College Basketball: Week 8 Big Ten Power Rankings

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Michigan Wolverines Still On Top

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The new year has arrived and Big Ten play is about to get into full swing. It's the time of the year where the race for the conference title will come into focus and we will learn who the true contenders are in the Big Ten.

The league has five teams ranked in the top 15, including three in the top 10, and Michigan is still leading the way at No. 2. The Wolverines even received a couple of first-place votes this week.

Indiana and Ohio State are also in the top 10, sitting at No. 5 and No. 8, respectively, and like Michigan, they are legit contenders for the conference title. In fact, I still think Indiana is the team to beat in the conference, but as shown in their Big Ten opener against Iowa, the road to a title isn't going to be easy.

Minnesota took a big step toward proving it belongs in the conference championship discussion with its win over Michigan State, which, despite the loss, can't be ruled out as a contender just yet. Everyone knows you never count out a team coached by Tom Izzo.

I think Illinois is going to win its fair share of games in the league but this probably won't be the season the Fighting Illini win a title. Still, the fact that we can mention the Fighting Illini is impressive after what happened to them a year ago.

As I've said before, the rankings are probably going to change quite a bit in the coming weeks, especially in the middle, and my guess ownership of the top spot will change hands a few times as well.

So enjoy your look at the rankings this week and as always, feel free to follow me on Twitter @BLester1993 or send me an email at collegehoopswriter@hotmail.com.

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No. 12 - Purdue Boilermakers

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Purdue has won its last two games, including a 73-66 win over William and Mary on Dec. 29, and while the Boilermakers (6-6) have been up-and-down throughout the nonconference schedule, they have an opportunity to be a decent team in the conference.

Of course, that hinges on Terone Johnson providing leadership from a scoring standpoint, and finding a few players off the bench who can become consistent contributors. Purdue should be fine on defense. Their success comes down to how well they can play offensively.

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No. 11 - Penn State Nittany Lions

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If there is one thing that can be said about Penn State, it's that it has momentum heading into the conference schedule.

The Nittany Lions (8-4) have won four consecutive games and D.J. Newbill has been the leading scorer in three of those wins. Newbill needed to step up when Tim Frazier went down with an injury and he has done that, averaging 16.3 points per game. He also has 15 assists and nine steals and he needs to perform at a high level the rest of the way if the Nittany Lions are going to win games in the league.

Penn State has been tough on defense for the most part, but maintaining momentum hinges on finding a consistent third scorer to go with Newbill and Jermaine Marshall.

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No. 10 - Nebraska Cornhuskers

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Nebraska has cooled off a bit after winning six of its first seven games and that probably doesn't bode well for the Cornhuskers heading into conference action.

Nebraska (9-4) picked up a 68-59 win over Nicholls State on Dec. 29 but its offensive production is a concern going forward as the Cornhuskers are averaging only 61.7 points per outing.

The Cornhuskers have to be able to improve on their 43.8 percent shooting clip and Dylan Talley, Brandon Ubel and Ray Gallegos are going to need to be even more effective than they have been if Nebraska is going to avoid finishing near the bottom of the conference.

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No. 9 - Northwestern Wildcats

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Northwestern rolled to a 63-42 win over Brown in its last game and now the goal is to be a competitive team in the Big Ten and give itself a shot at making an appearance in the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history.

The Wildcats (9-4) have been inconsistent, though, and that will have to change if they are going to be a solid team in the league.

Dave Sobolewski has shown he can be a big-time scorer for the Wildcats, averaging 11.3 points per outing, and he needs to be able to shoot well and defend well for Northwestern to be successful.

Northwestern has been tough on defense, holding opponents to 59.3 points per game, and they need to hope they can play hard on defense night in and night out because a good defensive effort will be vital to the success of the Wildcats.

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No. 8 - Iowa Hawkeyes

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Not sure if Iowa is going to b good enough to punch a ticket to the NCAA tourney this year, but considering how hard the Hawkeyes (11-3, 0-1) played in their conference opener against Indiana, they should be much better than expected.

Iowa only lost by four to the Hoosiers and that is encouraging for a team that wasn't expected to do much this season.

The Hawkeyes have won five of six and have played solid defense, holding opponents to 61.7 points per outing. They limited the talented Hoosiers to 69 points and are forcing an average of 15 turnovers per game while holding teams to 37 percent shooting.

If Iowa can become a team that can hang its hat on good defense, especially at home, it will win a good number of games and be in the mix for an NCAA or NIT bid at the end of the year.

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No. 7 - Wisconsin Badgers

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Wisconsin has rattled off three consecutive wins and none of the opponents scored more than 60. The Badgers are always tough on defense and that will be their key to success in the Big Ten.

The Badgers (9-4) are limiting opponents to 56.3 points per game and they may have found an extra weapon on offense after Frank Kaminsky dropped in 16 points in the 87-51 win over Samford.

Kaminsky is only averaging 5.4 points per outing but if he can become that guy who can give a team 8-10 points on a given night, the Badgers will position themselves as an outside contender for the title. Wisconsin already has Jared Berggren, Bren Brust and Ryan Evans. Another consistent scorer will only strengthen the Badgers' offense.

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No. 6 - Michigan State Spartans

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Michigan State is ranked 18th in the nation but it lost on the road to Minnesota in the Big Ten opener for both teams. Although it's a loss that doesn't look good for the Spartans, it's one they can certainly overcome in the long run.

The Spartans (11-3, 0-1) have a lot of talent and they are typically tough to deal with on defense. Their toughness will also serve them well going forward.

Keith Appling scored 15 in the loss to Minnesota and he needs to continue to be a primary scorer for the Spartans if they are going to contend in the conference.

The key for Michigan State is to learn how to close the deal on the road. It led 55-51 at one point against Minnesota but the Golden Gophers finished the game on an 18-2 run to earn a 76-63 win. If it can play well late at the end of big games in this conference, it will be in the mix at the end of the year.

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No. 5 - Illinois Fighting Illini

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Illinois (13-1) survived a tough test against Auburn, earning an 81-79 victory, and now it's time for the Fighting Illini to prove their impressive start to the season is no fluke.

No. 11 Illinois has drilled 132 3-pointers on the season and there is no question that its ability to knock down shots from the outside is going to be important. But Illinois has to be able to attack the basket consistently because the 3-point shots aren't always going to fall, especially on the road.

The one thing I like about this Illinois team is that it plays hard on the defensive end of the floor and thhat effort will need to be there night in and night out for it to succeed.

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No. 4 - Ohio State Buckeyes

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Ohio State made it all the way to the Final Four last year and it is expected to be a contender for the conference title this season.

The No. 8 Buckeyes (10-2) shot much better in their win over Chicago State and now they need to carry that shooting touch over to conference play. The Buckeyes are shooting 46.2 percent from the floor on the year and my guess is they will shoot well most nights in conference action.

Deshaun Thomas will be the key to the offensive success of the Buckeyes and while Aaron Craft will be counted on to contribute offensively, his play on defense will be the most important to OSU.

Ohio State has enough options for scoring and if it can pair that up with good defense, it will be a top-four team in the league all season.

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No. 3 - Minnesota Golden Gophers

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Minnesota is legit as a conference title contender. It's win over Michigan State proves as much.

The Golden Gophers responded well when push came to shove against the Spartans and that ability to rise up under pressure is the mark of a good team.

The No. 9 Golden Gophers (13-1, 1-0) have won nine consecutive games and have shown no signs of slowing down. With four players averaging 10 or more points per game, their offensive balance is remarkable and their effort on defense has been impressive as well. Minnesota is holding opponents to 38.1 percent shooting from the field forcing 16.3 turnovers per game.

It will be interesting to see how Minnesota plays away from home in the conference, but one thing is for sure, the Golden Gophers have all the pieces in place to make a title run.

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No. 2 - Indiana Hoosiers

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Indiana is the team with a target on its back and the Hoosiers survived their first test earlier this week when they knocked off Iowa on the road.

Every team in the Big Ten is going to give Indiana (13-1, 1-0) its best shot and the Hoosiers need to be ready to respond.

Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo both played well against Iowa and they will need to continue to be two of the Hoosiers' top scoring threats. Indiana has enough options on offense to knock off any team and it is averaging 87.9 points per outing. Most teams will struggle to slow down Indiana, and if the Hoosiers can combine that high-powered offense with a strong defensive effort, they have a great chance of being crowned the best team in the Big Ten.

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No. 1 - Michigan Wolverines

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Michigan is the last perfect team standing in the Big Ten. The Wolverines (13-0) are ranked No. 2 in the country and have shown they are good enough to win this conference.

They rumbled past Central Michigan in their latest win, earning an 88-73 victory, and they will take a wave of momentum into conference play.

Michigan is averaging 80.1 points per outing and Trey Burke has been a big part of it, clicking for 17.8 points per game. If he continues to get the support he has received already, the Wolverines are going to force teams to pick their poison.

Michigan has embraced the importance of playing hard on defense, too, and is holding opponents to 58.5 points per outing. There is no way Michigan runs the table in the league, but with the way this team is built, it's certainly possible for them to win the conference.

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