#1 Surprise: The collapse of the Michigan State men and Ohio State women. What's that got to do with Minnesota? Well, it could mean an unexpected win or three for the Gophers.
The Spartans were #2 in the pre-season AP poll, ahead even of the Ohio State Buckeyes (#4), and things started out OK. Sure, there were losses but they were at Connecticut (then unranked, now #6), Duke (then #1, now #5) and Syracuse (then #8, now #17). And, yes, all three on the road. But then there was that 1-point win at Oakland (MI), followed by a home loss to Texas (then #18 but, hey, now #3). I mean, that is some tough schedule.
But now Michigan State is 5-5 in the Big Ten (13-9 overall) and 1-4 in its last 5, each of which has been described as a "dismal" defensive effort leading to an average of 75 points each for the 5 opponents. Opponents are making an unheard-of 49 percent of 3-pointers against the Spartans. Things came to a head in an embarrassing 72-52 loss at lowly (2-8, 9-13) Iowa, in which the Hawkeyes started by hitting 16-of-20 and finished at 58 percent. Meanwhile, the offense wasn't much better, shooting 34 percent with 17 turnovers. And, most of the turnovers were what coach Tom Izzo calls "the worst kind--interceptions for touchdowns." Iowa scored 30 points off of those 17 turnovers.
Then after point guard Korie Luscious was banished for conduct unbecoming a teammate, the Spartans lost to arch-rival Michigan at home. And there followed an overtime win over last-place Indiana on Izzo's birthday, meaning the last 2 wins required OT at home. Then came the Iowa debacle.
So the once #2-ranked Spartans will be scrapping just to get into the NCAA tournament. Izzo says he'll ride guard Kalin Lucas as hard as necessary, but also criticized Lucas' leadership after the Iowa loss.
Things are nearly as dire for the Ohio State women. Rated #7 in the pre-season, they're now 4-5 in the Big Ten (13-8 overall) with a 2-game losing streak. It looked as if the Buckeyes were turning things around with a 3-game January winning streak against Michigan State, at Illinois and Iowa. Then came a shocker to Michigan, at home, 69-66, and at now-1st place Penn State 80-71.
Janel Lavender seems to be her old self with 23 points on 54 percent shooting and 11 rebounds. But there's no depth this year and the other 4 starters are shooting 42, 41, 36 and 33 percent. Sam Prahalis is the one at 36 and her 27 percent from beyond the arc is about the team's percentage as well. After 6 straight conference titles, passing 6 other teams in the Big 10 standings would seem to be a tough assignment but that's what the now-7th place Buckeyes will have to do.
Prognosis: The Buckeyes will beat Northwestern and Purdue at home, then roll into Williams Arena for a make-or-break ballgame against Pam Borton's Gophers on Sunday, February 13. Ohio State is 1-6 in their last 7 road games. A loss would put them back at .500 and staring at road games at Purdue and Michigan State. I don't think the bucks can win at East Lansing no matter what else happens, and so the Spartans have the inside track on the Big 10 regular season title. But with no super-teams in the Big 10, the conference post-season tournament gives Ohio State a chance to redeem itself. Still, without better shooting from the perimeter, the Buckeyes' upside is not what its fans have come to expect.
Likewise, I expect Tom Izzo's Spartans to claw backinto contention. They're at Wisconsin tomorrow, then at Ohio State. If they can upset one of those two opponents, then the Spartans, too, could come into Williams Arena with a chance to salvage the season on Tuesday, February 22. Michigan State is not gonna win the Big 10--not in the regular season and not in the tournament--but it says here they climb up to 3rd or 4th in the conference and make the NCAA fairy easily. Still, if they can't shut down the other guy's perimeter shooters, it will be a short stay.
#2 Surprise: Eden Prairie sweeps unbeaten Hopkins--boys and girls--both on the same night. You knew that both had a shot, especially the girls playing on their home court. But I wouldn't even want to contemplate the odds that both would win. Of course, that's what they did.
Prognosis: The Hopkins boys are gonna win it all, you can count on that. But the girls are back into a dogfight with EP and maybe Lakeville North. The big news out of EP is the improvement of the supporting cast--Becca Sparkman, Mindy McGrew, and others, who are helping the Big Four of Johnson, Van Riper-Rose, Mullaney and Aubrey Davis a lot more than expected.
#3 Surprise: The Minnesota Gopher women start 0-7 in the Big Ten, then win 3 in a row. I don't even know which was the bigger surprise--that they were that bad, or that they've bounced back?
Prognosis: The three wins are nice and Kionna Kellogg has been a major discovery. But there aren't a lot more wins to be had til Rachel Banham gets here. Sorry.
#4 Surprise: There have been so many surprises in the MIAC that they're no longer surprising. The St. Olaf men win at St. Thomas, St. Ben's loses 2 at home, the St. Thomas women lose at last-place St. Kate's and the St. John's and Hamline men confound the coaches' pre-season poll.
Prognosis: Despite the ups and down, the St. Thomas men and women will win either the regular season or the playoffs. The Tommies men are the only MIAC club with the chutzpah to do any real damage in the post-season, however.
#5 Surprise: Timberwolves' won-lost record is the same as last year! I mean, David Kahn guaranteed that the roster was better.
Prognosis: Kevin McHale was right. They've improved just enough to lose closer games. There aren't a lot more wins to be had until Ricky Rubio arrives (if then).
Honorable Mention Surprise: While there have been some surprises, there's no real Cinderella story to compare to last year's Macalester women. Right now I'd pick the Perham boys. As we get into the post-season, the Yellowjackets are a team that lots of people could get behind. You may recall that they suffered the horrific scare of Zach Gabbard collapsing during a recent game due to a heart problem. He remains in the hospital today, but his teammates are soldiering on, now with a 14-1 record after a 52-47 overtime loss at Pelican Rapids. They're in the difficult section 8AA with Pelican Rapids, Pequot Lakes and other worthies, and right now Pequot is rated #4 and Perham #9 in the AA rankings. So they've certainly got a shot.