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Matt Vautour: Big Ten shines in men’s college basketball

Last week’s Big Ten-ACC challenge finished in a 6-6 tie, but despite those stats, it wouldn’t be accurate to call those two leagues even as December gets going.

Even with perennial contenders Wisconsin and Michigan State struggling a bit, the Big Ten looks like the best conference in America, at least at the top.

Indiana has held onto the top spot in both polls since the preseason. The Hoosiers have just one true challenge — Dec. 15 vs. Butler at Bankers Life Fieldhouse — before conference play.

It took Michigan a little longer than expected to get to elite status again, but the Wolverines are certainly there now. With wins over Pitt, Kansas State and North Carolina State, Michigan has proven itself and looks like a true Final Four contender.

With its football program on postseason probation, basketball success takes on greater importance at Ohio State. There could be plenty of it this year. The Buckeyes lost 73-68 at No. 2 Duke, but have won the rest of their games by double digits. Their Dec. 22 game at home against No. 9 Kansas should judge just how legitimate Ohio State’s title aspirations really are.

Illinois still has something to prove as most of its eight wins have come against unremarkable opponents. Beating Butler to win the Maui Invitational is its best win yet. Illinois will get a true challenge Saturday at Gonzaga.

The Big Ten is shining despite some early struggles by two of its regular banner carriers. Michigan State is 6-2 with unexpected losses to Connecticut and Miami, while Wisconsin is 5-3 after falling at home last week to Virginia.

If the Spartans and Badgers round into form, the Big Ten race could be quite a battle.

MY TOP 10 — 1. Duke, 2. Indiana, 3. Syracuse. 4. Michigan, 5. Louisville, 6. Ohio State, 7. Florida, 8. Missouri, 9. Kansas, 10. Arizona.

Oklahoma State’s loss to unranked and undefeated Virginia Tech made voting this week difficult. I had the Cowboys at No. 9 last week. It would have been illogical to put the Cowboys above the Hokies. How high to enter Virginia Tech (No. 18) and how far to drop OSU (No. 20) was a bit of a challenge.

For the rest of my Top 25 visit the College Hoop Week Guide on the UMass Sports Blog at www.gazettenet.com/Blogs/UMassSports/.

I didn’t rank Kentucky and apparently I wasn’t alone.

HISTORIC FALL — Back-to-back losses to Notre Dame and Baylor were enough to make history for Kentucky. After being ranked No. 8 last week, the Wildcats fell out of the poll, the longest drop in AP poll history. The coaches were a little more understanding. Kentucky fell from No. 11 to No. 19.

The previous record fall was Missouri, which fell out from No. 9 in January, 2011.

HONORING MAJERUS — Utah, the school where Rick Majerus enjoyed his greatest successes, will hang a replica of his white sweater from the rafters at the Huntsmen Center. Majerus, 64, died of heart failure Saturday.

Saint Louis honored the coach by beating Valparaiso 62-49.

“Coach dedicated his life to basketball,” Dwayne Evans told the St. Louis Post Dispatch. “I can’t think of a better tribute than to get a win.”

GAME OF THE WEEK: Colorado at Kansas, Saturday 2 p.m., ESPN2 — Formerly a Big 12 matchup, this was never really a rivalry, except during Chauncey Billups’ two seasons in Boulder, Colo. But while the Buffalos’ football program has fallen apart since joining the Pac 12, Tad Boyle’s men’s basketball program has thrived. This should be a good one.

ATLANTIC 10 GAME OF THE WEEK: Temple at Duke, Saturday 3:15 p.m., ESPN — The undefeated Owls haven’t really played anyone yet. How they hold up in this game could give some indication of their legitimacy. Temple beat Duke 78-73 on Jan. 4 last season.

NEW NICKNAME PLEASE — How can a school with as much tradition as Kentucky have a nickname as generic and overused as Wildcats? It’s not as if there aren’t better choices.

The Kentucky Racehorses? The Kentucky Thoroughbreds? Even the Kentucky Jockeys would be better than Wildcats.

Winning an in-season tournament, a conference tournament and the NCAA tournament could be the Triple Crown. This is too good not to happen.

That said, with back-to-back losses last week, Kentucky has bigger issues to be concerned with.

ON THE ROAD TO — A Final Four with two, maybe even three, Big Ten teams.

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Follow UMass coverage on Twitter at twitter.com/GazetteUMass. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage.

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