Week in review: Contenders begin to pull ahead

The season is nearing the halfway point, and the Big Ten race is starting to crystalize. Michigan State, Michigan and Iowa look like prime contenders. Wisconsin, Ohio State and Minnesota are lurking. The other six schools? Well, let’s just say they have a lot of work to do.

Here’s a look back at the week that was–with a peek toward next week.

THREE STOCKS TO BUY

1. Michigan. No Trey Burke, no Tim Hardaway, Jr., no problem. The Wolverines are rolling with a 6-0 Big Ten mark. And each of those conference triumphs has come without Mitch McGary, who is out with a back injury. This team’s depth of talent is impressive; witness Spike Albrecht’s effort vs. Iowa. And there’s star power in Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III.

2. Michigan State. Adreian Payne may be the top player in the Big Ten. But, he has missed the last four games with a foot injury. No sweat, as MSU still is rolling with an 18-1 mark (7-0 Big Ten). Now, the Spartans must live without Branden Dawson for four-five weeks after he incurred a broken hand. Injuries, illness … nothing is slowing down Tom Izzo’s team. Sorta makes you think this could be a very special season.

3. Minnesota. I’m finished doubting the Golden Gophers. The latest win vs. Wisconsin was impressive, when you consider Minnesota’s best player (Andre Hollins) basically missed the entire game with an ankle injury. And the Gophers still won … with ease. Minnesota is 4-3 in the Big Ten. The losses: by three at home to Michigan; at MSU in OT; at Iowa. Let’s all say it together: “This is an NCAA tourney team.”

[MORE: Find out why BTN calls on some students to wear suits and sneakers this weekend. ]

THREE STOCKS TO SELL

1. Wisconsin. The hits just keep on coming for the Badgers, who began the season 16-0 and since have lost three in a row—at Indiana; Michigan; at Minnesota. The team’s interior defense is—in a word—horrendous. Where have you gone, Jared Berggren, Mike Bruesewitz and Ryan Evans?

2. Indiana. It’s just not happening for the Hoosiers. Yogi Ferrell is doing his part. But this team just can’t shoot. Ferrell struggles, too, but he can do some things off the dribble. IU enters the weekend losers of two in a row—Northwestern; at Michigan State. Upcoming games vs. Illinois and at Nebraska may cause some relief. Then again, maybe not.

3. Ohio State. Yes, the Buckeyes put the kibosh on that four-game losing skid that made those cold January Columbus nights even colder. Still, this Ohio State squad is littered with questions about its defense and shooting, among other things. It’s not too late to get back on track, but the clock is ticking.

THREE THINGS I LEARNED

1. The Big Ten isn’t as good as it was last year. Yes, Michigan State, Michigan and Iowa are legit teams with Sweet 16 and more potential. But, after that? Minnesota shows promise, while the wheels are wobbly at Ohio State and Wisconsin. You can put the other six Big Ten teams in a bag—shake it up—pull one out. They all look basically the same—and probably aren’t Big Dance teams.

2. Nik Stauskas is the Big Ten’s best player. Done. Finished. Over. The guy has been a revelation, adding an effective dribble-drive to his sweet stroke. Yes, Stauskas figured to improve over his freshman season. But no one saw this coming. Take a bow, King Nik. It’s your world.

3. Richard Pitino and Chris Collins are better coaches than I suspected. Pitino arrived with exactly one season of head coaching experience—at mighty Florida International, no less. Collins got the NU job with no head coaching experience. The biggest qualification for each: Their last name. But Pitino and Collins are excelling and exceeding expectations. Great hires.

[ MORE: Big Ten Geeks contemplate - "Is Stauskas the Big Ten Player of the Year?" ]

THREE IMPRESSIVE WINS

1. Michigan 75, Iowa 67

The Hawkeyes came in with a No. 10 ranking, their highest since 2002. No matter, the Wolverines smothered Iowa en route to staying unbeaten in Big Ten play. Nik Stauskas tied a career-high with 26 points as he continued to make a case to be Big Ten Player of the Year.

2. Minnesota 81, Wisconsin 68

The Golden Gophers continued to confound pundits with another win vs. a ranked team, taking down the No. 9 Badgers. Making it even more impressive was the fact Minnesota lost Andre Hollins—its best player—just 16 seconds into the game. Mighty-mite JC transfer guard DeAndre Mathieu continues to impress. And if big man Mo Walker continues to excel, the Gophers may land back in the Big Dance under rookie coach Richard Pitino.

3. Nebraska 68, Ohio State 62

This was the signature victory that Tim Miles had been looking for, as the Cornhuskers dumped the visiting No. 17 Buckeyes. Yes, OSU is struggling, as this was the Buckeyes’ fourth loss in a row. The Huskers will take it, notching their first Big Ten victory of the season led by 18 points by Terran Petteway. Of course, NU lost the next time out (at Penn State). Still, this win over OSU is something to build on … I think.

THREE GAMES TO LOOK FORWARD TO

1. Michigan at Michigan State, Sat., Jan. 25: A battle between Big Ten unbeaten took a bizarro twist with news of Branden Dawson breaking his hand while watching film. (You can’t make this stuff up, people.) Adreian Payne likely won’t play, either. Can MSU overcome all of this? The Wolverines (6-0 Big Ten) have won eight in a row; the Spartans (7-0) have won 11 in succession. The last time Michigan visited East Lansing, it got clubbed, 75-52.

2. Iowa at Northwestern, Sat., Jan. 25: The Wildcats have been a Big Ten surprise, opening with a 3-4 league mark. There was a time when it looked like NU wouldn’t win a Big Ten game. Yes, the offense is ugly, but the Wildcats are playing great defense. Northwestern has won two in a row and three of four, knocking off Illinois and Purdue in Evanston and winning at Indiana. Iowa better be careful coming off a loss at Michigan.

3. Michigan State at Iowa, Tues., Jan. 28: Already saddled with two Big Ten losses, Iowa needs to protect its home turf home if it wants to stay in the conference chase. Both of these teams feature good depth and nice guard play. It may come down to which one rebounds and defends the best. The Hawkeyes will catch a break with Branden Dawson out for the Spartans. And Adreian Payne also may not play. If that’s the case, Iowa really needs to win this one to stay in the Big Ten hunt.

***

About Tom Dienhart BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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