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Big Ten preview: Top storylines

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Denzel Valentine

Matt Charboneau of The Detroit News breaks down five intriguing storylines for the Big Ten basketball season.

Is it a three-team race?

Through non-conference play, Michigan State, Maryland and Purdue have separated themselves as the elite teams in the Big Ten. The Spartans haven't lost a game and are ranked No. 1 in the nation while the Terrapins and Boilermakers each have one loss but are ranked in the top 14. It appears each will be in the hunt for the long haul. The question is whether any other team can jump into the mix. Indiana got worked over in its biggest game at Duke but has outstanding guards, while an experienced Iowa team has a marquee win over Wichita State. Michigan continues to get healthy but will need outstanding perimeter play to make up for shortcomings in the post.

Is Northwestern for real?

The Wildcats enter Big Ten play 12-1, with their only loss coming at then-No. 7 North Carolina. It matches the school's best 13-game start, equaling the 1930-31 season. The Wildcats' 12th regular-season win against non-conference opponents also matched a school mark, tying the 2009-10 team. Whether any of that leads to a decent conference season and the first NCAA Tournament berth in program history remains to be seen. The Wildcats aren't terribly deep after losing Vic Law to a torn labrum before the season, and they were dealt another blow when big man Alex Olah injured his foot just before the non-conference finale.

Can Ohio State and Wisconsin rebound from early struggles?

Two teams that have been near the top of the Big Ten standings for years have had plenty of problems in non-conference play. Coach Bo Ryan, who never finished lower than fourth place in his career, stepped down as Wisconsin's coach after 12 games and handed the reins to Greg Gard after the Badgers had suffered five losses. And a young Ohio State team lost four straight at one point, but closed strong, including an upset over Kentucky. It would be odd to see neither team playing big games in early March, but both have plenty of work to do to finish in the top half of the conference.

When will Michigan State lose?

Many believed the Spartans would be a good team, despite losing two key pieces from last year's Final Four squad. But going unbeaten in non-conference play was hard to imagine. Along the way the Spartans beat the likes of Kansas, Providence, Louisville and Florida while Denzel Valentine vaulted himself into national player of the year discussion. They open Big Ten play with two straight road games, but their toughest test – after the opener at Iowa – might not come until Jan. 23 when they host Maryland.

Is the Big Ten the best conference?

It will take an impressive resurgence over the next couple of months as the Big Ten ranks sixth in conference RPI. Only Michigan State sits in the top 25 at No. 2 while Purdue is 29th and Maryland checks in at No. 32. How much of a push the Big Ten can get might be marginal, but the real test will be how many teams it gets in the NCAA Tournament. It got seven last season and that might be a stretch this season. MSU, Maryland and Purdue seem like locks while Indiana, Iowa and Michigan should be good bets. After that, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Northwestern could be on the fringe, as well as Illinois.