Spartans hope to challenge Buckeyes

Since the Big Ten has an 18-game conference schedule, some of the teams already have played four league games -- including Big Ten favorite Ohio State, which is 4-0 and 16-1 overall. The Buckeyes' only loss was at Duke in early December. Having given coach Jim Foster his 700th career victory on Dec. 31, Ohio State is seeking its sixth consecutive shared or outright regular-season league title.

Michigan State, which saw an Elite Eight berth slip away in the final minute last March against Iowa State, has been hard to read. The Spartans came into this season expected to challenge the Buckeyes for the league's top spot. But Michigan State is 2-2 to start Big Ten play, with losses to Wisconsin and Indiana. However, in nonleague play, the Spartans did have notable wins over Oklahoma State, North Carolina, Xavier and St. Bonaventure, plus lost by just a point to Notre Dame.

So will Michigan State really contend with Ohio State? An early indication will be their Jan. 9 meeting in East Lansing, Mich.

Clear as mud

Unless you have your Ph.D. in Big Tenology, don't expect to understand everything that goes on in this conference. Hey, even if you are a Big Ten expert, you've already been thrown some curves. Especially by Purdue, which is 7-6 and has lost at home to Gardner Webb of the Big South. So the Boilermakers are just not very good this season, right? Well … not so fast. They are 2-1 in Big Ten play. (And we should probably mention that Gardner Webb is 10-2 overall.)

Consider also that Michigan State, Northwestern and Wisconsin all have 11 victories, which ties for second behind Ohio State's 16. But … the Spartans and Wildcats are 2-2 in the league and the Badgers are 1-3. Still, you have to like the progress Joe McKeown has made in his second season at Northwestern. Meanwhile, his former program, George Washington, is 3-9.

Question to answer

Can something good happen for Iowa? How much bad luck can the 8-7 Hawkeyes take? Iowa already has lost three players for the season: senior JoAnn Hamlin to a serious blot clot in her leg that was potentially life-threatening, sophomore Hannah Draxten to a herniated disc in her back and freshman Theairra Taylor to a torn ACL. Adding to that, Iowa on Sunday lost a Big Ten road game in overtime for the second time already this season, falling at Minnesota.

Team to watch

Jolette Law took her time before becoming a head coach, spending 12 years with mentor C. Vivian Stringer at Rutgers. In her third season at Illinois, Law is hoping to show her recruiting talents are paying off. The Illini are 10-3 overall, moving to 2-1 in the league with a buzzer-beating win Sunday over Wisconsin. Karisma Penn, one of Law's prized freshmen, made the last-second layup in the 53-52 victory.

Player to watch

Can anyone stop Ohio State junior center Jantel Lavender from winning her third consecutive Big Ten player of the year award? She leads the league in scoring (22.1 ppg) and is second in rebounding (10.1 rpg). But if anyone might challenge her, it's Illinois senior post player Jenna Smith, who is second in scoring (20.7) and first in rebounding (11.6).

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.