Updated: February 21, 2014 6:29AM
No doubt about it, the state of Michigan rocks in basketball. Give Indiana imports an assist for the Big Ten’s dual dynasty.
Leading off the M&M show: Michigan State is off to its best start in history with the help of Gary’s Branden Dawson and Gary Harris, who migrated from Central Indiana.
Less than two years removed from ACL surgery, Dawson ranks among the top five in the Big Ten in rebounds and shooting percentage.
Harris has overcome ankle issues, which cost him three games, to lead the Final Four prospects in scoring with a 17.6 average.
Fittingly the 17-1 Spartans presented coach Tom Izzo with his 215th Big Ten victory at Illinois on Saturday, doubly satisfying because he passed retired Illinois coach Lou Henson for fourth place in all-time conference wins.
Lately, they’ve been winning without inside mauler Adreian Payne, a 6-10 behemoth who is dealing with plantar fasciitis and a sprained foot. He’s one of four Spartans averaging in double figures.
Rival Michigan has won 10 in a row, six of them without preseason All-American Mitch McGary (Chesterton), who is recovering from back surgery. The Wolverines mauled Wisconsin at Kohl Center with help from Glenn Robinson III (Lake Central) and Spike Albrecht (Crown Point).
Robinson started his 57th consecutive game Saturday and the sophomore team captain has expanded his game to average nearly 14 points. Albrecht hasn’t missed a game in two years and the 5-11 sophomore supersub has doubled his rookie minutes to 16 per outing.
Experts wondered if the Wolverines would struggle with the departure of playmaker Trey Burke for the NBA, but Nik Stauskas has filled the void. The rangy 6-6 guard, who is averaging 18 points and 3.7 assists, stunned the suddenly sinking Badgers with 23 points.
The unbeaten state rivals are headed for a showdown Saturday, having distanced themselves from suddenly struggling Ohio State and the Badgers.
Here are my mid-term grades for the Big Ten, which continues to reign as the No. 1 conference in the country (records through Saturday).
Michigan St. (17-1, 6-0)
A loss to North Carolina spoiled a perfect season for Izzo, who blamed himself by suggesting he overreacted to defensive rule changes. Because of injuries, the Spartans started nine different lineups in a 12-game stretch, but didn’t bat an eye. Grade: A+
Michigan (13-4, 5-0)
The Wolverines have shot over 50 percent in their last four games. Their victory at Wisconsin was their first at Kohl Center since Feb. 1999. Now they must deal with Iowa on Wednesday. Grade: A
Indiana (12-6, 2-3)
All the good will the Hoosiers generated by knocking off the Badgers evaporated with a loss to Northwestern, which held the host Hoosiers to 25 percent marksmanship and smothered Yogi Ferrell, who came into the game with a Big Ten leading 17.9 scoring average but seems to be neglecting the mental aspects of being a point guard.
Noah Vonleh, a 6-10 sparkler who has earned Big Ten freshman of the week honors five times, leads the Big Ten in rebounding and was IU’s only bright spot in a devastating loss.
A poor turnover-assist ratio plagues the young Hoosiers, who may have been caught looking past Northwestern to a Tuesday visit to MSU. Grade: C
Iowa (14-3, 3-1)
The Hawkeyes cleared a major psychological hurdle with a recent victory at Ohio State, their first over a top-five opponent since 2001. Roy Marble (16.4 ppg) and Aaron White (13.8) lead Iowa, which took a 19-game home winning streak into Sunday’s game with Minnesota.
Coach Fran McCaffery is armed with the deepest team in the league. His bench is contributing 38 points and 21 rebounds a game. The relentless board sweepers are a plus 9.8 in that category. Grade: A-
Illinois (13-6, 2-4)
Fading fast after an 11-2 start, the Illini have dropped four in a row and face a grueling stretch of four games against contenders. Rayvonte Rice, who transferred from Drake, and Tracy Abrams lead the slumping Illini. Grade: B
Minnesota (14-4, 3-2)
Flying under the radar with new coach Richard Pitino, the Gophers lead the league in steals and free throw percentage (.755). Elliott Eliason responded to being named team captain with 12 points and 13 rebounds against Ohio State. The rising 6-11 junior’s third double-double in five games boosted his rebounding average to 8.9. Andre Hollins is scoring at a 16-point clip. Grade: B+
Nebraska (8-8, 0-4)
The Cornhuskers have moved to a new 15,000-seat arena, part of a $344 million package in the Haymarket District, but continue to play second fiddle to football. Terran Petteway, one of three transfers from DI schools, leads them with a 17.5 points and 7.3 rebounds. If they maintain their 69.3 scoring average it would be their highest in a decade. Grade: D
Northwestern (9-10, 2-4)
New coach Chris Collins has reinvented the Wildcats, who have ambushed Illinois and Indiana with smothering defense and slow-motion basketball. Drew Crawford humbled the Hoosiers with 17 points and 11 rebounds. The active Big Ten scoring leader pushed his career total to 1,684 points and moved into fourth place in NU annals.
Tre Demps is emerging as their go-to-guy, breaking IU’s spirit with a 13-point second half. Grade: C-
Ohio St. (15-3, 2-3)
What’s not to like about a team which leads the Big Ten in scoring defense (57.9 ppg) and is led by playmaker Aaron Craft, who ranks 1-2 in steals and assists? Somehow the sinking squad has dropped three in a row. Surely, they’ll bounce back with LaQuinton Ross (14.1 ppg) and Lenzelle Smith (12 ppg), starting at Nebraska tonight. Grade: B
Penn St. (9-10, 0-6)
After a 7-1 start the hard-luck Nittany Lions are comfortably lodged in the Big Ten basement. Three of their last four league losses have been by three points or less, capped by a last-second heartbreaker at Purdue. Armed with two of the league’s best players in Tim Frazier (16.8 ppg, 6.4 apg) and D.J. Newbill (17.3 ppg), their lowly status is a mystery. Grade: F
Purdue (13-5, 3-2)
Terone Johnson (13.4 ppg) and A.J. Hammons (9.8 ppg, 6.9 rebounds) have led the Boilers in scoring over the last eight games. Hammons is developing into a premier shot blocker with 59 in 18 games.
The Boilers have beaten three straight tail-enders, but must improve their free throw shooting — last in the Big Ten at .664 — to move up. Grade: B
Wisconsin (16-2, 3-2)
Sound fundamentals — the Badgers ranked No. 1 in fewest turnovers during a 16-0 start — kept them among the top five ranked teams until being humbled by back-to-back losses to Indiana and Michigan.
Sam Dekker and Mike Kaminsky rank 1-2 in scoring and rebounding. Ben Brust and Traevon Jackson give Wisconsin two more starters averaging at least 11 points. Grade: A
Wirt baseball chapter closes
Kim Hjerpe, who pitched for some great Wirt baseball teams from 1968-70, passed on some bad news. His coach, Bob Duffy, recently died in Phoenix, Az.
Duffy coached several conference champions from 1964-71. His 1970 team advanced to the semistate before bowing to eventual state champion South Bend Clay. The 1-0 loss was Hjerpe’s only setback in a 10-1 season. In the sectional he combined with Ron Lewis to throw successive no-hitters.
“Duffy was easy going, but stressed fundamentals,” Hjerpe said. “He was fun to play for. I can’t say enough good things about him.”
An incident in his sophomore year exemplifies the coach’s values. Hjerpe was pitching when struck on the hip by a line drive. After his next pitch hit the batter Duffy called a timeout, walked to the mound and benched him.
“Very clear message there.” Hjerpe said. “I think he knew the pitch was purely unintentional, but Duffy would not tolerate even the appearance of unsportsmanlike conduct.”