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With Big Ten play here, a look at the league's strong start

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As Nebraska coach Tim Miles said Friday, ready or not, here we come.

Big Ten play is here for the league's men's basketball teams. At least the first two games of league play. For the second season in a row, the conference's teams will play two league games over the end of November and the first few days of December.

"I like the 20-game schedule. As you expand the league, it’s nice to play your rivals on occasion," Miles said. "And so, when you only had five double plays in previous years, now there’s at least more of that, and that gives us, I think, a great chance to build strength in our schedule."

Nebraska opens Big Ten play Sunday, with pesky Illinois coming to Lincoln. That's followed by a Wednesday trip to Minnesota. Then it's back to nonconference play with games against Creighton and Oklahoma State. No lack of schedule strength there.

Here's a look at some highlights from the Big Ten's strong start to the non-conference season. The Big Ten is 74-20 as of Friday against teams outside the league.

Most impressive start: Michigan by a mile.

The Wolverines are 7-0, smoked North Carolina Wednesday and smoked Villanova earlier in the season. The Wolverines, long known for their offensive prowess under John Beilein, currently have the best defense in the nation.

Most intriguing games: No wasting time here. No. 14 Iowa hosted No. 22 Wisconsin Friday night, with the Badgers getting the win 72-66. That was the first of two big tests for Iowa, which travels to No. 9 Michigan State on Monday. 

The Hawkeyes also have the added distraction of dealing with radio play-by-play man Gary Dolphin's comments critical of Iowa's recruiting on a hot mic last Tuesday night in a win over Pitt.

No. 19 Purdue, in the midst of a brutal stretch of games, gets the honor of opening league play at No. 7 Michigan Saturday night before hosting No. 24 Maryland Thursday. Check out this five-game march for the Boilermakers: at Florida State (a one-point loss Wednesday night), at Michigan, home for Maryland, at Texas and Notre Dame in Indianapolis. 

Purdue's two regular-season games against Michigan last season were decided by a total of five points.

Biggest surprise: Has to be Iowa, with Ohio State and Wisconsin close behind.

The Hawkeyes were dreadful defensively last season, ranking 317th in points allowed. They're still not great this year — 187th of 351 teams — but math tells us a 130-spot jump from the previous season is generally pretty good.

Tyler Cook and Luka Garza are monsters in the frontcourt, and Jordan Bohannon finally has a little help at the guard spot in freshman Joe Wieskamp and redshirt freshman Connor McCaffery. 

The Hawkeyes already have wins against then-No. 13 Oregon and UConn on a neutral court, with a home game against Iowa State their toughest remaining nonconference game. 

Biggest disappointment: This one comes with a bit of a caveat, as Penn State was without stud forward Mike Watkins for the first five games of the season as he finished up his recovery from a knee injury suffered late last season.

But in those five games, the defending NIT champions went 3-2 with losses at DePaul and on a neutral floor to Bradley. Before playing No. 13 Virginia Tech last Tuesday, those were easily the best two opponents Penn State had played.

But Watkins returned against the Hokies, and the Nittany Lions held on for a 63-62 upset. Penn State isn't deep, but its top-end talent is good enough to keep it in most games.

Best player: Wisconsin's Ethan Happ has six double-doubles and a triple-double in the Badgers' first seven games and is averaging 18 points, 12.3 rebounds, 5.3 assists and two blocked shots per game. 

It's no surprise the senior has been really good, but he's been so effective that it's opened things up for Wisconsin's guards and seemingly returned the Badgers to their normal spot among the league's top teams. If he stays on his current pace all season, Wisconsin will be among those in the running for a league title.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7436 or cbasnett@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraCB.

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Husker basketball reporter

A Ravenna native, Chris covers the University of Nebraska men's basketball team and assists with football coverage. He spent nearly 10 years covering sports at the Kearney Hub and nearly four years at the Springfield News-Leader in Springfield, Mo.

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