Commentary

Bulk of Big Ten off to hot starts

Originally Published: December 24, 2008
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

Favorite: Michigan State and Purdue. Rumors of the deaths of the Spartans and Boilermakers were greatly exaggerated. With a healthy Goran Suton in the lineup, Michigan State reasserted itself with a win at Texas; and Purdue, knocked back by Duke and Oklahoma, pounded Davidson.

[+] EnlargeDraymond Green
AP Photo/Bob LeveyAfter a humiliating loss to North Carolina, Michigan State took advantage of its second opportunity against a top-10 team, beating Texas in Houston.
Most surprising team: Michigan. John Beilein is practically throwing cautionary flags on the court, reminding people that it's still a little early to go entirely gaga on the Wolverines. But the same team that finished 10-22 last season already has beaten UCLA and Duke, topping two top-five teams for the first time in 21 years.

Most disappointing team: Indiana. The results aren't the disappointing part; those are expected. What's disappointing is watching a once-proud program turn into a car accident, complete with rubberneckers waiting to see just how bad the Hoosiers can be (a 13-point loss to Northeastern in which IU scored its fewest points at Assembly Hall seems a good jumping off point), all because of one man's inability to abide by the rules.

Mystery team: Minnesota. The Gophers are 11-0, their best start in 32 years, including a win over Louisville and Tubby Smith's former boss, Rick Pitino. The catch is, aside from beating the Cardinals, Minnesota has feasted on a cupcake nonconference schedule -- North Dakota State and South Dakota State are among the victims, and aside from Louisville, no team is among the top 100 in the RPI. So the question is: Are the Gophers really good or just smart schedulers?

Best player: Manny Harris. The sophomore has been incredible for Michigan, scoring in double figures in 10 of the Wolverines' 11 games. He's averaging 19 points, 7.1 rebounds and 4.9 assists.

Top performance: A little off the radar, but Penn State's Talor Battle's 18 points, seven assists and four rebounds against Georgia Tech count as supremely significant. Why? It marked the Lions' first nonconference road win against a BCS opponent since Dec. 1, 2004.

Strangest score: Northwestern 73, Florida State 59. Heaven knows the Seminoles haven't been the picture of stability in recent years, but to watch the Wildcats put together a 20-2 run to start the second half and simply paste FSU was flat-out jaw-dropping.

What you might not have realized: The most efficient point guard in the country isn't Ty Lawson or Darren Collison. It's Michigan State sophomore Kalin Lucas, who leads the nation with a gaudy 6.5-1 assist-turnover ratio. Through 10 games, Lucas is averaging 29.5 minutes yet has committed just 10 turnovers to 65 assists.

Reason to brag: Even regular bottom-feeders, Penn State and Northwestern, are off to hot starts and have helped bulk the league to second in the conference RPI standings behind the ACC. The Nittany Lions are 11-2, with a quality win at Georgia Tech. The Wildcats are 8-2, with the stunner over Florida State.

Reason to worry: Penn State started last season 10-4 and finished 15-16, though in the Lions' defense, the team lost its best player, Geary Claxton, to a knee injury. Northwestern started the 2008 season 5-4 and finished 8-22. And then there's Indiana.

Who's going dancing: Michigan State, Wisconsin, Purdue and Ohio State are set. Michigan, with its huge wins over UCLA and Duke, has built a good nonconference résumé. Minnesota has the gaudy record but needs more than just one quality win.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

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