I couldn’t be more excited for opening week of Big Ten play. There are three teams that have a legitimate shot to win the league and two more with an outside chance. In an ideal world, there could be up to nine teams from the league that will make the bracket on Selection Sunday. Is it likely? No, and it’s probably more likely that the number is six. But it is possible and the great thing about this time of year is the intrigue of all the competition that’s about to take place over the next two and a half months. Hell, even Bryant McIntosh and his Northwestern team is projected to get an at-large bid at the moment.
The most exciting news? The power rankings are back! On top of that, they’ll be here every week from now on. I’m not sure the tiers will be formatted the same every week for variety’s sake and the fact that a team might become a contender, but it’ll likely be more based on their schedule and less to do with how good they are (looking at you, Indiana). We’ll see. Let’s start with our top players of the past week and the top games of opening week.
Stars of the Past Week:
A.J. Hammons, Purdue – 21 points, 10 rebounds, 7 blocks in win over Vandy
Kendrick Nunn, Illinois – 19 points, 10 rebounds, 4 steals in win over Mizzou
Bryant McIntosh, Northwestern – 33 points and 8 assists in win over Loyola (MD)
Bryn Forbes, Michigan State – 32 points in OT win over Oakland
Keita Bates-Diop, Ohio State – averaged 18 points and 9 rebounds in two wins
Five Best Games to Watch This Week:
Michigan State at Iowa – Tuesday, 9:00 pm EST, BTN
Purdue at Wisconsin – Tuesday, 7:00 pm EST, BTN
Iowa at Purdue – Saturday, 6:00 pm EST, BTN
Maryland at Northwestern – Saturday, 8:00 pm EST, BTN
Illinois at Ohio State – Sunday, 5:00 pm EST, BTN
Tier 1: Contenders
1. Michigan State (Previous: 1; KenPom: 5; Sagarin: 1)
The Spartans are a tough case to handle at this point and going forward with Denzel Valentine being injured. They struggled to take care of Oakland, who’s a good team, but they travel to take on Iowa on Tuesday and that will be an even tougher game. If they lose, I’m not sure you can drop them too far in the power rankings because it would be without their best player. If they win every game without him, it will make things so much easier.
The interesting thing about Valentine’s injury is that it ultimately may make MSU a better team in the long run. Bryn Forbes and Eron Harris stepped up big time in that Oakland win, with 32 and 27 points, respectively. Harris has been the guy everyone has been waiting on and if he gets more comfortable in the system with these extra minutes and shots over these next couple of weeks, it could make the Spartans a stronger team in the long run.
This week: Iowa and Minnesota on the road
2. Purdue (Previous: 2; KenPom: 4; Sagarin: 6)
The good news for Purdue: A.J. Hammons and Caleb Swanigan have really started to come on for the Boilermakers. The bad news: their shooters have continued to shoot, but have not continued to make. Purdue is still the best team in the country defensively, but in their games against Butler and Vanderbilt, they went on some long stretches where they struggled to score. Their offense rates out as the sixth best in the league right now and anyone that has a zone will run as much of it as possible against them, forcing them to take perimeter shots and keeping the ball out of Hammons, Swanigan and Isaac Haas’s hands.
This week: at Wisconsin and home against Iowa
3. Maryland (Previous: 3; KenPom: 15; Sagarin: 14)
It’s been about three weeks since the Terps have played anybody of note, so there hasn’t been much to report on with this team. Heading in to the year, Maryland was the favorite to win the conference. Why are they third now? The biggest reason is just the lack of competition that they’ve played. They’ve only played one team in the top 25 of ratings and only two in the top 50. Meanwhile, MSU has played three in the top 25 and Purdue has played four. Maryland’s only top 25 game was on the road against UNC and they competed well in a close loss.
This team still has five guys averaging double digits and they’re still a very real threat to win the league. However, I think going in to the year the Terps struck a lot of fear in opposing fans, but they haven’t shown to be absolute world beaters.
This week: home against Penn State and at Northwestern
Tier 2: Tourney Locks
4. Iowa (Previous: 4; KenPom: 17; Sagarin: 21)
The Hawkeyes played the most competition of anybody in the league during non-conference play and went 2-3 against top 50 teams. They’ve clearly got one great player in Uthoff and a deep, experienced supporting cast of solid players. I don’t think they have enough overall talent to win the league, but they’ll still win a lot of games.
The other thing working against them is their schedule, having to play Michigan State, Purdue, Michigan, and Indiana twice. Fortunately for them, they get a break with Valentine being out on opening night.
This week: Michigan State at home and Purdue on the road
5. Indiana (Previous: 7; KenPom: 24; Sagarin: 20)
The Hoosiers played a rather soft schedule in non-conference and as I’ve mentioned before, that continues into conference play. They only play every team in the Contender category once. That may move them up in to that same category later on in the season, but I just don’t think this team is good enough defensively to win a championship.
Last year, they had a similar non-conference season going 10-3, but that was actually against stiffer competition. They ended up going 9-9 in Big Ten play and flamed out in the first round of the NCAA Tournament against Wichita State. There can’t be another 9-9 conference season this you for IU, because with this schedule it might be cause for a real nervous Selection Sunday.
This week: Rutgers and Nebraska on the road
Tier 3: Bubble Teams
6. Michigan (Previous: 5; KenPom: 34; Sagarin: 35)
Michigan is Indiana-lite. They’re a guard-dominated team that can be explosive offensively, they shoot a lot of threes, and they struggle to defend. The Hoosiers shoot a better percentage from distance, but Michigan is more dependent, ranking eighth in the country with 41.5% of their points coming from the three-point shot. They play a pretty slow pace and don’t get a lot of offensive rebounds, so it really puts a lot of pressure on them to shoot well.
Good thing for them is that they have four guys in their rotation 40% or better from the outside. But all of that outside shooting doesn’t lead to a lot of free throw shots and that can be a problem when they get into a classic, messy Big Ten game. Caris LeVert is the only Wolverine who’s attempted over 25 free throws. Michigan is without a real signature victory through the first couple of months and they might need one if they want to go dancing.
This week: at Illinois and home against Penn State
7. Northwestern (Previous: 8; KenPom: 48; Sagarin: 42)
It’s gotta be brutal being a Wildcat fan. They just can’t catch a break, man. After losing Vic Law for the year with a torn labrum right before the season started, Alex Olah is now out indefinitely with a foot injury just as conference play is about to start.
The positive news is that Olah has a quality backup in Joey van Zegeren, a graduate transfer from Virginia Tech that was averaging 9.8 PPG and 5.3 RPG last year before getting kicked off the team. But it’s also forcing Chris Collins to take the redshirt off of Dererk Pardon, who hadn’t gotten any experience before their last game.
The Cats are still 12-1 and, yes, they played a soft schedule, but their only loss was a fairly close one to UNC and they got two road wins at Virginia Tech and DePaul. You can tell from their ratings listed (they also are 42nd in ESPN’s BPI) that they were having a legitimate NCAA Tournament season. The Olah injury isn’t going to be a good thing, but let’s say he only misses three more weeks. Northwestern would still likely be favored in five of their six games over that time. Their NCAA dreams aren’t dead yet and the fact they only play Purdue, Michigan State, Indiana, and Michigan once works in their favor as well. THIS COULD STILL BE THE YEAR.
This week: at Nebraska and home against Maryland
Tier 4: NIT
8. Ohio State (Previous: 11; KenPom: 52; Sagarin: 60)
Everyone will obviously point out Ohio State’s win over Kentucky as their biggest of the year so far, but I was almost equally impressed by following that win up three days later with a 20-point win over Mercer. It was a mature showing from a young group. I put Ohio State in the NIT group, as opposed to the Bubble group, simply because they’re 8-5. However, even though UT-Arlington and Louisiana Tech seem like bad losses because of their names, both of those teams are likely to end up in the top 100 at the end of the year.
If the Buckeyes can manage ten wins in conference play and win a game or two in the conference tournament, they’ll be right in the mix on Selection Sunday. If OSU is going to pull that off, they’re gonna have to clean up their turnovers and shoot better from the free throw line. There’s no reason for JaQuan Lyle shooting 57.9% and Jae’Sean Tate shooting 50.0% from the line. They have to be better if they want to be a factor in March.
This week: Minnesota and Illinois at home
9. Wisconsin (Previous: 9; KenPom: 56; Sagarin: 56)
In their first game without Bo Ryan as head coach the Badgers jumped out to a 30-point lead in the second half over Green Bay, only to watch it almost completely slip away, winning by five.
A couple of weeks ago, I spoke at length about Wisconsin needing Nigel Hayes to be more efficient offensively. Against Green Bay, Hayes was 7-8 from the field and 9-9 from the free throw line. That’ll do. Ethan Happ led the team in field goal attempts and I think that’s a good sign for this team. Happ needs to get more shots to take some of the burden off of Hayes and Koenig.
With that said, Vitto Brown also got the same amount of attempts and that is NOT a great thing. When Wisconsin struggles in a game, you can pretty much be sure that Brown took a lot of shots and he made less than half of them. I’m not totally sure what to expect from the Badgers as conference play starts, but every sign points to them struggling against a tough schedule.
This week: Purdue and Rutgers at home
Tier 5: CBI
10. Illinois (Previous: 12; KenPom: 113; Sagarin: 85)
As I said last week, I’m a big fan of Malcolm Hill and I hope he gets the attention he deserves this year on a team not likely to get much attention in the national spotlight. This week, I need to give a shout out to Kendrick Nunn. After missing the first five games of the year, he’s averaging 18.5 PPG and 5.3 RPG. He put up 19 and 11 in the Illini’s rivalry showdown with Missouri. Yeah, Missouri is a terrible team on the boards, but 11 rebounds for a 6-3 guard is impressive. The Illini will compete all season because Hill and Nunn are as good as any 1-2 combo in the league, but unfortunately it likely won’t be enough with their injury-ravaged supporting cast.
This week: Michigan at home and Ohio State on the road
11. Nebraska (Previous: 6; KenPom: 135; Sagarin: 113)
I said it last week, I’ll say it again: White and Shields are really good players, but they don’t have enough around them to really make any noise. This program showed so much promise a couple of years ago when they finished Big Ten play on an 8-1 streak in the last nine games. Last year they were sitting at 13-9, 5-5 in the conference, before losing their last nine games.
It feels like all momentum has been drained from the program. After the year Walter Pitchford decided playing a month in the D-League was a better option than finishing his college career and Tarin Smith, a promising young player, decided to transfer. Glynn Watson and Ed Morrow were big gets in recruiting, but they’ve shown this year that they’re not quite ready to be big-time contributors in this league.
Tim Miles taking Nebraska to their first NCAA bid in 16 years is enough to buy him at least a couple of more years, but right now his team is just treading water at best.
This week: Northwestern and Indiana at home
Tier 6: They Stink
12. Penn State (Previous: 13; KenPom: 131; Sagarin: 96)
I was thinking maybe Penn State had a good non-conference season for their standards and that it might be a sign of improvement. They went 9-4 and they fared pretty well against the better teams on their schedule. I checked back to last year and they went 12-1(!!!) They went 4-14 in conference play. Guess not.
This week: at Maryland and Michigan
13. Minnesota (Previous: 10; KenPom: 149; Sagarin: 165)
The Gophers capped off non-conference play with a nice home loss to Milwaukee. They will not be involved in any must-watch games this year.
This week: at Ohio State and home against Michigan State
Tier 7: Seriously, Why Is Rutgers In The League?
14. Rutgers (Previous: 14; KenPom: 250; Sagarin: 233)
Youngstown State has a 22-point loss to Toledo, a 29-point loss to Purdue, and a 49-point loss to Michigan…and they rank one spot higher than Rutgers in KenPom’s rankings.
This week: they’ll lose at home against Indiana and at Wisconsin