Monday Tip: Teams you don’t want to play

The 2010-11 season has been short on super teams and long on parity.

Just last week, once seemingly indomitable Duke fell from the ranks of the unbeaten to lightly regarded Florida State.

Other power programs, such as Ohio State and Kansas, suffered scares.

With just four undefeated teams remaining (three from major leagues), and conference jockeying for NCAA seeding in full swing, we jump to this week’s question: Which unheralded team from a Big Six conference has been the most surprising and could be most dangerous down the stretch?


Talor Battle and Penn State have had plenty to shout about in recent weeks.
(Tony Ding / AP)

Penn State (10-7, 3-3) has gone from funk to funky since conference play began in January. The Nittany Lions looked like the worst team in the Big Ten during preconference, going just 7-4 with losses to Maine and Mississippi. Then Ed DeChellis’ charges made an interesting turn. After dropping two of its first three league games, Penn State out-toughed Final Four favorite Michigan State 66-62 in State College, then stopped Illinois 57-55. For good measure, they gave Ohio State, the conference’s best team, everything it could handle before succumbing 69-66 in Columbus. The Lions have controlled tempo, milking the shot clock and limiting opponents’ possessions. The strategy has been stellar. Everyone who follows the league knows that Talor Battle (20.5 points per game, 4.7 rebounds) is a star. But contributions from Andrew Jones (5.6 rebounds per game) and Tim Frazier (4.5 assists per game) have also been huge. If DeChellis’ team can maintain this level of intensity, no one in the conference will want to see the Lions coming, which is truly a shocking turnaround. Penn State’s string of playing ranked teams stretches to five games Wednesday when the Lions travel to West Lafayette to face Purdue. If they can take care of the basketball and dictate pace, they have a chance. Is this team an NCAA tournament contender? No. But it sure could make things difficult for the Buckeyes, Boilers, Spartans, Illini, Badgers and Gophers, who will go dancing.


Teams won't get a free pass when they face Alec Burks and Colorado.
(Roy Chenoy / US Presswire)

When they hired him last spring, Colorado officials were confident that Tad Boyle would turn around the Buffaloes’ struggling program. But they probably didn’t count on it happening this fast. Boyle’s squad is 14-4 overall and 3-0 in Big 12 play following Saturday’s come-from-behind victory against Oklahoma State in Boulder. Colorado’s other two league wins were against No. 9 Missouri and No. 21 Kansas State, the latter of which came on the road. Peculiar as it may seem to see the Buffaloes at the top of the Big 12 standings, their success should only rank as a mild surprise. Colorado, after all, has a future pro in the backcourt in sophomore Alec Burks, who averages a team-high 19.7 points. Senior guard Cory Higgins is averaging 16.6 points after scoring 18.9 points per game last year. In other words, Colorado touts one of the top backcourt tandems in the league – if not the country. And we knew that would be the case entering the season, which is why expectations in Boulder were as high as they’ve been in years. The Buffaloes certainly didn’t live up to them early, losing to Trey Thompkins-less Georgia on Nov. 16 before falling at San Francisco four days later. After a Nov. 28 setback at Harvard, most Buffaloes fans figured they were in store for another disappointing season (the team hasn’t reached the NCAA tournament since 2003). Colorado, though, responded by winning 12 out of its next 13 games, with the only loss coming against New Mexico. Burks and Higgins have been the stars, but Marcus Relphorde (12 points) and Levi Knutson (11.6 points) have also been bright spots. Three of Colorado’s next five games are on the road – but only one of them is against a ranked team. Don’t be surprised if the Buffaloes win enough games to earn a berth in the NCAA tournament. Boyle inherited a good team – and he’s only making it better.

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Updated Monday, Jan 17, 2011