staff, December 31, 2011

The conference season is officially underway, as every B1G team has played a game (isn't that 12-team balance nice?). Let's take a look at the opening performances from Wednesday and Thursday.

Indiana and Michigan State played a wild one at the Breslin Center, with the squads taking turns looking like Big Ten title contenders. For the Spartans, it was the beginning and the end of the game that they'll want to remember, as they jumped out to an 18 point lead with five minutes left in the first half. Indiana then responded with a 38-11 run–triggered by three consecutive threes–that landed them a nine point lead with 11 minutes remaining. Then, inexplicably, Michigan State went on a 20-0 run that sealed the Hoosiers' fate. Rarely will you see as many wild swings as we saw in this one.

When the dust settled, Indiana scored under a point per trip for the first time all season, which is an impressive accomplishment for the Spartans, but the most surprising result was Michigan State's offensive output. Tom Izzo's team posted 1.21 points per possession, by far the highest allowed by Indiana and the third straight game Michigan State has reached those lofty levels. The keys to this offensive outburst have been a low turnover rate and offensive rebounding. The former is certainly not typical of an Izzo-led team, and continued avoidance of miscues, when paired with this defense, could propel this Spartans squad into Big Ten title contention.

For Indiana, this game showed how different the Hoosiers can look when they are making shots. This season, Tom Crean's men have been one of the nation's best shooting teams, both from two and three, but their offense looked rather stagnant when the threes weren't falling. Obviously, Michigan State had something to do with that, as they did a fantastic job of limiting touches for Cody Zeller inside. Zeller battled foul trouble and finished with just four points on five shots. The freshman will bounce back.

Indiana now faces a huge opportunity with Ohio State coming to town today. The scene at Assembly Hall figures to be comparable to the one that urged the Hoosiers to victory over Kentucky, so this qualifies as a must-watch game for Big Ten fans.

Michigan State faces a much smaller challenge, going on the road to take on Nebraska. Save for Tuesday's visit to Madison, the Spartans have a relatively easy start to the Big Ten slate, so don't be surprised if Michigan State is hanging around the top of the Big Ten standings come early February.

Purdue had a tough time on the road, beating Iowa by just three points. The culprit was a permissive Boilermaker defense, as Iowa shot 52 percent on twos and rarely turned it over. Amazingly, Purdue has yet to hold a top 100 opponent below a point per possession–this is not the defense we're used to seeing from Matt Painter's teams. Sure, the Boilers still rank 24th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, but that appears to be skewed by a few suffocating performances against bad teams. Purdue has a chance to sort things out at home today against an Illinois offense that is certainly vulnerable to stagnation.

Iowa, for their part, can feel encouraged by this close loss, but they realistically might not have a chance to win a conference game until they host Nebraska on January 26. The emergence of Aaron White and Roy Devyn Marble as building blocks for the future is nice, but that Hawkeye defense is still terrible. Last season's surprising D may have just been a mirage.

In the week's other action, Ohio State blew out Northwestern and Michigan had little trouble at Penn State. Northwestern really needs to win their next two games, at home against Penn State and Illinois, to feel good about even sniffing the bubble this season. For Michigan, it's a positive sign to handle Penn State so easily–the Nittany Lions are almost certainly going to knock off a decent team at home this season.

It's New Year's Eve, and the star-studded ensemble cast performing today should leave you feeling more fulfilled than the one in that awful movie. Here's the lineup:

  • Iowa at Wisconsin – 12pm CT, BTN
  • Michigan State at Nebraska – 2pm CT, BTN
  • Illinois at Purdue, 3pm CT, ESPN2
  • Ohio State at Indiana, 5pm CT, ESPN2

Obviously, the last game is the biggie, with Indiana getting another chance to grab national attention and display just how far they've come. For the Buckeyes, KenPom says this is their biggest non-Wisconsin test of the conference season (though they do visit East Lansing as well). The final day of 2011 should be a good one for Big Ten hoops.