Week one brought all of the craziness and outcomes that exemplify all of college basketball. The pre-conference season favorite and number one team in the country, Michigan State, lost by double digits in their first game, Purdue blew a 19 point lead on their home court and ended up losing by seven, and Dererk Pardon put together a 28 and 12 in his second college game ever for Northwestern.
These are exciting times, no doubt. But I urge all twelve of you that are reading this to just…slow……down. You can’t judge Michigan State if Denzel Valentine isn’t playing. Tom Izzo can tell you that Valentine being out has no affect on how hard his team plays (which was apparently not hard enough against Iowa), but he and everyone else knows the Spartans are a national championship contender with him and a bubble team without him. You also can’t dismiss Purdue because they blew a big lead and lost a game to Iowa in early January. And as excited as I was for Dererk Pardon and Northwestern with his performance against Nebraska, it doesn’t mean he’s all of a sudden a 20-10 guy and a force in the league.
We live in a Twitter society now that specializes in knee-jerk reactions to everything that’s happening in THAT moment, which is especially true with sports. After a week of conference play, certain teams have ZERO chance of making the Final Four and others are all of a sudden the best team in their conference.
As a refresher, let’s look back at some things that have happened in college basketball the past few years. Let’s start off by going all the way back to last year. Wisconsin went 16-2 in Big Ten play, won the league, won the conference tournament, and went to the national championship game. But you know what they did on January 11th? They lost to Rutgers. The same Rutgers who would go on to lose their next 15 games, ten of them by double digits. I know, I know, Frank Kaminsky didn’t play. Still, it was Rutgers. The Badgers went to the Final Four the year before, too, remember? Do you know what they did in January and the first day of February? They went 4-5 with losses that included Indiana, Minnesota, and Northwestern, none of whom would you find in the NCAA tournament bracket that year.
2015 Final Four-qualifier, Michigan State: lost to Texas Southern at home in December, a 13-18 Nebraska team in January, NIT-qualifier Illinois and nothing-qualifier Minnesota at home in February
2013 national runner-up, Michigan: lost to Penn State – who finished 2-16 in conference – on February 27
2012 Final Four-qualifier, Ohio State: lost to Illinois – who finished 6-12 in conference – in January
Let’s go national now…
2015 national champion, Duke: lost by 16 at home to NIT-qualifier, Miami, in January
2014 national champion, UConn: lost to nothing-qualifier Houston on December 31 and their final regular season by 33 (!!!) points
I could keep going, but I hope by now everyone can get the picture. Teams lose. Good teams lose. The best teams in the country lose to mediocre-at-best teams just a few weeks before they’re playing in the national championship game. I’m sorry, but I just can’t respect your opinion if you’re making iron-clad projections in early January based on a team playing a bad game or bad half. You’re just looking years and years of history in the face and ignoring it.
Rarely does it seem that the teams playing the best in January are the same teams playing the best in March. And part of this perception and projection issue is confirmation bias. People see what they thought they would see and not necessarily the total picture. The best example of all of this in the Big Ten is Purdue. Before the year, they were projected by most to go to the tournament and that’s about it. The biggest reason people looked at them as an afterthought is their guard play. Well, the Boilers had a really solid non-conference season, shot up the rankings (both people and computers), and now they were getting Final Four buzz. Then, they played Iowa this past Saturday.
It’s just a small smattering of tweets, but it exemplifies the difference in two halves that the Boilermakers had on Saturday night. But it’s always interesting to me that if a team plays two wildly different halves of basketball, we always base the opinion of said team on the second half. When in reality, the first half showed what Purdue is capable of when they make shots from the outside and the second half showed how poorly they can play if they don’t take care of the ball. What happens if they had just played an average second half? They probably still win the game by double digits. But they played their worst half of the season against a pretty good team and now, guys, this team is INCAPABLE of being successful two months from now. That just doesn’t make any sense to me.
The beauty of college basketball is that it’s full of 18-23 year olds who grow as basketball players on a week-to-week basis. Sure, Purdue stunk in the second half the other night and their guards didn’t handle pressure well, to put it mildly. But that doesn’t mean they can’t improve as the season moves forward. Will they suddenly turn in to one of the best backcourts in the nation by March? No, but they don’t have to be. They just have to be solid, which they weren’t against the Hawkeyes, but they have been the majority of the season. They need to defend, take care of the ball, and make open shots when they get them. That’s it. They’ve got one of the nation’s best frontcourts to carry most of the load. One bad half in January doesn’t change that.
I’m not telling you Purdue or anyone else is or isn’t a Final Four team right now. Because it’s January. And that’s the point.
Stars of the Past Week:
Mike Gesell, Iowa – 16 PPG, 5 RPG, 5 APG in wins over MSU and Purdue
Max Bielfeldt, Indiana – 18 points and 14 rebounds in win over Rutgers
Diamond Stone, Maryland – 39 points and 12 rebounds in win over Penn State
Dererk Pardon, Northwestern – 28 points and 12 rebounds in win over Nebraska
Marc Loving, Ohio State – averaged 23.5 points and 6.5 rebounds in wins over Minnesota and Illinois
Five Best Games to Watch This Week:
Wisconsin at Indiana – Tuesday, 7:00 pm EST, ESPN
Ohio State at Northwestern – Wednesday, 9:00 pm EST, BTN
Michigan at Purdue – Thursday, 7:00 pm EST, ESPNU
Maryland at Wisconsin – Saturday, TBD, ESPN
Ohio State at Indiana – Sunday, TBD, CBS
Tier 1: Contenders
1. Michigan State (Previous: 1; KenPom: 6; Sagarin: 4)
Yes, Michigan State lost – and rather easily, I might add – to Iowa in their conference opener. Long term, it doesn’t matter. As I mentioned above, the Spartans ceiling is totally different with Valentine. He’s coming back this week and they’re still the favorite to win the conference.
This week: Illinois at home and Penn State on the road
2. Iowa (Previous: 4; KenPom: 11; Sagarin: 14)
The Hawkeyes were the clear winner of week one. I’ve mentioned on a couple of occasions that I thought the difficulty of their schedule would keep them from truly contending for the Big Ten championship. They got a break with Michigan State and they proved what they’re made of by completing the comeback against Purdue. Those are two MASSIVE wins when it comes to contending for a championship and that’s why they’re at number two.
This week: Nebraska at home
3. Maryland (Previous: 3; KenPom: 15; Sagarin: 16)
The Terps tend to sleepwalk and it almost came back to bite them when they were trailing Penn State at home by 13 with under seven minutes to play. Diamond Stone and his 25 free throw attempts (19 makes) saved them from an embarrassing loss to start conference play. They responded well by taking it to Northwestern early on the road.
This week: Rutgers at home and Wisconsin on the road
4. Purdue (Previous: 2; KenPom: 7; Sagarin: 7)
As mentioned, the Boilermakers blew a huge lead to Iowa at home. They also ground out a win at Wisconsin earlier in the week. Key word: ground. That’s what Purdue is doing a lot of lately because their offense has gone on long stretches of little scoring in the past four games they’ve played. They’re great defensively, but they actually rate very poorly in getting steals. They stop people from scoring, but they’re not doing a good enough job of turning that defense into offense. That has to get better.
This week: Michigan at home and Illinois on the road
Tier 2: Tourney Locks
5. Michigan (Previous: 6; KenPom: 24; Sagarin: 24)
The Wolverines were impressive in a road win over Illinois and a home blowout over Penn State (without Caris LeVert), but that’s really nothing new for this team. They always look great against inferior opponents, but have wilted in every opportunity against quality competition. They’ve got a chance to change that narrative over the next couple of weeks. Duncan Robinson is still the man, by the way.
This week: Purdue on the road
6. Indiana (Previous: 5; KenPom: 25; Sagarin: 22)
The Hoosiers got a couple of road wins over Rutgers and Nebraska without James Blackmon. Indiana has such an easy schedule the first few weeks of conference play that I’m not sure we’ll learn much about them.
This week: Wisconsin and Ohio State at home
Tier 3: Bubble Teams
7. Ohio State (Previous: 8; KenPom: 53; Sagarin: 56)
The Buckeyes took care of business at home this week, beating Minnesota and Illinois. Things got dicey down the stretch against the Illini, but games like that are good for a young team, especially if they can win in the process. This is a fun team to watch grow and this week will be another battle for them.
This week: Northwestern and Indiana on the road
8. Northwestern (Previous: 7; KenPom: 51; Sagarin: 46)
Pardon was the story of the week for this team with his performance against Nebraska, but I think his 8 point, 6 rebound outing against Maryland was closer to what to expect from him the rest of the season. There’s no shame in losing to Maryland, but Northwestern has to get some quality wins if they want to finally end the NCAA Tournament drought. They can’t just feast on the bottom-dwellers of the league after playing such a weak non-con schedule.
This week: Ohio State at home and Minnesota on the road
Tier 4: Deep Bubble
9. Wisconsin (Previous: 9; KenPom: 59; Sagarin: 57)
The Badgers battled Purdue to the end before ultimately losing at home and they buried Rutgers. The bad news: they have a tough schedule in the next couple of weeks. The good news: if they play well and sneak out a couple of victories, they’ll be back in the NCAA Tournament conversation.
This week: Indiana on the road and Maryland at home
Tier 5: NIT/CBI Bubble
10. Illinois (Previous: 10; KenPom: 116; Sagarin: 98)
I’m afraid week one is what Illini fans will experience for much of the Big Ten season. Competing for 40 minutes, but losing games down the stretch. They miss Mike Thorne and Leron Black desperately and John Groce doesn’t seem optimistic either will be back anytime soon. They’ve got an opportunity to get a big confidence boost this weekend if they can pull out a win.
This week: at Michigan State and Purdue at home
Tier 6: They Stink
11. Penn State (Previous: 12; KenPom: 132; Sagarin: 120)
The Nittany Lions gave Maryland a run for their money, but in true Penn State basketball fashion they just couldn’t close the deal. They then proceeded to give up what felt like 40 three-pointers to Michigan in the first half this past weekend. That game was over quickly.
This week: Minnesota and Michigan State at home
12. Nebraska (Previous: 11; KenPom: 157; Sagarin: 123)
This team just can’t beat anybody of note if Andrew White, Shavon Shields, and someone from the Parker/Webster/Watson/McVeigh group don’t all have a big day. Long season for the Huskers.
This week: Iowa and Rutgers on the road
13. Minnesota (Previous: 13; KenPom: 161; Sagarin: 163)
They lost twice.
This week: Penn State on the road and Northwestern at home
Tier 7: They Only Got Blown Out Once This Week
14. Rutgers (Previous: 14; KenPom: 248; Sagarin: 225)
The Scarlet Knights actually played a decent game against Indiana (who didn’t have James Blackmon), but it was ultimately just the first of their many losses in conference play. If they don’t beat Nebraska on Saturday, it could be Goose Egg City in the win column for a while.
This week: Maryland on the road and Nebraska at home