Thanks for all the comments on last week’s rankings, even if you didn’t necessarily agree with me. I live for debate.
The Big Ten season is sure to have more surprises to come, but is seeing more depth compared to last season. This conference has the feel as if any team can beat the other on any given day, with just a few exceptions. Still, there seems to be three or four prime contenders for the Big Ten crown at these point, but it’s still early.
Regardless, the beginning of conference play has been pretty damn fun. Multiple overtime games, players having career nights and no undefeated teams left after four games. FOUR GAMES. That’s how deep this conference is, and the conference winner might have five or six losses when the time comes.
1. PURDUE: (14-3, 3-1 B1G, No.17 AP) – After losing the top spot in the power rankings last week to Wisconsin, Purdue showed out with a close road win over Ohio State and an impressive home win over the Badgers that dethroned them. Sophomore Caleb Swanigan continues to lead the conference in rebounds at 12.9 (2.8 more than the next closest) and is third in the Big Ten in points per game. Purdue is getting a good contribution from Dakota Mathias as well, as he is sixth in the conference in assists and is hitting at a 50 percent clip from behind the arc.
2. WISCONSIN: (13-3, 2-1 B1G, No. 18 AP) – Wisconsin slides into the two spot following their road loss to Purdue, but this team remains in strong contention to take the Big Ten title. The Badgers have a loaded starting lineup, led by sophomore Ethan Happ who is second in the conference in both rebounds and steals and leads the conference in field goal percentage. Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes will continue to provide leadership, and the team who ranks seventh in the NCAA in scoring defense will keep grinding their way throughout Big Ten play and remain towards the top of the conference standings.
3. MARYLAND: (15-2, 3-1 B1G) – The Terrapins got a huge win Tuesday night over Indiana, proving the can beat the teams with better rosters. Melo Trimble is the man who makes it happen for Maryland, sitting sixth in the conference in points at 17.5 and fifth in free throw percentage. They have two roads games against Illinois, whom they have beaten already, and Iowa upcoming, and are lucky that they play Indiana, Purdue, Wisconsin, Northwestern and Michigan State only one time, and are already 1-0 against those top teams. Anthony Cowan provides some spark and enthusiasm, but the team will need more from Justin Jackson going forward. Maryland might end up in the top four just because of schedule.
4. MICHIGAN STATE: (12-6, 4-1 B1G) – The Spartans looked like they found a second wind after a disappointing non-conference effort saw them at 8-5 to start Big Ten play. Beating Minnesota and Northwestern without freshman Miles Bridges was a tremendous feat, and Bridges’ return saw a beat down of Rutgers. Then, MSU turned in their sloppiest performance to date, a nine-point defeat to Penn State at the famed Palestra arena. Head coach Tom Izzo dug into his team for that performance and proceeded to leave no doubt in a 65-47 thumping of Minnesota again, who after getting into the top 25 caught the Spartans at the wrong place and wrong time. Now it is a tough stretch, with back to back road games against Ohio State and Indiana before welcoming Purdue to the Breslin Center. Cassius Winston, who leads the conference in assists, will be the key. If he is playing well, it seems as if everyone else on the team picks their game up too.
5. MINNESOTA: (15-2, 3-1 B1G, No. 24 AP) – The Golden Gophers were off to an incredible start, led by point guard Nate Mason who has been a terror on both ends of the floor. Then they ran into Michigan State, who handed them their second loss of Big Ten play –– both at the hands of Izzo’s Spartans. Mason is still in the top ten in scoring and steals in the Big Ten and sits second in assists. The Gophers have also found themselves in the top 25 after reeling off road wins over Purdue and Northwestern as well as their first conference home win over Ohio State. Jordan Murphy has been solid down low and freshman Amir Coffey should find himself on the All-Big Ten freshman team at the conclusion of conference play. If they get just a little more out of everyone besides Mason, and Mason keeps up the torrid pace he is on, Minnesota will be in the NCAA Tournament with decent seeding to match.
6. NORTHWESTERN: (13-4, 2-2 B1G) – Putting Northwestern over Michigan State was tough to do, considering the Spartans beat them handily at Breslin Center without ever trailing in the game. They have wins over Penn State and Nebraska, who was previously undefeated in conference play. But, three of the first four were on the road, bracing them for a more rigorous schedule with home games late in conference play. Guard Scottie Lindsay is the Big Ten’s seventh leading scorer (15.9 PPG), and Vic Law has returned from injury to light it up (13.8 PPG, 47.3 percent from three). Bryant McIntosh has been a good game manager, but the Wildcats will need some more interior presence to make a run at their first NCAA Tournament bid.
7. INDIANA: (11-6, 1-3 B1G) – What happened? Indiana had the top spot in these rankings just two weeks ago, but losses to Nebraska, Wisconsin and Maryland have the Hoosiers reeling a bit. However, this team has one of the more talented rosters, led by James Blackmon Jr, Robert Johnson, and mega-slams by OG Anunoby. They still sit at seventh because of that talent and the fact that games against Rutgers and Penn State upcoming give them the chance to get back to .500 before welcoming Michigan State to Assembly Hall. Head coach Tom Crean will figure his team out and get Indiana a top
8. NEBRASKA: (9-7, 3-1 B1G) – Nebraska saw their undefeated conference run end after falling to Northwestern. The even bigger issue is the fact that Ed Morrow, their main post presence, is now out indefinitely with a right foot injury. That leaves the two guards, Tai Webster (17.7 PPG, 4.1 APG, 4.9 RPG) and Glynn Watson Jr. (14.6 PPG, 21. SPG) with the task of replacing Morrow’s scoring production (10.7 PPG) and the rest of the team to work the glass with their leading rebounder (7.9 RPG) out. If anyone is up to the task, it would be Webster and Watson, one of the more underrated tandems in the Big Ten conference. Head coach Tim Miles is going to have to kick up the enthusiasm to get his guys fired up, as their upcoming stretch begins on the road with Michigan.
9. ILLINOIS: (12-5, 2-2 B1G) – The Illini, as I have written, are full of talent. They showed that last night in an 85-69 win over Michigan, where they shot 64 percent from the field and from three-point range. Malcolm Hill, who is second in the conference in scoring at 18.8 PPG, can shoot and slash with the best of them. They are a fun team to watch, and giving them the benefit of the doubt, have played a difficult schedule. Road losses to Maryland and Indiana are their blemishes, but they picked up a good win over Ohio State. If they win their rematch with Maryland at home, they might just enter the conversation for an NCAA Tournament berth. Then again, a loss to Winthrop early in the year might be their downfall.
10. PENN STATE: (10-7, 2-2 B1G) – The Nittany Lions were competitive with Michigan and Northwestern and solid in a win against Rutgers. As for their game against the Spartans at the Palestra, they were phenomenal. They shot the lights out in the first half kept that going in the second. They forced 17 Michigan State turnovers, out-rebounded the Spartans by 10 and shot 46.4 percent from the field en route to a big win in the Big Ten. Shep Garner and Mike Watkins are good, but their next four will be Minnesota, Indiana, Purdue and Wisconsin. They might be lucky to get out of that stretch with one win.
11. MICHIGAN: (11-6, 1-3 B1G) – We haven’t seen as much from the Wolverines compared to what we saw earlier in the year, especially after the beat down they received last night in Champaign. The Wolverine team that played UCLA extremely competitive and whooped a good SMU team has yet to show up in conference play. Losses to Iowa, Maryland, and now Illinois aren’t great and a comeback win over Penn State wasn’t all that impressive. D.J. Wilson has been solid, but Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin will have to start picking up their play. Nebraska is next, but we will see just what they are made of when they travel to Wisconsin six days from now.
12. OHIO STATE: (10-6, 0-3 B1G) – Boy, the Buckeyes are in the same boat as Illinois. They are a talented team, but haven’t seemed to be able to put it together as of late. They start the conference 0-3 with losses to Purdue, Illinois and Minnesota and now have to look forward to road games with Wisconsin and Nebraska sandwiched between a game with Michigan State. Jae’Sean Tate and Jaquan Lyle are a strong duo, and Marc Loving is a tremendous compliment to them. Unfortunately, no one else has stepped forward for head coach Thad Matta, and now Ohio State finds themselves in a deep hole.
13. IOWA: (10-7, 2-2 B1G) – Iowa has Peter Jok (22.6 PPG, 6.4 RPG), but the Hawkeyes have looked like an underachieving team besides him. They were close against Nebraska and have wins over Michigan and Rutgers. They were also thumped by Purdue, and Iowa seems...lost. Jordan Bohannon has struggled at point guard and the Hawkeyes remain searching for a compliment to Jok. If they can get two wins in their next three (Purdue, @Northwestern, Maryland), I might start to believe they can compete with the best.
14. RUTGERS: (11-6, 0-4 B1G) – Rutgers is Rutgers, and the process is going to take some time. Their five best players are either sophomores or juniors, and next season will be better for Scarlet Knight fans. For now, those fans should be looking forward to that, because the present is bleak. Corey Sanders and Nigel Johnson are nice players, but still learning. Rutgers best chance for a conference win might be on January 31 against Iowa at home, whom they lost to recently by just six points.