The ACC-Big Ten Challenge is past, the first forays into Big Ten play are upon us and the conference is shaping up to be as deep as any year in recent memory. With seven teams ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 and two others receiving votes, the Big Ten has the early potential to double last year’s effort of placing four teams into the NCAA Tournament.

Leading the charge is Michigan, a team that has started to vault itself into Final Four conversation after turning what was expected to be a showdown with a ranked Purdue team into a laugher. The Wolverines were tested for the first time at Northwestern on Tuesday night but survived to continue a perfect start to the season. Wisconsin, too, continues to impress with a pair of close conference wins and a deep backcourt that is allowing Ethan Happ to thrive without having to do too much.

Even the middle of the league is putting up solid wins. Indiana has battled injuries but has a 2-0 Big Ten start with a pair of two-point wins. Maryland’s blend of youth and experience has the Terrapins knocking on the door to climb into the league’s top tier. Ohio State shook off a loss to Syracuse and an injury to a key player to bludgeon Minnesota in the Big Ten opener for both teams.

Questions remain near the bottom, though. What’s it going to take for Pat Chambers and Penn State to finish close games? Is Northwestern the team that nearly knocked off Michigan, or the one that got rolled by Fresno State and has looked largely uninspiring? Is Rutgers actually on the verge of breaking through and climbing out of the cellar?

The schedule will lighten up as soon as this week, when the 20-game conference slate is paused until the new year and teams juggle exams and winter breaks while generally hosting lesser opponents. As of Wednesday morning, four teams were off to 2-0 starts: Michigan, Wisconsin, Michigan State and, somewhat surprisingly, Indiana.

All figures are as of Tuesday night’s games.

Big risers: Michigan State. The Spartans shook off some early-season slow starts and climbed three spots with an unbeaten start in Big Ten play. The Spartans are looking more like they are one of a few teams deserving of being in the conversation for a Big Ten champion.

Big fallers: Iowa. Reports of a much-improved Hawkeye defense might have been premature. Iowa had few answers for Michigan State as another inconsistent season is looking more likely.

Big shakeup: A clear bottom tier is emerging in Penn State, Northwestern, Rutgers, Minnesota and Illinois. Each team has pieces and most have selectively looked competitive against stiffer competition, but early conference returns are not promising for these teams.

Here are this week’s rankings:

1. Michigan (9-0): The Wolverines have won 23 of their past 24 games, with the lone loss coming in last year’s national championship game. (Last week: 1)

2. Wisconsin (8-1): D’Mitrik Trice continues to make up for a season lost to injury, hitting game-sealing shots late in wins at Iowa and at home against Rutgers. (LW: 3)

3. Michigan State (7-2): Nick Ward was perfect on 10 field-goal attempts in a blowout win at Iowa and averaged 23.0 points in the Spartans’ two Big Ten wins. (LW: 6)

4. Indiana (7-2): The Hoosiers nearly blew a 14-point second-half lead at Penn State on Tuesday but persevered. Equally important: Juwan Morgan looks healthy. (LW: 8)

5. Nebraska (7-1): The Cornhuskers have won three straight while allowing only 58.3 points per game. Nebraska has won 16 straight home games. (LW: 5)

6. Ohio State (7-1): The Buckeyes are outperforming expectations on the defensive end even without key defender Luther Muhammad. (LW: 4)

7. Maryland (7-1): It was their first loss of the season, but the Terrapins scored 71 points in a defeat to Virginia. Nobody scores 71 on the Cavaliers. Then they barely got past Penn State. (LW: 9)

8. Purdue (5-3): An anticipated showdown with Michigan never materialized, and now the Boilermakers are licking their wounds after a decisive, 19-point road loss. (LW: 7)

9. Iowa (6-2): Iowa gave up 90 points in a loss to Michigan State and failed to top 70 points in their first two conference games. (LW: 2)

10. Northwestern (6-3): There’s credit for being the first team to come within 17 points of Michigan. A banked three-pointer at the buzzer separated the Wildcats from a stunning upset. (LW: 12)

11. Penn State (4-4): The Nittany Lions are shooting 37 percent in their past four games and are 1-3 during that stretch. Coach Pat Chambers is 38-90 in Big Ten games. (LW: 10)

12. Rutgers (5-3): The Scarlet Knights are one of four Big Ten teams to drop their first two conference games, but Rutgers pushed both Michigan State and Wisconsin. There’s growing upside here. (LW: 13)

13. Minnesota (6-2): Amir Coffey is a walking double-double threat, but the Golden Gophers showed no fight or life in their conference-opening loss at Ohio State. (LW: 11)

14. Illinois (2-6): The nation’s seventh-hardest schedule hasn’t helped, but the Fighting Illini are still trying to install Brad Underwood’s system in his second season. Results have been decidedly mixed. (LW: 14)

 

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy