January 18, 2008

Long winter ahead for Penn State

MORE BREAKDOWNS: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Pac-10 | SEC

Illinois at Purdue
Ohio State at Tennessee
Iowa at Michigan
Northwestern at Wisconsin
Penn State at Indiana
Michigan State at Minnesota
Michigan at Wisconsin
Purdue at Penn State
Iowa at Indiana
Michigan State at Northwestern

Best matchup: Michigan State at Minnesota, Sunday. The Spartans (15-2, 3-1) haven't exactly set the Big Ten on fire through four games. The loss at Iowa last Saturday will prove to be one of the most baffling for any team all season. Michigan State bounced back to beat Ohio State at home on Tuesday, but the final score was only 66-60. That means in the past two games the Spartans are averaging 54.5 points. The Golden Gophers (12-4, 2-2) are yielding 60.9 points per game (ranking 34th nationally). Tubby Smith teams always play great defense, and the first-year Minnesota coach is 8-0 at home. Is Michigan State ripe for another upset?

The pressure is on: Penn State coach Ed DeChellis. The Nittany Lions (10-6, 2-2) opened the Big Ten schedule with two road wins and sent expectations soaring. They followed up by losing two home games, and they lost star swingman Geary Claxton (17.5 ppg, 8.4 rpg) for the season in the second of those games with a torn ACL. Penn State plays at Indiana on Sunday, then faces a young Purdue team that's improving daily. After that, it's an eight-game stretch that features five road games and two meetings with Michigan State. It's not hard to believe the losing streak that's now only two could stretch into double digits.

Upset alert: Ohio State at Tennessee. The Buckeyes (12-5, 3-2) head to Knoxville having lost two in a row. Both were road games, though, and Ohio State made a nice comeback at Michigan State to lose only 66-60. This would be a huge win for Thad Matta's team if the Buckeyes can pull it off. It could be a letdown game for the Vols, who come off an emotional contest against SEC East rival Vanderbilt on Thursday night.

RPI watch: Ohio State has a surprisingly strong RPI (third in the conference at No. 24) because of a highly ranked strength of schedule (No. 7).

Key stat: Michigan State is 14-1 when it outrebounds its opponent.

Freshman to watch: Minnesota G Blake Hoffarber. The Minnesota native leads the Big Ten in 3-point percentage and is on pace to set a Golden Gophers record for 3-pointers made in a season.

Who's hot: Ohio State guard Jamar Butler is averaging 23.5 points and 6.0 assists over the past two games. Northwestern forward Kevin Coble is averaging 23.3 points and shooting 53.7 percent (29 of 54) over the past three games. Michigan State guard Drew Neitzel as a distributor. He has 23 assists to just four turnovers in his past four games.

Who's not: Michigan State's Neitzel as a scorer. He's shooting 30.2 percent (13 of 43) over the past four games and has topped 20 points only once this season after doing it 16 times last season. Iowa guard Justin Johnson, the Hawkeyes' second-leading scorer at 13.9 points per game, is averaging just 6.0 points and shooting just 18.8 percent over the past three games.

Worth noting: Penn State's Claxton is a huge loss. He is second in the Big Ten in scoring and third in rebounding. The Thursday night meeting between Indiana and Minnesota featured one of the 20 active coaches with 400 career wins (the Hoosiers' Kelvin Sampson) and one on the verge (the Golden Gophers' Smith was at 399). Minnesota's bench outscored its opponent's bench in the first 15 games this season. Senior center Drew Naymick recently became the first Michigan State player to block 100 shots in his career. After scoring two points against Illinois on Jan. 10, Wisconsin guard Michael Flowers followed up with a career-high 23 points against Penn State. The Badgers play their next two games at home, where they're 101-6 in seven seasons under Bo Ryan. Purdue is off to a 12-5 start for the fourth time in the past 10 seasons.

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Bob McClellan is the basketball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at bmcclellan@rivals.com.

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