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Calling All Conferences: Big Ten boost

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Moments after his team pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the young basketball season, Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan was informed by a television reporter that his conference had won the Big Ten-ACC Challenge.

"We won The Challenge?" said the coach with a stunned look on his face, and it really was tough to believe.

The Big Ten's 6-5 victory over the ACC was its first in the 11-year history of the series. Even more startling was that it happened because unranked Wisconsin defeated fifth-ranked Duke.

No wonder fans rushed the Kohl Center court after the Badgers' 73-69 win.

All of a sudden, a Wisconsin team that was sapped by departures appears capable not only of earning an NCAA tournament berth, but of challenging Michigan State, Purdue and Ohio State for the Big Ten title.

Other observations from Wednesday's thriller:

Manny Harris, Talor Battle, Robbie Hummel, Kalin Lucas and Evan Turner are the five most-recognizable names in the Big Ten. But it might not be long before Trevon Hughes works his way into the mix. Hughes scored 19 of his 26 points in the second half Wednesday and is now averaging 16.1 points. A senior, Hughes has long been one of Badgers' best players, but this year he's taking it to another level.

Speaking of strong performances, how about the outside shooting of Duke's Andre Dawkins down the stretch Wednesday, when the freshman buried three 3-pointers in a 1 minute, 42 second span to pull his team within two points with 1:54 remaining. The only Blue Devil who outdid Dawkins was Kyle Singler, who had a game high 28 points on 10 of 17 shooting. Singler is as skilled and refined as any player in college basketball.

I didn't come away from Wednesday's game thinking poorly about the Blue Devils. Even without Gerald Henderson, this is a much better team than it was a year ago. What happened at the Kohl Center said more about Wisconsin than it did about Duke.

The quest for the Big Ten title will be as entertaining as any conference race in the country. Think about it. The ACC will be between North Carolina and Duke. Kansas and Texas are way ahead of the rest of the Big 12 and the same can be said for Tennessee and Kentucky in the SEC. Washington should make its players wear paper bags over their heads if they don't win the Pac-10. But in the Big Ten, there are four teams (Michigan State, Purdue, Ohio State and Wisconsin) who could win the league title and two more (Illinois and Minnesota) who could work their way into the mix if they improve a lot during the next month. Only the Big East has similar parity at the top of its conference, with Syracuse, West Virginia, Villanova and Connecticut all vying for the league crown.

On to our conference power rankings. Last week's rank in parenthesis.

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Mason Plumlee is on the mend.
(Sara D. Davis/AP Photo)

ACC

1. North Carolina (7-1) – The Tar Heels' guard play isn't as bad as the critics suggest. (2)

2. Duke (6-1) – The return of Mason Plumlee should be a huge boost. (1)

3. Georgia Tech (5-1) – The Jackets are flying under the radar for now. (5)

4. Clemson (6-2) – How in the world do you lose a 23-point lead at home – to anyone? (3)

5. Miami (8-0) – Wednesday's win at Minnesota was the Hurricanes' first quality victory. (6)

6. Florida State (6-2) – The Seminoles came from 17 points down to defeat Marquette in the Old Spice Classic. (10)

7. Boston College (5-2) – The Eagles turned some heads with Wednesday's win at Michigan. (11)

8. Maryland (5-2) – Tuesday's victory at Indiana wasn't as easy as it seemed. (7)

9. Wake Forest (4-2) – Is Al-Farouq Aminu the best player in the ACC? (4)

10. Virginia Tech (5-1) – The Hokies have yet to play a quality opponent. (8)

11. N.C. State (5-1) – Tuesday's home loss to Northwestern was a buzz-killer. (9)

12. Virginia (4-3) – Is there any chance Tony Bennett wishes he was back in Pullman? (12)

RISING

Georgia Tech – Wednesday's victory over Siena was the fourth straight for the Yellow Jackets, whose lone loss is a four-point setback against Dayton on Nov. 19. Gani Lawal and Derrick Favors command most of the headlines, but freshman Mfon Udofia has been the team's best player of late. He's averaging 19 points in his last three games.

FALLING

Wake Forest – Considering they've got a first-team All-American candidate in Al-Farouq Aminu, the Demon Deacons' loss to William and Mary was one of the more embarrassing defeats for a Division I program. Dino Gaudio may have lost a lot when Jeff Teague and James Johnson bolted for the NBA, but there's still no excuse for that kind of performance.

THREE TO WATCH

Saturday

North Carolina at Kentucky – Both teams are a long way from where they hope to be in March, but at this point, the Tar Heels appear to be a little bit further along, and quite a bit deeper.

Wake Forest at Gonzaga – The Demon Deacons will try to redeem themselves after two straight losses, but the environment in Spokane will make things tough.

Sunday

South Carolina at Clemson – The Tigers are tough at home – especially against a Gamecocks squad that may be too beat up to hang in this one.

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Da'Sean Butler has WVU on the rise.
(Jae C. Hong/AP Photo)

BIG EAST

1. Syracuse (7-0) – Kris Joseph is making huge contributions off the bench. (1)

2. West Virginia (5-0) – Say it with me: Da'Sean Butler, All-American. (3)

3. Villanova (7-0) – The Wildcats are a good team, but not a Final Four team. (2)

4. Connecticut (5-1) – Is anyone else surprised the Huskies got manhandled by Duke? (4)

5. Cincinnati (5-1) – Four players are averaging between 9.8 and 12.2 points. (5)

6. Marquette (6-1) – The Golden Eagles play relentless perimeter defense. (7)

7. Georgetown (5-0) – Center Greg Monroe is averaging 14.8 points, 9.4 rebounds. (8)

8. Louisville (5-1) – The Cardinals rallied from a 19-point hole before losing to UNLV. (6)

9. Pittsburgh (6-1) – The Panthers are still awaiting the return of Jermaine Dixon and Gilbert Brown. (9)

10. Seton Hall (5-0) – The Pirates could finish anywhere from fifth to 12th in Big East. (11)

11. Notre Dame (7-1) – The Irish lost to Kevin Coble-less Northwestern. Not good. (10)

12. South Florida (7-1) – The Bulls have 11 days off before Dec. 13 game against Hampton. (13)

13. St. John's (6-0) – A 5-0 start was the school's first since 2002-03. (15)

14. Providence (5-2) – Every game will be a struggle for the Friars. (12)

15. DePaul (5-1) – The Blue Demons needed overtime to beat Detroit. Uh-oh. (14)

16. Rutgers (3-2) – The Scarlet Knights' December schedule could lead to seven straight wins. (16)

RISING

West Virginia– The return of Devin Ebanks has provided a spark for the Mountaineers, who won last weekend's Phillips 76 Classic in Anaheim. As long as everyone stays healthy, there's no reason West Virginia can't win the Big East title this year.

FALLING

DePaul – Poor Jerry Wainwright. Just when it looked as if the Blue Demons had a chance to get on a roll and save his job, the team's best player, Mac Koshwal, goes out with a foot injury that will sideline him for three to four weeks. The Demons have seven games during that span, but only two tough ones (against Vanderbilt and Mississippi State, both on the road).

THREE TO WATCH

Saturday

North Carolina State at Marquette – The Wolfpack isn't as good as their record, but Sidney Lowe's squad should still provide a much-needed test for the Golden Eagles.

Tuesday

Butler vs. Georgetown in the Jimmy V Classic – Butler was overrated and some people feel Georgetown was, too. Still, this could be one of the better games of the non-conference season.

Wednesday

Connecticut vs. Kentucky in the Big East/SEC Challenge – There's nowhere better than Madison Square Garden to showcase players such as Jerome Dyson, Kemba Walker, Stanley Robinson, John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson.

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John Shurna has stepped up for Northwestern.
(Paul Beaty/AP Photo)

BIG TEN

1. Purdue (6-0) – Defense was the difference in the Boilers' victory over Wake Forest. (1)

2. Ohio State (6-1) – Could Evan Turner win the national player of the year awards? Sure. (3)

3. Michigan State (5-2) – The Tar Heels took it to the Spartans again. (2)

4. Wisconsin (5-1) – Add the Badgers to the list of Big Ten title contenders. (7)

5. Illinois (5-2) – The Illini set a school record by rallying from 23 down to beat Clemson. (5)

6. Minnesota (4-3) – The Gophers have lost three in a row. (6)

7. Northwestern (6-1) – John Shurna is becoming a star in Evanston. (8)

8. Michigan (3-3) – A victory at Utah on Wednesday would be the perfect medicine for the ailing Wolverines. (4)

9. Penn State (5-2) – Talor Battle scored a career-high 32 points against Virginia. (9)

10. Indiana (3-4) – The Hoosiers shot just 32.9 percent in Tuesday's loss to Maryland. (10)

11. Iowa (2-5) – A reason to smile: The Hawkeyes will beat Prairie View A&M. (11)

RISING

Northwestern

Left for dead after a season-ending injury to star player Kevin Coble, the Wildcats have been a pleasant surprise. As if defeating Notre Dame and a solid Iowa State squad to win last weekend's Chicago Invitational wasn't enough, Northwestern picked up a tough road win Tuesday at North Carolina State.

FALLING

Michigan

Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims need some help. The Wolverines hardly looked like a top-25 team in losing to Marquette and Alabama last weekend. Their 3-point shooting has been dreadful and, other than Harris and Sims, no one is crashing the boards. It was obviously premature to put Michigan in the preseason poll – not that the Wolverines aren't capable of climbing back into in a month or two.

THREE TO WATCH

Saturday

Penn State at Temple – The Owls have already defeated Virginia Tech and Siena and would love to add the Nittany Lions to the list.

Tuesday

Vanderbilt at Illinois – Other than Clemson, this will be the Illini's toughest test to date.

Wednesday

Michigan at Utah – The Utes are no pushover. Just ask Illinois.

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Tweety Carter is back for Baylor.
(Duane A. Laverty/AP Photo)

BIG 12

1. Kansas (6-0) – The Morris Twins, Markieff and Marcus, are among the Big 12's most improved players. (1)

2. Texas (5-0) – Rick Barnes is looking for more consistency out of his freshmen. (2)

3. Texas A&M (6-1) – Bryan Davis leads the Aggies in rebounds, blocks and steals. (6)

4. Kansas State (6-1) – Tough home games against Washington State and Xavier are looming. (3)

5. Baylor (6-1) – Tweety Carter's return has been a huge boost for the Bears. (10)

6. Missouri (4-2) – The Tigers saw lots of positives in Wednesday's loss to Vanderbilt. (7)

7. Texas Tech (7-0) – The Red Raiders play a huge game Thursday against Washington. (11)

8. Oklahoma State (6-1) – The Cowboys have the easiest non-conference schedule in the league. (4)

9. Colorado (5-2) – A win at Oregon State on Friday would be a positive step. (8)

10. Iowa State (6-2) – Cyclones fans can't be happy about a home loss to Northern Iowa. (9)

11. Oklahoma (4-3) – Could the Sooners' tournament hopes fade before Big 12 play begins? (5)

12. Nebraska (5-1) – The Cornhuskers picked up huge – and rather surprising – road win at USC. (12)

RISING

Texas A&M – Wondering if the Aggies are for real? Just ask Clemson and Minnesota, the two ranked teams Texas A&M defeated in last weekend's Phillips 76 Classic in Anaheim. Mark Turgeon's squad also nearly beat No. 8 West Virginia before falling 73-66. Donald Sloan is averaging 16 points.

FALLING

Iowa State – Talk before the season was that the Cyclones would be the Big 12's "sleeper" team. They've yet to live up to the billing. Craig Brackins seems to have regressed, and junior college transfers Marquis Gilstrap (bronchitis) and LaRon Dendy (knee) haven't been 100 percent. All of it culminated in a gut-wrenching home loss to Northern Iowa on Wednesday.

THREE TO WATCH

Saturday

Washington State at Kansas State – A victory over Klay Thompson and the upstart Cougars would beneficial to the Wildcats come March.

Iowa State at Cal – The ailing Cyclones won't underestimate Cal. The Golden Bears may have been overrated to start the season, but they're still a good team.

Sunday

Arizona at Oklahoma – There won't be any excuse for the Sooners losing to the rebuilding Wildcats. Something says Willie Warren and Tiny Gallon won't let it happen.

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Cal brings back Theo Robertson.
(Ed Zurga/AP Photo)

PAC-10

1. Washington (5-0) – The Huskies shouldn't expect anything less than a Pac-10 title. (1)

2. Washington State (6-1) – Could this be Klay Thompson's final year? (2)

3. California (4-3) – Theo Robertson is hoping to return Saturday against Iowa State. (2)

4. Arizona State (6-1) – The Sun Devils have a huge game Thursday against Baylor. (5)

5. Arizona (3-3) – Expect plenty of ups and downs from the youthful Wildcats. (3)

6. Stanford (4-3) – The Cardinal showed a lot by hanging with Kentucky. (8)

7. Oregon (4-2) – Saturday's game at Missouri could get interesting. (9)

8. USC (2-2) – Depth problems led to fatigue in a discouraging loss to Nebraska. (7)

9. UCLA (2-4) – Sunday's matchup with No. 1 Kansas could get ugly, really ugly. (6)

10. Oregon State (2-3) – Can President Obama come to every game? (10)

RISING

Arizona State

So much for a rebuilding year. Despite the losing James Harden and Jeff Pendergraph to the NBA draft, the Sun Devils are 6-1, with the one setback coming in a hard-fought, 11-point loss to Duke at Madison Square Garden. The next night Herb Sendek's squad throttled LSU 71-52. Sendek's teams have always played good defense, but no one guessed that Arizona State would've been this productive offensively. Arizona State has scored 70 or more points in five of seven games.

FALLING

UCLA – At last weekend's Phillips 76 Classic, the Bruins lost to Portland, Butler and Long Beach State. That just sounds weird, doesn't it? Then, as if things couldn't get any worse, third-leading scorer Drew Gordon announced earlier this week that he was transferring. It's been a long time since things were this bad in Westwood.

THREE TO WATCH

Thursday

Washington at Texas Tech – Even though they're undefeated, the Red Raiders are a bit of an unknown because they've yet to play high-quality competition.

Saturday

Iowa State at Cal – The Golden Bears are thinking about tinkering with their offense, but they may not want to use this as an experiment game. Iowa State is good.

Tuesday

Arizona State at BYU – The Sun Devils have been good at home, but let's see how they perform in a hostile road environment.

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JaMychal Green is turning the Tide.
(April L.Brown/AP Photo)

SEC

1. Kentucky (7-0) – The Wildcats' freshmen are about to get their first true taste of competition. (1)

2. Tennessee (6-1) – The Vols have it easy until a Dec. 31 clash at Memphis. (2)

3. Florida (7-0) – The Gators' two-year NCAA tournament drought may end this spring. (7)

4. Mississippi (6-1) – The Rebels' backcourt continues to dominate. (3)

5. Vanderbilt (5-1) – No one can say the Commodores' schedule isn't tough. (4)

6. Alabama (5-2) – JaMychal Green is averaging 16 points and 7.8 rebounds. (9)

7. South Carolina (6-1) – Injuries continue to be a problem. (8)

8. Mississippi State (4-2) – Sad when Old Dominion is your marquee win. (6)

9. LSU (4-2) – It could be a long season in Baton Rouge. (5)

10. Auburn (4-3) – For his own sake, Jeff Lebo needs to beat Virginia on Monday. (10)

11. Georgia (4-2) – The Bulldogs needed to rally to beat Jacksonville State. (12)

12. Arkansas (2-5) – The Razorbacks have lost four in a row. (11)

RISING

Alabama – The Crimson Tide has come a long way since a season-opening loss to Cornell. Victories over Providence, Baylor and then-No. 15 Michigan have Anthony Grant's squad full of confidence as showdowns with Purdue and Kansas State loom. Alabama is still a work in progress and is probably a year or two away from returning to the NCAA tournament, but things definitely appear to be headed in the right direction.

FALLING

LSU – After three easy wins to start the season, the Tigers were finally exposed in blowout losses to Connecticut (26 points) and Arizona State (19 points) in last week's Preseason NIT. Luckily Trent Johnson's squad – which was decimated by departures – will have some time to find itself during upcoming games against Northwestern State, Southeastern Louisiana, Nicholls State and Rice.

THREE TO WATCH

Saturday

North Carolina at Kentucky – The frontcourt battle between Kentucky's Patrick Patterson, DeMarcus Cousins and Daniel Orton and North Carolina's Ed Davis, Deon Thompson and Tyler Zeller should be a great one.

Tuesday

Vanderbilt at Illinois – Beating a team that could contend for the Big Ten title – in its own gym, no less – would be huge for the Commodores and the SEC, as well.

Wednesday

Kentucky vs. Connecticut – John Wall will face his stiffest test as a college player thus far when he matches up against Jerome Dyson and Kemba Walker.

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