It may be a bit early to start discussing conference championship contenders -- especially in a loaded Big Ten -- but Indiana and Minnesota clearly are two of the league's best.
The Golden Gophers' place in that group, though, seems considerably more surprising.The fifth-ranked Hoosiers host No. 8 Minnesota on Saturday in an early showdown between two of the conference's three top-10 squads.Indiana (14-1, 2-0) began the season as the nation's top-ranked team and, save for an overtime loss to Butler in Indianapolis on Dec. 15, has looked every bit the part. It leads the nation in scoring (87.0 points per game) and is in the top 10 in field-goal percentage (51.1) after shooting 52.4 percent in a 74-51 victory at Penn State on Monday.The Hoosiers are one of the favorites in a Big Ten that's widely considered the nation's premier conference with six ranked teams, though perhaps none is more unexpected than surging Minnesota (15-1, 3-0).The Gophers, who began the season unranked, possess their highest ranking since their vacated 1996-97 Final Four season and have won 11 straight since an 89-71 loss to now-No. 1 Duke on Nov. 22.Only No. 2 Michigan is ranked ahead of Indiana and Minnesota within the Big Ten, and the Gophers are proving to be among the conference's elite -- especially after Wednesday's 84-67 victory at No. 12 Illinois."That's everybody's goal to start the year and that's been our goal every year I've been here," coach Tubby Smith said. "We expect to compete for a Big Ten championship and we certainly believe we have the players to do it. We've got to come prepared and win, and we know that's the bottom line."Joe Coleman scored a career-high 29 points and Andre Hollins added 22 on Wednesday. They have been two of Smith's biggest contributors, along with Rodney Williams (12.6 points per game), Austin Hollins (10.8) and Trevor Mbakwe (team-best 7.9 rebounds).Minnesota ranks third in the Big Ten with 76.0 points per game and has hit 52.6 percent from the field over the last three."When you shoot well, any team is different," Smith said. "And we've been shooting well. Anybody can step up on any day."The Gophers may have a more difficult time hitting shots Saturday against an Indiana team that leads the conference in field-goal percentage defense (35.8).The Hoosiers held Penn State to 31.7 percent Monday, the 10th team they've limited to 34.0 percent or worse."These guys really did a great job of making defense the forefront of everything they did," coach Tom Crean said.Though Indiana is second in the Big Ten in field-goal percentage (51.1) and is the league's only team featuring five players averaging double figures -- led by Cody Zeller (16.5 ppg) and Victor Oladipo (13.3) -- it relies on its defense to help lead to offensive production.The Hoosiers are forcing a Big Ten-best 16.3 turnovers per game, while Minnesota ranks second at 15.4."As long as your defense is there, you've got a chance to stay in the game," Crean said.Saturday's matchup also will feature the conference's best rebounding teams, as Indiana ranks first with an 11.7 differential while Minnesota is right behind at 10.6. Both marks are among the nation's top five.The Hoosiers held the Gophers to 31.0 percent shooting in a 69-50 road victory Feb. 26 in the most recent meeting, but Minnesota stunned No. 7 Indiana 77-74 in its last trip to Bloomington exactly one year ago from Saturday.