Here are a few observations from the week in the Big Ten.
1. Michigan State looks to be the class of the conference.
After early season losses to Maryland and North Carolina, the Spartans have reeled off 11 straight victories and raced to a 5-0 start in Big Ten play.
This week's games showed that the Spartans can maintain their composure in tough situations, something they didn't do in those two non-conference losses.
Against Penn State the Spartans blew a 17-point lead, allowing PSU to get within one with just over a minute remaining. But emerging point guard Kalin Lucas hit 6-8 free throws down the stretch, and Sparty survived 78-73.
The Illinois game was a whole different story, as the Illini were in control most of the game, holding Lucas scoreless in the first half. But a late 12-3 run, and 10 second half points by Lucas, propelled the Spartans to a 63-57 victory.
With four very winnable games ahead on the schedule (Northwestern, @Iowa, @OSU, Penn State) the Spartans have an excellent chance to start 9-0 in the Big Ten and separate themselves in a conference where every other team has suffered at least two losses.
2. Purdue perhaps saved their season (or, at the very least, their hopes of challenging for a Big Ten title) with a comeback win over Northwestern on Thursday.
The preseason Big Ten favorite, Purdue came into this week 1-2 in Big Ten play, with team leader Chris Kramer and all-Big Ten forward Robbie Hummel both suffering from nagging injuries. Struggling to score the basketball, the Boilers looked to be on the verge of a 1-3 Big Ten start, trailing Northwestern by 11 with just under eight minutes remaining.
That's when Hummel, and forward JaJuan Johnson, came alive, spurring a 15-4 Purdue run that gave the Boilers their first lead with just over a minute to play. Purdue, by virtue of two tiebreaking free throws by Johnson with 2.2 seconds left, went on to win the game 63-61.
The Boilers, now 3-2 thanks to yesterday's win at Iowa, face an insane five-game stretch in which they play road games at Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Illinois, with a home game against Michigan sandwiched in between.
Had their confidence been shaken by a loss to bottom-feeder Northwestern, Purdue may have fallen apart completely if they had any struggles during this difficult stretch. Now, with their confidence back, and a few wins under their belt, the Boilers seem primed to tackle five consecutive tough games and start living up to their preseason hype.
3. Minnesota needs to forget a bad half.
The Gophers ended the week with a thud, losing to Northwestern after securing their biggest Big Ten win yet (a road win at Wisconsin) just a few days earlier.
Not only did the Gophers lose to Northwestern, but they also came out unready to play the second half. The Wildcats jumped all over Minnesota, scoring the first 16 points of the half. The Gophers missed 12 of their first 13 second half shots and never recovered.
At 4-2, the Gophers have a legitimate shot at finishing in the top tier of the Big Ten. With two home games (Purdue and Illinois) and a very winnable road game against Indiana upcoming, the Gophers need to put one bad half out of their minds and avoid a hangover from such a disappointing loss.
4. Illinois has a chance to create some separation next week.
After almost pulling out a victory at conference leader Michigan State, the Illini (3-2 in the Big Ten) have a chance to separate themselves from a crowded pack when they take on fellow two-loss teams Ohio State and Wisconsin (both 3-2) this week.
Despite a combined 1-16 shooting performance from guards Demetri McCamey and Trent Meacham, including 1-14 on threes, the Illini held the lead until succumbing to a late Spartan run.
If McCamey (43 percent from three on the season) and Meacham (45 percent from behind the arc) rediscover their season-long shooting touch, the Illini should be able to defend their home court and come away with big victories.
5. Northwestern is dangerous at home.
After leading Purdue for most of the game and knocking off Minnesota, the Wildcats proved that, despite their 1-4 start, no team will get an easy win when they visit Evanston.
Running the Princeton offense, the Wildcats, with their backdoor cuts and ability to slow down the tempo, are difficult for any team to prepare for. It doesn't hurt to have shooters like Craig Moore (22 points, 6-9 from three against Minnesota) who are lights out from three.
While the Cats have almost no NCAA tourney hopes, they will surely pull one or two more big upsets at home before the season is through.
6. Don't count on a Hoosier win anytime soon.
The Hoosiers didn't even come close to a win this week. They were blown out 77-53 at Ohio State on Tuesday and then suffered a 65-55 loss when hosting Penn State Saturday, putting them to 0-5 in the conference.
Looking ahead, the team's only realistic chances for a win are a Feb. 4 home game against Iowa and a Feb. 25 home game against Northwestern. If they don't win either of those, look for the Hoosiers to go winless in the Big Ten and finish the regular season with only five wins, a far fall for the once storied program.
(Sorry, not much original thought there. Just can't pass up an opportunity to take a shot at IU while they are down.)