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The going gets tough for OSU

Zac Jackson on a tough schedule ahead for Buckeyes and more college basketball notes...

No. 8 Ohio State opened Big Ten play earlier this week with a convincing win over Nebraska. 

The competition level increases -- greatly -- from here. 

It starts Saturday at No. 14 Illinois, the first of a two-game road trip that also includes a Jan. 8 visit to Purdue. A young Purdue team is just 7-6, but earlier this week scored a home victory over Illinois.

It's going to be that kind of year in the Big Ten. 

On Jan. 13, the Buckeyes return home to host No. 2 Michigan, which blitzed Northwestern on the road in its Big Ten opener and is just one of four remaining unbeaten teams nationally. The only breather is the five days off between games Ohio State will then get before going back on the road and back into another huge game at No. 18 Michigan State on Jan. 19. 

The Big Ten is regarded as the nation's best conference this season, and January could become a matter of survival for several teams. League play officially started earlier this week with No. 13 Minnesota beating Michigan State and Indiana surviving a road test at Iowa. 

STACKING THEM UP: Most teams play more cupcakes than potential NCAA Tournament teams in November and December, so too much shouldn't be read into those results. But eight Big Ten teams have double-digit wins headed into the weekend, and five have two losses or fewer. Ohio State is 11-2, Illinois is 13-2, Minnesota and Indiana are 13-1 and Michigan is 14-0. 

HOW THEY RANK: Ohio State's Deshaun Thomas leads the Big Ten in scoring at 19.9 per game, ahead of Illinois' Brandon Paul (18.5) and Michigan's Trey Burke (18.1). Burke, a Columbus native, is probably the leading candidate for the league's player of the year award and has is the comfortable league assist leader at 7.2 per game. In fact, it's also not difficult to make a case for Burke as National Player of the Year over the season's first two months. 

OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS: No. 15 Cincinnati's New Year's Eve win at Pittsburgh in the Big East opener was big for the Bearcats as it followed their first loss of the season. It's bigger in the Big East picture as the Bearcats now play back-to-back home games against St. John's and No. 19 Notre Dame, then go to Rutgers and Depaul before returning home for another winnable game vs. Marquette. 

Cincinnati has every opportunity to be 6-0 in league play and back in the top 10 nationally when it visits Syracuse on Jan. 21. 

WARM WELCOME: Atlantic 10 play opens next week, and Dayton drew the New Kids on the Block. The 9-4 Flyers open conference play at streaking VCU, which will be in the top 25 when the new poll comes out Monday, then hosts the league's another newcomer, No. 20 Butler, on Jan. 12.  

Xavier (7-6) opens A-10 play vs. Temple on Jan. 10. Xavier has lost four straight games for the first time since 2000. The Musketeers haven't lost five straight since 1982. 

STREAKING: Kent State has won four straight to get to 9-5 as it prepares to open Mid-American Conference play next Wednesday vs. Toledo. The Golden Flashes' latest win came earlier this week at Cleveland State, 72-55.

All the preseason MAC attention went to Ohio and Akron, but the Flashes could be a threat. The MAC announced this week that the Jan. 19 Akron at Kent game will be nationally-televised and tip off at 3 p.m.