lafayette. The Boilermakers lost Lewis Jackson to injury, but haven't missed a step. The big three of E'Twaun Moore, Robbie Hummel and JaJuan Johnson have been solid, and Chris Kramer is one of the best defenders in the country.

Reason to worry: Illinois came from 23 down to win at Clemson, but blew a big lead to Utah in Las Vegas and lost to mediocre teams like Georgia and Bradley. The Illini have two of the more entertaining freshmen guards in D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul, plus quality veteran players in Demetri McCamey, Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale. But they haven't played with consistent poise down the stretch.

Who's going dancing?: Ultimately, Purdue and Michigan State are your locks. Wisconsin will have the résumé to get in the NCAA field. I think Ohio State, Minnesota and Illinois will find a way in, as well. And yes, Northwestern, for the first time ever, will be in the Dance. The Wildcats won't be on the bubble, either. I predict NU will be in the field by the last week of the regular season.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com