Now that it's won one of college basketball's toughest tournaments, the biggest question surrounding the Minnesota basketball team is whether it can win the nation's most difficult league.
The possibility of a Big Ten title certainly doesn't seem far-fetched following the Gophers' 74-70 victory over West Virginia in the championship game of the Puerto Rico Tipoff tournament Sunday. The win came just 24 hours after Minnesota upset then-No. 8 North Carolina.
All of a sudden, Minnesota finds itself with a 5-0 record, a No. 15 national ranking and, most importantly, the confidence it will need to challenge Michigan State, Ohio State and Purdue for the Big Ten title.
Some analysts are labeling Minnesota as the “surprise team” in college basketball thus far. But we probably shouldn't be shocked about the Gophers' sudden surge.
Leading scorer Lawrence Westbrook is gone from a squad that finished 21-14 last season and lost to Xavier in the first round of the NCAA tournament. But every other key component of that team is back – including standout point guard Al Nolen, who missed the final 17 games of 2009-10 after being declared academically ineligible.
As if Nolen (10.2 points), forward Ralph Sampson III (13.8) and 3-point ace Blake Hoffarber (13.2) weren't enough, Minnesota added a 6-foot-8, 240-pound force to the mix in Trevor Mbakwe.
A junior, Mbakwe began his career at Marquette before transferring to a junior college. He signed with Minnesota prior to last season but had to sit out after being charged with felony assault. The charge was eventually dropped after Mbakwe entered a pretrial intervention program.
Mbakwe is averaging team-highs in points (14) and rebounds (9.4) for a Minnesota squad that should get even better once Devoe Joseph – the program's most versatile player – returns from an indefinite suspension. In the meantime, the buzz in Minneapolis will continue to grow louder about a team that appears to be the best Tubby Smith has coached since arriving four years ago.
But is Minnesota good enough to challenge for the Big Ten title?
Michigan State and Ohio State should still be considered the favorites, but the Gophers aren't too far behind. They've got plenty of size down low with Mbakwe, Sampson and Colton Iverson, a top-flight long-range threat in Hoffarber and loads of athleticism and depth on the perimeter with players such as Nolen, Joseph (once he returns), Austin Hollins and Chip Armelin.
The team's biggest strength, however, is on the sideline, as Smith – who won a national title at Kentucky – is a potential Hall of Fame coach.
One other thing to remember: Minnesota's reputation wasn't built solely on the two big wins in Puerto Rico. The Gophers have also defeated solid teams in Siena, Wofford and Western Kentucky. With the most difficult portion of its non-conference schedule out of the way, don't be surprised if the victories keep mounting.
(Last week’s ranking in parenthesis)
1. Ohio State (3-0) – David Lighty is one of the top "glue-guys" in college hoops. (1)
2. Michigan State (3-0) – The Spartans should face Washington or Kentucky in the Maui Invitational final. (2)
3. Minnesota (5-0) – Basketball fans, meet Trevor Mbakwe. (6)
4. Purdue (3-0) – JaJuan Johnson had 25 points and 11 boards against Oakland on Sunday. (3)
5. Illinois (4-1) – Demetri McCamey is averaging 7.4 assists (4)
6. Wisconsin (2-1) – Jon Leuer is doing it all for the Badgers. (5)
7. Northwestern (3-0) – John Shurna (22.7) and Drew Crawford (20.7) combine to average 43.4 points. (7)
9. Michigan (3-0) – Tim Hardaway Jr. shoots 46.2 percent from 3-point range. (10)
10. Penn State (4-0) – Where would this team be without Talor Battle? (9)
Indiana recruiting – A week after beating out North Carolina and Butler for forward Cody Zeller – the 20th-ranked prospect in the Class of 2011 – Hoosiers coach Tom Crean secured commitments over the weekend from high school sophomores Devin Davis Jr. and Collin Hartman, both of whom are in-state standouts. Davis Jr. chose Indiana over Illinois, Purdue and Xavier. Hartman also considered Butler, Michigan State and Purdue. "What coach Crean is doing there with Hoosier Nation is going to be something special," Greg Graham, Davis Jr. 's coach at Warren Central High School, told the Indianapolis Star. "There is a lot of buzz right now, and getting these in-state kids is really going to have people talking." Indiana also has commitments from three juniors (No. 10 Hanner Perea, No. 78 Ron Patterson and No. 137 Peter Jurkin) who are on the Rivals.com Top 150 list for 2012.
Jared Sullinger, Ohio State – The Buckeyes standout freshman and future NBA lottery pick isn't exactly crumbling amid a sea of expectations. Instead, the 6-foot-9, 280-pounder is averaging 18.7 points and 10.7 rebounds for Ohio State, which will take a 3-0 record into Tuesday's game against Kenneth Faried and Morehead State. Faried will be a good matchup for Sullinger. The 6-8 senior is averaging 17.8 points and 13 boards.
Non-conference record – The thought entering the season was that the Big Ten was the best overall league in college basketball. That certainly appears to be the case thus far. Big Ten teams had collected 36-5 record after Monday's games. The five losses – Iowa has three of them – mark the least amount of defeats for any Division I conference in the country.
Drew Gordon, Northwestern – John Shurna gets most of the attention, but Gordon has been nearly just as good this season for the Wildcats with a 20.7-point scoring average. He and Shurna are averaging a collective 43.4 points. As a team Northwestern is scoring 81.7 points per game.
Purdue’s schedule – We may have to wait until Big Ten play to get a good feel for the Boilermakers. While most premier teams play in tournaments such as the Maui Invitational, the Puerto Rico Tipoff tournament or the 2K Sports Classic, Purdue will be taking on the likes of Southern Illinois, Richmond and Wright State in the Chicago Invitational Challenge this weekend. The only Top 25-caliber team Matt Painter's squad will play prior to January is Virginia Tech.
Wisconsin and Illinois – Both teams suffered heartbreaking defeats to unranked teams last week. UNLV toppled Wisconsin 68-65 in Las Vegas on Saturday. Two days earlier, the Illini were outdueled by Texas 90-84 in the 2K Sports Classic at Madison Square Garden. Despite the losses, both teams gave good effort against strong opponents away from home. Illinois' loss caused the Illini to fall from No. 13 to No. 19 in the Associated Press poll.
Penn State from the field – There's nothing wrong with a 4-0 start, but the Nittany Lions have to be concerned about shooting a collective 39.3 percent from the field over their first three games – a mark that ranks 283rd in the country. And with victories over Lehigh, St. Joseph's and Fairfield, it's not as if Penn State has played one of the nation's toughest schedules.
Michigan State has given coach Tom Izzo a $500,000 raise and access to a private plane for up to 25 hours a year for personal use … The Spartans entered this week's Maui Invitational shooting 53.6 percent from the field – a mark that ranks seventh in the country … Talor Battle and Jeff Brooks are averaging a collective 34.4 points, which is more than half of the 66.7 points the Nittany Lions score per game … Matt Roth has yet to play for Indiana this season because of a right knee injury … Northwestern's John Shurna is shooting 64.7 percent from 3-point range … Syracuse's Jim Boeheim, on his success against Michigan coach – and former West Virginia coach – John Beilein over the years: "We’ve had better players." … Illinois missed 19 free throws (32 of 51) in last week's games against Texas and Maryland.
THREE TO WATCH
Michigan vs. Syracuse, Friday – The Wolverines are young, but so are the Orange, who have hardly lived up to their No. 9 ranking. John Beilein and Jim Boeheim are two of the game's top basketball tacticians. This game is part of the Legends Classic. Texas-El Paso plays Georgia Tech in the other semifinal.
Penn State at Mississippi, Friday – The Rebels were an NIT team in 2009-10, and that squad was better than the one Penn State will face this week. Victories in games such as this will go a long way toward determining Ed DeChellis' future at Penn State.
Creighton at Northwestern, Sunday – John Shurna and the Wildcats host a quality Creighton squad whose only loss came against Iowa State on a 30-foot buzzer-beater. Kudos to Northwestern for scheduling a tough mid-major opponent.