Big Ten full of big surprises

As some favorites stumble early, other sleepers emerge

December 01, 2009

Everyone who predicted the Big Ten would be stronger this season was right. They just had some of the teams wrong.

Four of the six Big Ten teams in last week's Associated Press Top 25 suffered staggering losses to unranked teams. Three of them let one loss add up to two.

Michigan (No. 15 last week) was stunned in consecutive losses to Marquette and Alabama in the Old Spice Classic. Minnesota (No. 22) dropped games to Portland and Texas A&M in the 76 Classic. Illinois (No. 20) was stripped near The Strip, falling to Utah and Bradley in the Las Vegas Invitational. Michigan State, considered the conference's best team, was kicked out of the No. 2 spot by Florida in a 77-74 loss.

The conference has plenty to prove when it tries to remake itself in the historically lopsided Big Ten/ACC Challenge this week.

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said the losses can be chalked up to Big Ten teams scheduling tougher.

"When you leave home and go to far places or you play a tougher schedule, you're going to lose some games," Izzo said. "We could sit there and play a cupcake sked and be a No. 2 team. Who knows? We might not be a top-20 team next week."

The conference does have some teams to believe in.

Purdue and Ohio State have played their parts so far. Each drew a tough opponent in the Challenge, with the Boilermakers facing Wake Forest on Tuesday and Ohio State going up against Florida State on Wednesday.

The conference also has some teams that look promising despite being second thoughts in the preseason.

Wisconsin is off to a solid start, losing only to Gonzaga while taking out Maryland and Arizona. Northwestern was written off when it lost Kevin Coble, but after beating Notre Dame and Iowa State to win the Chicago Invitational Challenge, the Wildcats still might have what it takes to make their first NCAA tournament

Swish of the week: Portland. How apropos that the Pilots would appear on the national map in the shadow of Disneyland. They wrote quite a sweet storyline by beating UCLA and Minnesota in the 76 Classic in Anaheim, Calif., before losing in the title game to highly regarded West Virginia.

Brick of the week: Michigan State. The Spartans were a popular pick for the Final Four, but Izzo warned that chemistry and leadership might be an issue. It looked like it in their loss to Florida.

Don't panic yet, MSU fans. The Spartans were 4-2 a week into December last season and wound up in the national title game.

Game to watch: Michigan State at North Carolina, 9 p.m. Tuesday.

They meet for the third time in a year, and the Spartans were embarrassed in the first two. They'll face off in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge in Chapel Hill, the first reunion since last season's national championship game. Michigan State lost the two meetings last season by a combined 52 points.

"They've taken it to us on the chin the last two times pretty good, but I don't think that has anything to do with(Tuesday's) game," Izzo said. "It's not like it's a big revenge thing in my mind. But if I said I wasn't looking forward to going down there and playing, I'd be lying."

The game will feature Michigan State's outstanding guards against North Carolina's impressive post players.

"They belong in Oregon," Izzo said. "Those are the tallest trees I've ever seen. It's a big redwood convention down there."

sryan@tribune.com

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