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January 25, 2008

Minnesota, Ohio State both needing wins

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

Connecticut at Indiana
Wisconsin at Purdue
Penn State at Iowa
Minnesota at Ohio State
Michigan at Michigan State
Northwestern at Illinois
Ohio State at Penn State
Iowa at Purdue
Illinois at Michigan State
Texas-Pan American at Northwestern
Minnesota at Michigan

Best matchup: Minnesota at Ohio State. The Golden Gophers (12-5, 2-3) have had all week to stew after narrow home losses to Indiana (65-60) and Michigan State (78-73). Next up is another team the Gophers are looking up at in the league standings. The Buckeyes (13-6, 4-2), with a robust RPI of 28, are starting to take on the look of a team that will play in the NCAA Tournament. Both teams need it badly because the Big Ten probably is only a four-bid league.

The pressure is on: Minnesota coach Tubby Smith. Smith has done a fine job so far in getting the Gophers not only to buy into his system but to believe they can win in the Big Ten. They already have won more games than they did all last season. Still, Minnesota faces a two-game road swing (Ohio State, Michigan) after losing two at home. When the Gophers return home Feb. 3, their opponent is Wisconsin (16-2, 6-0). It's not unfathomable to think they could be in the midst of a five-game losing streak. That would be a major setback for Smith in year one, not to mention he's still sitting at 399 career victories.

Upset alert: Wisconsin at Purdue. The youthful Boilermakers (14-5, 5-1) have hit their stride in Big Ten play. If they had hung on to beat Michigan State in East Lansing on Jan. 8 (they lost 78-75 after leading with less than three minutes to play), they'd be the talk of the nation right now. The Badgers (16-2, 6-0) struggled in their past two games, home victories over conference cellar-dwellers Northwestern (62-50) and Michigan (64-61). They look ripe for an upset, and Purdue is playing well. The recruiting class that Rivals.com ranked sixth a year ago is living up to the hype, led by Robbie Hummel (10.7 ppg, 6 rpg) and E'Twaun Moore (10 ppg, 3.8 rpg). Five of Purdue's top seven scorers are from the 2007 class.

RPI watch: Before Thursday night's game against Michigan State, Northwestern (6-9, 0-5) had seen its RPI dip below No. 200. Only one "Big Six" conference team (Oregon State) has a lower RPI.

Key stat: Purdue owes its surprising 5-1 start in league play to ball movement and unselfish play. The Boilermakers averaged 11.8 assists in 13 non-conference games; they've averaging 15.8 assists in Big Ten games, with at least 15 in each game.

Freshman to watch: Ohio State swingman Evan Turner. Since becoming a starter 12 games ago, Turner has averaged 10.6 points. He set career highs in points (21) and rebounds (10) in the Buckeyes' hard-fought loss at Tennessee last Saturday.

Who's hot: Purdue forward Nemanja Calasan is averaging 14 points (6.2 over his average) and shooting 62.5 percent (10 of 16) over the past two games. Indiana guard Armon Bassett is shooting 64.7 percent from 3-point range (11 of 17) over the past four games. Illinois forward Brian Randle has three consecutive double-doubles, his only ones of the season.

Who's not: Michigan State forward Raymar Morgan is shooting 34.6 percent (9-for-26) and averaging just 8.3 points over the past three games. For the season, he shoots 55.7 percent and averages 16.4 points. Wisconsin forward Brian Butch is averaging 7.3 points over the past three games, down from his season average of 12.8. He's shooting 36.8 percent (7-for-19) during the stretch, including 0-for-4 on 3-point attempts.

Worth noting: Illinois senior center Shaun Pruitt did not play Tuesday night at Ohio State and no reason was given for his absence. "I'm not going to get into it," coach Bruce Weber said after the loss. He said it was possible Pruitt could return for Sunday's home game against Northwestern if he "is positive and comes to practice and works his butt off. It was a team matter, a family matter, and it's been handled internally. We hope he has a positive attitude and we get him back involved with us because we need him. But we need him with a good, positive attitude." In the three games before the suspension, Pruitt shot 67.9 percent (19 of 28) and averaged 16 points. Speaking of Pruitt, the Big Ten's active rebounding leader is one board shy of 600 for his career. With its victory at Penn State on Wednesday, Purdue has won consecutive Big Ten road games for the first time since the 1999-2000 season. Penn State's Ed DeChellis and Purdue's Matt Painter are two of 32 Division I head coaches at their alma maters. Five Big Ten teams rank among the top 50 in the nation in scoring defense. Northwestern leads the conference and is second in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio. Two freshmen lead Big Ten statistical categories: Indiana's Eric Gordon (first in scoring at 22.1 ppg) and Minnesota's Al Nolen (first in steals at 2.4 per game).

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

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

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