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.
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]
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?
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.