NCAA BK

Big Ten season sure to be a battle

Watch highlights of No. 9 Minnesota's win over No. 18 Michigan State
Watch highlights of No. 9 Minnesota's win over No. 18 Michigan State
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Reid Forgrave

Reid Forgrave has worked for the Des Moines Register, the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Seattle Times. His work has been recognized by Associated Press Sports Editors, the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists and the Society for Features Journalism. Follow him on Twitter.

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MINNEAPOLIS

On New Year’s Eve, as the undisputed best basketball conference in the land tipped off what’ll be a wild couple months of Big Ten play, The Barn, the historic arena on the University of Minnesota campus, was rocking.

Why would a bunch of Minnesotans be excited about basketball in a city that’s most definitely not a basketball town? Here’s why: Their Gophers were ninth in the nation going into Big Ten play, their highest national ranking since they made the Final Four in 1997. Their Gophers, whose only loss so far has been to No. 1 Duke, toppled a bigger, 18th-ranked Michigan State team 76-63 in a raucous, back-and-forth contest that proved Minnesota actually belongs in the top 10.

At the beginning of what promises to be Tubby Smith’s most difficult conference schedule since he came to Minnesota six years ago, the Gophers gave hope that this Big Ten season might be Smith’s first with a winning record — and perhaps much, much better than that.

Gophers fans can start dreaming big for this team. There was plenty to celebrate on Monday:

Point guard Andre Hollins was drilling difficult shots from all over the court, finishing with 22 points and six assists. The team’s leading scorer, high-flying Rodney Williams, managed 15 points despite Michigan State identifying him as their top priority on defense. Trevor Mbakwe, in his first game not wearing a knee brace after last season’s torn ACL and reconstructive surgery, scored 11 points and grabbed 12 boards, the main reason Minnesota outrebounded a great rebounding team. It was the first time the Gophers beat Michigan State in the regular season in nearly seven years.

But here are seven reasons not to celebrate: January will bring three more games against ranked opponents; February will bring four. That doesn’t include two games against an always well-coached Wisconsin team and two against a much-improved Iowa team that gave fifth-ranked Indiana a run for its money on Monday. And then, after being bloodied for 11 rounds in the best basketball conference around, the Gophers will head to the Big Ten tournament.

In this year’s Big Ten, which has six teams in the Top 25 — tied with the Big East for most — the next couple of months are going to be extraordinarily difficult roads to the top.

“Oh, definitely, not even close,” Izzo replied when I asked if this will be the toughest conference schedule he’s ever played. “I’ve had a couple tough ones but I don’t think anything close to half your games are against ranked teams. I’ve never seen that.”

“I think we play nine ranked games,” Izzo said. “I’ve gone a whole year without playing one in a couple of years in the (Big Ten). I’m not sure Arizona will play anyone (who is ranked) in (the Pac-12). I think in the ACC there’s, like, Duke and NC State. They’re going to play maybe two ranked games. There’s going to be so many big games. You’d like to steal one when you have a chance, but they (Minnesota) earned the win.”

Looking at the Big Ten, two teams appear to rise above the rest:

Undefeated and second-ranked Michigan feels like the class of the Big Ten, though the Wolverines have played only one ranked team. They have the league’s most dynamic playmaker-slash-shooter in guard Trey Burke, the league’s best bloodlines in Tim Hardaway Jr. and Glenn Robinson III, and the league’s biggest surprise in freshman guard Nik Stauskas.

Indiana boasts the most prolific scoring offense in the nation with 89.4 points per game, plus the man many expect to be the top pick in the draft in 7-footer Cody Zeller. But the Hoosiers barely have been tested on the road. Their New Year’s Eve scare at Iowa, where the Hoosiers didn’t pull away until the final minute, could send a mixed message: Maybe the Hoosiers aren’t as good as we expected them to be. Or maybe the Big Ten is even deeper than we thought it was.

After the cream of the crop, eighth-ranked Ohio State, with the Big Ten’s leading scorer in Deshaun Thomas, doesn’t have much time to work out the kinks exposed in its pre-Christmas loss to Kansas. The Buckeyes head on the road to face the 11th-ranked Illinois Illini on Saturday, who, with high-scoring shooting guard Brandon Paul, are yet another Big Ten team that could beat anybody. So could both Minnesota and Michigan State, especially if they improve on Monday’s atrocious free-throw shooting (2 of 10 for Michigan State, 13 of 22 for Minnesota).

It’s enough to give almost any Big Ten fan base a dose of unbridled excitement, plus a collective ulcer during January and February.

“Rankings are good for a lot of reasons,” Smith said after his team’s victory. “It’s a confidence builder. It’s good for our fan base. But we know you gotta prove it on the court every day. And our players are starting to understand and mature about that.”

After deconstructing his Spartans’ crumble down the stretch — Michigan State led by five with 8:45 to go, then Minnesota went on a 22-4 run to end the game — Izzo talked about the very real chance that Minnesota, which is traditionally a flyover state in basketball, has at winning the Big Ten.

“You know, I think Minnesota has a chance,” Izzo said. “Those guards are good, and they bring in a slew of them. And they’re all 6-(foot)-1 to 6-4, and they’re strong and they’re tough and they defend.”

Monday marked the first time Izzo lost to Smith in Big Ten regular season play. But it also marked something else: The beginning of what could be one of the most exciting basketball seasons in Big Ten history.

Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @ReidForgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.

Tagged: Indiana, Minnesota, Michigan State, Michigan, Tim Hardaway Jr.

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