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Posted on Tue. Dec. 11, 2012 - 12:15 am EDT

Illini, Gophers create depth

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Indiana, Michigan and Ohio State have lived up to advanced billing.

All three were ranked in top 10 in The Associated Press men’s basketball preseason poll. And one month into the season, they are still there.

But Illinois and Minnesota have stepped up to provide even more depth to a conference many already thought would be the best in the country.

Fresh off a win at Gonzaga, Illinois moved to No. 10 in the AP poll released Monday. Minnesota is No. 13.

The Illini and Gophers give the Big Ten five teams in the top 15 of the AP poll. The Hoosiers (9-0) remain atop the rankings. Michigan (9-0) and Ohio State (6-1) are ranked third and seventh, respectively.

Michigan State is the sixth Big Ten team ranked in the top 25. The Spartans (8-2) are No. 19.

“This league definitely has to be the best it’s been in my era,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said during the Big Ten teleconference Monday.

Illinois has a new coach in John Groce, who guided Ohio to the Sweet 16 last season. And now he’s the first coach to start his Illinois career 10-0 in more than 100 years.

Illinois won the Maui Invitational, defeating Butler in the title game. And Saturday’s win at Gonzaga was the first for the team against a nonconference, top-10 team road opponent since March 1, 1986.

“Our guys showed a lot of resiliency (against Gonzaga), getting down 11 in a tough environment to play in, I was proud of their toughness and the way they stuck together. I feel like we are getting better every day,” Groce said. “As long as we continue to have that mindset that it’s early, we haven’t arrived, we have to continue to improve every day.”

It has helped having Brandon Paul. The senior guard was named the conference’s player of the week Monday. He scored 35 points against Gonzaga.

“He’s starting to understand and grasp the concept of the being even-keel, not getting too high, not getting too low and practice habits, every day you have to bring it,” Groce said.

Minnesota’s only loss was to No. 2 Duke at the Battle 4 Atlantis. Four Gophers (10-1) are averaging double figures in scoring, led by Andre Hollins (13.7 points per game) and Rodney Williams (12.9). Trevor Mbakwe has returned from a knee injury.

“We’ve gotten off to good start. We’ve avoided injuries, knock on wood, that’s a big key. Last year at this time, we went through serious injuries with players. We’re just happy to be healthy and doing well,” Minnesota Tubby Smith said. “ … We’re sharing the basketball. We’re really playing unselfishly. We’re finding guys open. And we’re defending.”

It all could add up to an exciting Big Ten season, which begins at the end of the month.

“I think the league from top to bottom is outstanding,” Indiana coach Tom Crean said.

lpope@jg.net


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