Big Ten

Big Ten teams in four tiers as conference play starts

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Big Ten teams in four tiers as conference play starts

Big Ten basketball season is upon us. Perhaps this is truly the most wonderful time of the year.

While it might seem a fitting moment to draw up a batch of power rankings, it’s a tad difficult to evaluate power among 14 teams after games against the likes of Canisius, Grambling State and Maryland-Eastern Shore.

What has emerged over the non-conference portion of the schedule, though, has been some distinct groupings of teams. Tiers, if you will.

The big takeaway — at least at this point in the season — seems to be that the Big Ten isn’t quite as loaded as we thought it was. Entering the season, it looked like it was going to be a season with a whole mess of teams vying for the top spot. Instead, after the best three teams, things are pretty disappointing with a dearth of other challengers.

So with conference play kicking off Tuesday night, here’s a look at where the Big Ten teams have fallen when it comes to specific tiers within the conference.

[MORE BIG TEN: Spartans hold on to No. 1 spot in AP poll as conference play begins]

The elite

Michigan State. The Spartans weren’t tabbed to be the conference’s best coming into the season, but that’s what they’ve been. One of just five undefeated teams in the country, Michigan State has looked better than anyone, boasting arguably the season’s best win in defeating Kansas during the Champions Classic and arguably the country’s best player in Denzel Valentine, who has a pair of triple-doubles to his name and is stuffing the stat sheet in every possible way. Wins over Providence, Louisville and Florida have added to one of the nation’s most impressive resumes and a deserving No. 1 ranking.

Maryland. The team that was supposed to dominate the conference still could. The Terps have just one loss, and that came on the road against a top-10 North Carolina team. Melo Trimble has played terrifically, and new additions Robert Carter, Diamond Stone and Rasheed Sulaimon have all been great contributors. This is certainly the most loaded team in the Big Ten, and that talent and balance could turn into a run through the league.

Purdue. Those who realized the Boilers were incredibly stacked in the preseason weren’t surprised by their 12-1 record in non-conference play and a leap into the top 15. Purdue’s only loss came against a top-10 Butler team. Caleb Swanigan has been excellent in his first couple months of college basketball, but it’s been A.J. Hammons who’s been sensational. Purdue’s bringing the senior big man off the bench, but he’s the team’s leading scorer with 13.3 points a game and he ranks in the top five in the Big Ten in rebounding, blocks and field-goal percentage.

[MORE BIG TEN: Northwestern big man Alex Olah out indefinitely with foot injury]

Staying power?

Northwestern. It’s the best start in Northwestern basketball history. The Cats’ 12-1 record is short on impressive wins, but it is packed with a lot of victories and just one loss to a top-10 North Carolina team. Bryant McIntosh, Tre Demps and Scottie Lindsey are playing really well, but a black cloud settled over the top of the team this week when it was announced seven-foot Alex Olah is out indefinitely with a foot injury. The Cats seem to be in good position for a first-ever trip to the NCAA tournament, but long stretches of losing in Big Ten play have been common in recent seasons.

Iowa. At 9-3, the Hawkeyes haven’t exactly been overly impressive, but they seem more capable of figuring things out than some of the more disappointing teams in the conference. Their losses came against good teams in Iowa State, Notre Dame and Dayton. But that loss to Iowa State was absolutely soul-crushing, as Iowa blew a 20-point lead and lost in the final seconds. There’s plenty there with a really experienced starting group and Jarrod Uthoff playing as well as anyone in the conference.

Michigan. The Wolverines’ struggles can be partially chalked up to a tough schedule with two of their three losses coming against two of the nation’s five undefeated teams in Xavier and SMU. The other came to UConn, just barely outside the top 25. Caris LeVert has been great returning from his injury, averaging better than 17 points a game, and Duncan Robinson is a 3-point machine. But there’s little in the way of post presence. Will that fly come Big Ten season?

[MORE BIG TEN: McIntosh, Lindsey power Northwestern's comeback win over Loyola (Md.)]

Disappointing

Indiana. The Hoosiers have won five straight including an awesome comeback victory over Notre Dame, but that’s done little to erase the taste of three losses in the first eight games, dreadful showings against Wake Forest, UNLV and Duke. In a frighteningly accurate retelling of the Indiana football team, the Indiana basketball team can score in bunches but can’t defend worth a darn. That could be a big problem come conference play.

Wisconsin. Certainly the biggest and most surprising of the disappointments, Wisconsin is seemingly lost without the large amount of talent that left following the second of back-to-back Final Four appearances. Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig aren’t having much luck driving the bus surrounded by players who haven’t really played until this season. There have been three home-court losses to Western Illinois, UW-Milwaukee and Marquette. And Bo Ryan’s sudden midseason retirement has turned a perennial tourney team into a complete mystery overnight.

Illinois. Injuries, injuries, injuries. It’s not that the Illini necessarily had high expectations to begin with, but any expectations have been wiped out after a ridiculous amount of injuries. Tracy Abrams was knocked out for the year before it even started, Mike Thorne could miss the remainder of the season and Leron Black is on the shelf for who knows how long. That’s sixty percent of the starting lineup. Malcolm Hill has been great with the team on his shoulders, leading the Big Ten in scoring, but he probably can’t do enough by himself to will the Illini to an NCAA tournament berth, meaning it could be three straight years without one for Illinois.

[SHOP BIG TEN: Get your Spartans gear right here]

Not looking good

Ohio State. Another team replacing an awful lot, the Buckeyes have struggled through the non-conference slate, heading into Big Ten play with an 8-5 record. An upset win over Kentucky saved the non-conference season, and that was one heck of a win. But does that make up for an ugly four-game losing streak that featured losses to UT-Arlington, Louisiana Tech, Memphis and Virginia? Probably not. A top four of Marc Loving, Keita Bates-Diop, Jae’Sean Tate and Jaquan Lyle has been solid but not good enough to rack up the wins.

Penn State. Things have gone perhaps better than expected for Penn State, which was tasked with replacing D.J. Newbill. Brandon Taylor, Shep Garner and Payton Banks have done a good job making up for Newell’s scoring void, but they aren’t getting much in the way of assistance. The Nittany Lions are the lowest-scoring team in the Big Ten, and that’s generally not so good.

Nebraska. The Huskers are getting great efforts from Shavon Shields and Andrew White, who both rank in the top six in the conference in scoring: White with 17.1 points per game, Shields with 16.3 points per game. But outside of those two, things have been inconsistent. And a late-December loss to Samford erased the excuse of a tough schedule (previous losses to Villanova, Cincinnati, Miami and Creighton).

Minnesota. The Gophers have one of the worst defenses in the Big Ten and are one of the worst shooting teams in the Big Ten. That’s added up to a miserable non-conference schedule that’s seen losses in four of the last five games, including embarrassing defeats at the hands of South Dakota and South Dakota State, both at home.

Rutgers. The Knights are looking like the conference’s worst team, and the numbers back that up. Rutgers is the only team in the league with a negative scoring margin and the only team in the league with a sub-.500 record. All games against teams of note have ended in a loss, and a stretch of dropping seven of nine doesn’t bode well for conference play.

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

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USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 12 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (10-1)

Still the team with the best resume in the country, no one can compete with OU’s wins over TCU, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, the latter two coming away from Norman. Baker Mayfield might not be a choir boy, but he’s the best player in the nation.

2. Miami (10-0)

You might think that being down 28-14 to Virginia in the second half was cringe-worthy, but the Canes made up for things by storming back with 30 unanswered points. Now they finally have to go away from South Florida for the first time since almost losing to North Carolina last month.

3. Alabama (11-0)

Tide gonna roll. But this Cupcake Weekend in the SEC has got to stop. While teams in other conferences are slugging it out against rivals, Bama gets to take a day off against Mercer? It’s just not fair. Also, Bama’s schedule is so soft, there’s no way it deserves to be the No. 1 team in the country.

4. Georgia (10-1)

The Dawgs should wrap an 11-1 regular season this weekend against Georgia Tech. But the SEC title game presents a kind of no-win scenario: undefeated Alabama or Auburn, who throttled Georgia earlier this month.

5. Wisconsin (11-0)

You didn’t need Wisconsin to do what it did to Iowa and Michigan to prove it had one of the best defenses in the country — but that sure didn’t help. Stockpiling national love with those two wins, a win in the Big Ten title game figures to make the Badgers a Playoff lock.

6. Clemson (10-1)

Why’d Kelly Bryant have to go and get hurt for that Syracuse game? The Tigers would be No. 1 and the undisputed best team in the country. Still, though, a win over Miami in the ACC title game ought to get the champs back into the Playoff.

7. Auburn (9-2)

Great job pounding Louisiana-Monroe, Tigers. You shall not escape the wrath over Cupcake Weekend in the SEC. That dumb game aside, Auburn and Alabama will meet in a titanic Iron Bowl this weekend with a trip to the SEC title game on the line — and perhaps a Playoff spot, as well.

8. Ohio State (9-2)

Not that pummeling Illinois is any big deal, but the Buckeyes are still alive in this thing and look like a team capable of making some Playoff noise. First, Ohio State has to win The Game and then the Big Ten title game to knock out undefeated Wisconsin.

9. Notre Dame (9-2)

Out of the Playoff chase thanks to that loss at Miami, Notre Dame squeaked by Navy this past weekend. Hope a New Year’s Six bowl game is enough for the Irish. We know it’s not enough for those ND fans. So maybe join a conference? Just saying.

10. TCU (9-2)

The Frogs can still make their mark on the Playoff race, even if they can’t get in themselves. The Big 12 title game will almost surely be TCU’s attempt at revenge on Oklahoma. Unfortunately, if revenge does come, it will probably cannibalize the conference’s Playoff hopes, too.

11. Penn State (9-2)

Why Penn State gave up 44 points to Nebraska, I do not know. What I do know is that probably no one cared because Penn State is going to go down as the most inconsequential 10-2 team of all-time. Such a bummer considering the preseason expectations for both the team and Saquon Barkley.

12. USC (10-2)

Yeah, I guess there’s still a way for USC to make the Playoff, but it’s hard to imagine that madness unfolding, even in the oft-mad college football. The Trojans get the winner of the Apple Cup in the Pac-12 title game.

13. UCF (10-0)

Finally we get our much-anticipated UCF-USF showdown this weekend. Make it count, Knights. This is probably gonna be Scott Frost’s last regular-season game in Orlando.

14. Washington (9-2)

It’s hard to say who has the edge in the Apple Cup, but certainly the stakes are high, with the winner going off to play USC in the Pac-12 title game. Can either team make the Playoff? Well, probably not, no.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Is this it for Mike Leach on The Palouse? He could be a hot candidate this offseason and leave for perceived greener pastures. Winning the Apple Cup would go a long way toward making that happen.

16. Mississippi State (8-3)

A win in the Egg Bowl means a 9-3 regular season for the Bulldogs with their three losses coming against three top-10 teams.

17. Oklahoma State (8-3)

Poor Okie State has been so good all year and had two losses to the two best teams in its conference, and then it went and lost to K-State for some ridiculous reason. The Mullet deserved better in 2017.

18. Northwestern (8-3)

The Cats are the fourth-best team in the Big Ten, simple as that, with wins over Michigan State and Iowa and conference losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. As commendable an effort as you’ll find in a highly competitive league. Plus, Fitz’s team is on a six-game win streak that could end up extending to eight.

19. Stanford (8-3)

Already with a win over Washington, Stanford could close the regular season with two wins over top-10 teams in its final three games. Also Bryce Love is back in the groove after back-to-back 100-yard games.

20. Memphis (9-1)

The Tigers have lost just one game all season, to the best Group of Five team out there. Heck of a season by Memphis.

21. Michigan State (8-3)

A 17-7 win over Maryland couldn't have been the most exciting way for anyone to spend their weekend. Sparty's had a mighty fine season, though, considering how badly things went in 2016.

22. LSU (8-3)

The SEC has seemingly gotten increasingly better as the year has progressed, with LSU and Mississippi State making for a solid-enough middle tier. But remember when LSU lost to Troy? That wasn’t good.

23. South Florida (9-1)

If not for that loss to Houston, USF’s showdown with UCF this weekend would be for Group of Five supremacy. Even without that, though, this should be a highly entertaining affair.

24. Virginia Tech (8-3)

The Hokies have a chance to salvage their tumble at the close of the season with a win at Virginia. But given how well the Cavs played at Miami this past weekend, a VT win is no sure thing.

25. Iowa State (7-4)

I understand the math and all, but can't the Big 12 just suspend its rules and send Iowa State to the title game? We all want to see the OU-ISU rematch. Why are you preventing us from being happy, Big 12?

See how they stack up: Week 11 college football top 25 rankings

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USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 11 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 11 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (9-1)

The Sooners probably won’t be No. 1 in the Playoff rankings, as the committee will almost surely move Bama up a notch. But OU has an incredible resume, one much better than the Tide’s, with wins over Ohio State, TCU and Okie State. No one in the country can compete with those wins.

2. Miami (9-0)

The Canes are too legit to quit after pulverizing Notre Dame on Saturday night. That signature win teamed with the prior week’s win over Virginia Tech makes that near loss to lowly North Carolina seem like forever ago. Welcome to Miami, indeed.

3. Alabama (10-0)

A great win on Saturday night by the Tide in what seemed like their first actual game of the season. The schedule has been soft as silk, but now Auburn’s status as an SEC juggernaut makes the Iron Bowl a colossal clash.

4. Georgia (9-1)

Knocked off the top of the college football mountain, the Dawgs still deserve to be in the Playoff field, just a one-loss team with that one loss coming to another top team and that still-excellent win at Notre Dame. The resume’s still there, but now the SEC title game will be for all the marbles.

5. Wisconsin (10-0)

Bucky’s sitting pretty after making Iowa look like an FCS team on Saturday — especially impressive considering what Iowa did the week prior. Expect Michigan and Minnesota to provide decent enough challenges, but it seems like Wisconsin’s set up for a Big Ten title-game date with Ohio State.

6. Clemson (9-1)

Miami is the king of the ACC, but thankfully the ACC title game looks to be a Playoff play-in game between the Tigers and Canes. The champs still have as good a shot at this thing as anyone.

7. Auburn (8-2)

Two-loss Auburn in the Playoff? It’s not crazy at all after what the Tigers did to Georgia on Saturday, destroying the No. 1 team in the country and setting up what will be another titanic Iron Bowl meeting with Bama.

8. Notre Dame (8-2)

The Irish’s Playoff hopes sank like a ship in Biscayne Bay thanks to the demolition Miami dolled out on Saturday night. ND’s resume is still fine — two losses to two Playoff-caliber teams. But with no conference title to play for, a two-loss ND team might as well be a six-loss ND team.

9. Ohio State (8-2)

Guess who's still lurking in the Playoff race? It seemed Brutus was dead as could be after getting woodshedded by Iowa last weekend, but then Ohio State put a whooping on Michigan State and everyone’s ears perked up again. Appearing destined for the Big Ten title game, things could get interesting.

10. TCU (8-2)

The Frogs will most likely still get a crack at a Big 12 title — and revenge on the Sooners, who picked em apart on Saturday — but the Playoff might be out of the cards now.

11. Oklahoma State (8-2)

You know who’s still really good despite having losses to the two top teams in the Big 12? Okie State. That was some game between the Pokes and the ‘Clones on Saturday. If only the Mullet could be unleashed on the Playoff. Alas.

12. USC (9-2)

Dramatically overrated in the last batch of Playoff rankings, the Trojans now seem to be the cream of the unimpressive Pac-12 after Washington’s loss. All sorts of madness would have to occur in order for USC — or any Pac-12 team — to land in the final four.

13. Penn State (8-2)

Great job beating up on Rutgers this weekend, Penn State. Now what? With games against Nebraska and Maryland left, will any preseason favorite (outside Florida State, of course) get less attention down the stretch than the Lions?

14. UCF (9-0)

Central Florida is that Group of Five team this year. If it beats USF in the regular-season finale, people you know will be like, “Why shouldn’t UCF be in the Playoff?” And you’ll just have to give them a look and walk away.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Wazzu has to win one game and it’ll play USC for a Pac-12 title. Despite the lack of Playoff stakes, the Cougs winning a conference championship would be a pretty big deal.

16. Washington (8-2)

Of course, standing in Wazzu’s way is Washington, which tripped up against Stanford and could follow up last year’s Playoff appearance with absolutely nothing.

17. NC State (7-3)

The ACC and SEC seemed to have flipped roles overnight. The once-mediocre SEC now has three playoff-caliber teams and a couple other decent ones. The once-awesome ACC now has two of the best teams in the country and then … NC State.

18. Mississippi State (7-3)

The Bulldogs put up one heck of a fight against Bama on Saturday, and if it wasn’t for that ridiculous sequence of play-calling following Bama’s missed field goal, they might have won. Oh well.

19. LSU (7-3)

LSU beat Arkansas on Saturday, which isn’t a terribly difficult thing to do. 2017 will go down as a “what if” year for the Bayou Bengals. As in, what if they hadn’t lost to Troy?

20. Stanford (7-3)

Two of Stanford’s losses have come against ranked teams. It’s now beaten Washington and could beat Notre Dame in two weeks. It has one of the best running backs in America. So shouldn’t Stanford be better?

21. Memphis (8-1)

Since losing at UCF, Memphis has rolled everyone, winning five straight by an average of 47.8-27.2. Good job, Memphis.

22. Arizona (7-3)

The Wildcats are 7-3 this season and have scored at least 45 points in every one of those wins. That includes last weekend’s win over Oregon State, in which Khalil Tate ran for 206 yards and two touchdowns. Dude's good.

23. Northwestern (7-3)

Meow. The Cats are winners of five straight, even if their overtime streak came to an end. The quest for a 9-3 finish is on, with only Minnesota and lowly Illinois left on the regular-season schedule.

24. Michigan State (7-3)

Two losses in three weeks for Sparty, who got absolutely steamrolled by Ohio State this past weekend. Michigan State will likely be rooting for Michigan in The Game as it would figure to wrap its regular season with wins over Maryland and Rutgers.

25. West Virginia (7-3)

The ‘Neers have only lost to Virginia Tech, TCU and Okie State, which is not too bad. But that’s a couple losses too many in the high-flying Big 12.

Others receiving votes:

Virginia Tech (7-3)

Things have bottomed out for the Hokies, who have lost back-to-back road games to Miami and Georgia Tech after a 7-1 start. Without the loss to the Jackets, Virginia Tech’s resume would look real nice. But alas.

Iowa State (6-4)

There was almost another Attack of the ‘Clones this past weekend in a thriller with Okie State. But the Pokes came out on top, sending Iowa State to its fourth loss. That dream Big 12 title game featuring the ‘Clones? A fantasy. Sigh.

Michigan (8-2)

Michigan only has two losses, which means it has to be kinda good, right? Well, it’s lost its only two games against ranked teams and its best win is Florida, so … no, I guess not.

South Florida (8-1)

Way to beat UConn, South Florida.