Big Ten Conference Reset: Michigan State, Purdue are running away with the league
College basketball’s non-conference season is finally coming to a close.
To help you shake off post-holiday haze and the hangover of losing in your fantasy football playoffs, we’ll be providing you with some midseason primers to get you caught up on all the nation’s most important conferences.
Who has been the best player in the biggest leagues?
Who is on track to get an NCAA tournament bid?
What have we learned about the conference hierarchy, and what is left for us to figure out?
We break it all down here.
Today, we’ll be taking a look at the Big Ten.
MIDSEASON BIG TEN PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Jordan Murphy, Minnesota
One of the pleasant surprises in college basketball this season, the 6-foot-6 junior has emerged into one of the sport’s most consistently productive players. Owning 15 double-doubles in 15 Minnesota games this season, Murphy is the Big Ten’s leading scorer at 19.1 points per game and is second in the nation at 12.6 rebounds per game.
Not only is Murphy beating up on low-major opponents, he’s getting it done against postseason-worthy teams. The Gophers have already played Providence, Arkansas, Miami and Alabama. Murphy was productive against all of them. It’ll be fascinating to see if Murphy can sustain this double-double production going against a league that has played him for two seasons.
THE ALL-BIG TEN FIRST TEAM
- JORDAN MURPHY, Minnesota
- DAKOTA MATHIAS, Purdue: One of the nation’s premier perimeter defenders has also had a quality offensive season. The senior is third in the league in assists (4.9 per game) while also playing incredibly efficient ball.
- KEITA BATES-DIOP, Ohio State: Third in the Big Ten in scoring and rebounding, the junior forward is finally playing like the high-end four-star prospect he was out of high school. Bates-Diop is also averaging more than one block and one steal per game while shooting 38 percent from three.
- MILES BRIDGES, Michigan State: Averaging similar numbers to last season, it’s no surprise to see Bridges on this list. Although the sophomore has much more talent around him this season, he can still take over a game.
- TONY CARR, Penn State: The sophomore has put up big numbers all season as the Nittany Lions are off to a solid start. Putting up efficient shooting splits (including 52 percent from three) Carr can score on any team in the country.
- NCAA: Michigan State, Purdue, Michigan, Maryland, Minnesota
- NIT: Northwestern, Illinois, Ohio State, Penn State
- OTHER/NO POSTSEASON: Iowa, Rutgers, Indiana, Wisconsin, Nebraska
THREE THINGS WE’VE LEARNED
1. MICHIGAN STATE IS A LEGIT TITLE CONTENDER: We had a feeling Michigan State was going to be very good entering this season and there is a reason many had them as a top-five team. With depth, experience and star power, Sparty had all of the necessary ingredients to be a major title contender. And that isn’t even factoring the ever-popular “Izzo in March” trope.
So far, Michigan State has lived up to its preseason hype. With only a loss to Duke during the first week of the season at the Champions Classic, the Spartans have been on a roll ever since as they continue to figure out new weapons to utilize. They’ve scored at least 100 points in four consecutive games. Michigan State has blowout wins over ACC contenders like North Carolina and Notre Dame. This team is everything we wanted them to be and they still have room to get better.
2. PURDUE IS FINE WITHOUT CALEB SWANIGAN: Losing All-American big man Caleb Swanigan was a major (and expected) blow for Purdue. The man known as “Biggie” was a double-double force of nature who made everything easier for the Boilermakers last season.
So far, Purdue has been very good without its former Player of the Year candidate. Despite a sluggish trip to the Battle 4 Atlantis that saw them lose two out of three, Purdue has looked very good for most of this season. A veteran team at multiple spots, seniors like Vincent Edwards, Dakota Mathias and Isaac Haas have all remained steady. Sophomore guard Carsen Edwards has also emerged as one of the Big Ten’s most potent scorers -- capable of taking over a game if he gets hot from the perimeter. With conference wins over Maryland and Northwestern already in the fold, Purdue is off to a great start in conference play as well. Right now, they clearly look like the second-best team in the Big Ten.
3. THE REST OF THE BIG TEN IS WAY DOWN: With many new coaches and players throughout the Big Ten, this was expected to be an odd transition year in the conference. But with the way veteran teams like Minnesota and Northwestern struggled at times in non-conference play, things are even worse than they appear in the Big Ten this season.
This is a wide-open league with a lot of question marks outside of Michigan State and Purdue. When Big Ten teams played two early-December conference games, only three teams finished 3-0 in that stretch. If teams in the league continue to beat up on each other, then where does that leave the Big Ten in March? Are we only going to see four or five teams from the storied league make the NCAA tournament?
THREE STORYLINES TO FOLLOW
1. WHO EMERGES AS THE THIRD TEAM IN THE BIG TEN?: As previously noted, the Big Ten only had three teams start the conference season at 2-0. One of them is Ohio State (more on them in a minute). No disrespect to the Buckeyes, but not many are counting on them to sustain that kind of success.
That means the Big Ten needs someone to step up behind Michigan State and Purdue. Minnesota and Northwestern are both capable of stringing together wins but they haven’t proven anything yet. Maryland is still young and inconsistent as they try to figure out how to close tight games without Melo Trimble. Michigan has been up and down with some puzzling stretches of poor play. Wisconsin is no longer Wisconsin.
So who breaks through and makes a run here? Somebody is bound to start a winning streak and emerge as a threat. But that answer, right now, isn’t blatantly obvious.
2. IS OHIO STATE A CREDIBLE THREAT?: With a surprising 11-4 start and 2-0 beginning in the Big Ten, Ohio State is one of three unbeaten teams in conference play in the Big Ten right now. Considering that head coach Chris Holtmann took the job in June, and had a limited number of scholarship players due to roster turnover, and this is a pretty solid accomplishment.
Can Ohio State keep this going? We know the Buckeyes are going to be a tough out on any given night. Being a tough out also doesn’t always equate to making the NCAA tournament. Ohio State is going to need to keep winning games if they want turn this surprising start into actual success. Thankfully for the Buckeyes, junior Keita Bates-Diop has developed into one of the league’s better players and veterans like C.J. Jackson and Jae’Sean Tate are also producing at a solid rate. Freshman big man Kaleb Wesson has been a pleasant surprise. With the league being so down, it wouldn’t be a shock if Ohio State continued to stay high in the standings but they have to prove they’re for real.
3. WILL WISCONSIN TURN IT AROUND?: In the past, we could always count on Wisconsin to make the NCAA tournament and to figure things out if they were off to a sluggish start. But after this season’s 8-7 start that saw the Badgers lose five of six games at one point, Wisconsin doesn’t look anywhere close to an NCAA tournament team.
Ethan Happ is still one of the league’s best players. Head coach Greg Gard hasn’t found a lot of consistent production around him. A young team that has struggled to compete against power-conference competition, Wisconsin needs to figure things out in a hurry if they want to make any kind of postseason.
For a program that hasn’t missed the NCAA tournament since 1998, this has been a difficult year for the Badgers. But you also have to keep in mind that Gard turned around a sluggish Wisconsin team that was 8-7 entering conference play in 2016. That team eventually went to the Sweet 16. Obviously, Wisconsin doesn’t have veterans from back-to-back Final Four teams to right the ship this time, but Gard has worked miracles before. Can Wisconsin pull another one this season?
1. MICHIGAN STATE MAKES THE FINAL FOUR (BUT FALLS SHORT OF THE TITLE): It’s been noted that the Big Ten hasn’t won a national title since Michigan State hoisted the trophy back in 2000. And with the way the Big Ten dominated the Bowl season in College Football the past few weeks -- with no team in the College Football Playoff to show for it -- the league is hungry to prove themselves on a national stage in a different sport.
In a year with no juggernaut teams, this is a huge chance for Michigan State to end the title drought. Miles Bridges is a major star. The team’s other best players, Nick Ward, Cassius Winston, Joshua Langford and Jaren Jackson Jr., are all underclassmen with room to grow. It’s scary to think that Michigan State could actually get better as the season goes on, but that is certainly possible. The Spartans might have the highest floor of any team in the country.
But the Spartans don’t have the highest ceiling. The Duke loss already showed us that. Other teams like Arizona have more go-to star power. It’ll be fascinating to see if Michigan State can make a title run, but the Big Ten isn’t going to prepare them as well as it would in most seasons.
2. NORTHWESTERN MISSES THE NCAA TOURNAMENT: Expectations were sky-high for Northwestern entering this season. Coming off of the first NCAA tournament run in school history and returning most of that roster will do that to you.
The Wildcats, unfortunately, haven’t lived up to the high billing.
Playing as the hunted has been far more difficult for Northwestern this season. Stumbling against most of the good teams on the non-conference schedule, the best win the school might have at the moment is a two-point road win at local rival DePaul. Northwestern hasn’t beaten any good teams yet. Now that senior point guard Bryant McIntosh is dealing with a knee injury, that’s something else to keep an eye on. Home-court advantage disappeared for Northwestern this season when the team had to move to AllState Arena as Welsh-Ryan Arena (rocking by the end of last season) undergoes renovations. Things just aren’t adding up for Northwestern right now. They have a lot of work to do to make it back to the Big Dance.
3. MICHIGAN EMERGES AS THE BIG TEN’S OTHER TEAM TO WATCH: It’s hard to get a feel for Michigan this season. Lately, the Wolverines have put together some solid wins against UCLA and Texas. There’s still also the lingering reminder that Michigan has blown second-half leads to teams like LSU and Ohio State.
So which Michigan are we going to see in conference play? Knowing what we know about head coach John Beilein, his teams tend to get better as the season rolls along. Last season’s Michigan team that peaked in March is proof of that. So I’m banking on Michigan to emerge as another team to watch in the Big Ten.
Charles Matthews has emerged into a solid two-way player for the Wolverines and vets like Mo Wagner, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson are also still capable scorers. The big key for Michigan is point guard play. Sophomore Zavier Simpson hasn’t been steady enough to take the job full time and graduate transfer Jaaron Simmons hasn’t lived up to the preseason expectations placed on him. If Michigan figures out point guard, they have intriguing weapons all over the floor.