USA Today

Indiana heads to Minnesota as a legitimate Big Ten title contender

Michigan State has already lost twice. Iowa has traditionally been an up and down team under Fran McCaffery. Could the Hoosiers be a legitimate Big Ten title contender?

If you remember back to early December, I wrote a column saying there was reason for hope for Indiana fans because of the soft early Big Ten schedule. Through four games, that hasn't changed, but because of other things that have happened early on in conference play, you could argue that Indiana is now a legitimate contender in the conference.

Michigan State already has two Big Ten losses -- both to Iowa -- and Maryland has looked awfully shaky so far this season. Iowa remains unbeaten and has been quite impressive, but the Hawkeyes have traditionally been up and down under Fran McCaffery. 

Purdue, another team expected to contend, also has two early conference losses.

And then there's Indiana, which sits with Iowa atop the standings at 4-0 heading into Saturday's game at Minnesota (12:30 p.m. ET). The Hoosiers have historically struggled at The Barn, but the Gophers have been awful so far this season. They've been so bad, in fact, that Minnesota beat writers have written stories questioning whether this is the worst team in Minnesota basketball history.

The Gophers are 0-5 in conference play and 6-11 overall, including back-to-back 25-point losses to Northwestern and Nebraska in their most recent games. It's been an ugly year for Richard Pitino, who just last year was ranked among the top 50 coaches in college basketball by ESPN.

"You can't look at their record," said Indiana coach Tom Crean. "This is a team that beat Clemson, and Clemson just beat Louisville and Duke. They're a good team. They lost so many key players from the last two years that it's been a lot like starting over.

"I think Richard is an excellent coach and I don't think there's any question about it, he's his own man. He has an excellent style, they're very athletic. We're looking at this team with great respect."

Minnesota is one of the worst defensive teams in the country, ranking 262nd in defensive effeciency. The Hoosiers currently have the best defensive efficiency of all Big Ten teams during conference play, though the competition hasn't been strong. If you remember, the Hoosiers made a school record 18 3-pointers in a win over Minnesota last season. 

After Saturday's game at Minnesota, the Hoosiers host Illinois and Northwestern and then travel to Wisconsin. After that, they host this same Minnesota team. No conference win is easy, but Indiana could win all of those games and open Big Ten play at 9-0. 

Are the Hoosiers a legitimate Big Ten contender? Let me know what you think. Tweet me your thoughts @Justin_Albers.


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