I don’t have any special topic to hit this week. There’s not any specific lesson to be learned other than the continued proof of how difficult life can be on the road in conference play. Indiana was the big winner this week and Purdue was the clear loser. That may not seem like a big deal to most, but anyone who’s lived in the Hoosier state knows that just pushes the state one day closer to a civil war.
We do have a battle of the top two teams in the power rankings to look forward to this week. In addition, the great thing about any week in Big Ten play is that there’s multiple opportunities for teams fighting to build a tournament resume to knock off one of the conference’s elite teams. It seems every year one of those middle-tier teams makes a push in conference play and turns around their season. Last year it was Purdue and Iowa, the year before it was Nebraska, but we’ve yet to see who that will be this year. My best guess? Ohio State. Strange prediction for a team that just trailed by 30 points at halftime this past weekend. But I’m just advising everyone to buy stock low now while you can.
Stars of the Past Week:
Mike Gesell, Iowa – 22 points and 10 assists in win over Nebraska
Thomas Bryant, Indiana – averaged 14 points and 10 rebounds in wins over Wisconsin and Ohio State
Melo Trimble, Maryland – 21 ponts and game-winning three-pointer in win over Wisconsin
Bryn Forbes, Michigan State – averaged 17.5 points in wins over Illinois and Penn State
Kendrick Nunn, Illinois – 30 points and 8 rebounds in win over Purdue
Five Best Games to Watch This Week:
Maryland at Michigan – Tuesday, 9:00 pm EST, ESPN
Iowa at Michigan State – Thursday, 7:00 pm EST, ESPN
Ohio State at Maryland – Saturday, 12:00 pm EST, ESPN2
Michigan State at Wisconsin – Sunday, 1:30 pm EST, CBS
Michigan at Iowa – Sunday, 4:30 pm EST, BTN
Tier 1: Contenders
1. Michigan State (Previous: 1; KenPom 4; Sagarin 3)
The Spartans destroyed Illinois at home and Penn State on the road by a combined 52 points. Even better, Denzel Valentine returned to the lineup against the Nittany Lions. You could tell he was still getting into the swing of things. When the injury initially happened, I mentioned that Valentine being out could allow for a guy like Eron Harris to play more minutes and get more comfortable. Mission accomplished. Harris averaged 17.8 points per game in the four games Valentine sat out.
I’ll be interested to see how Tom Izzo handles his guard rotation as the season moves forward. Obviously, Valentine will be on the floor the majority of the time, as will Bryn Forbes. The Spartans essentially play three guards and Izzo has Harris, Tum Tum Nairn, Matt McQuaid, Alvin Ellis, and Javon Bess to work with in addition to the two stars. Nairn has been averaging 24 mpg and Harris has been averaging the same over the past five games. Bess is falling further and further out of the picture and Ellis is only averaging 7 mpg on the year. McQuaid has gotten double digit minutes in every game this year, except for the last one when he had nine, and had a season high on Jan. 2 against Minnesota with 30.
The guess here is that the rotation will fluctuate on a game-to-game basis. Harris has shown his presence at that third guard spot gives the Spartans the most dangerous offensive lineup. Nairn is more solid defensively and he does a good job of taking care of the ball, but he’s almost a non-factor offensively. Teams can sag off of him due to his inability to shoot from outside and I can see that being a real issue when they reach the postseason. McQuaid has a reputation as a shooter – and defenses have to defend him as such – but he’s actually only shot one three for every nine minutes that he’s played this year. He can change a game in a hurry, though, and look no further than MSU’s game with #1 Kansas earlier this year when he made all three of his three-pointers in the second half.
Anyway, the Spartans are the best team in the conference and I think they’ll win the league by two games, honestly. The reason I think the guard rotation is such an interesting conversation is that this team will go as far as their guards take them and this team can win a national championship. Izzo certainly doesn’t need me to tell him that figuring out the right lineups given the game situation could be the difference between winning and losing in March.
This week: Iowa at home and Wisconsin on the road
2. Iowa (Previous: 2; KenPom 12; Sagarin 14)
There’s not much new to report on the Hawkeyes. They got off to a slow start at home to an inferior Nebraska team, but responded like the veteran team they are and took a ten point deficit five minutes into the game and turned it into a nine point halftime lead. Jarrod Uthoff is deservedly the star of the show, but I want to take the opportunity to give a little praise to Mike Gesell. Uthoff is the leader in terms of production, but Gesell is the unquestioned leader of this team and he does it well. He’s not the most talented point guard in the league, but he’s the best leader at a position that requires such a trait. And that’s not to say he doesn’t have talent. He essentially averages a 10-3.5-7 and he’s shooting 50% from deep. It’s unlikely Gesell wins any postseason awards or makes any all-conference teams, but he’s a guy every Iowa fan should appreciate now and for years to come.
This week: at Michigan State and home for Michigan
3. Maryland (Previous: 3; KenPom 14; Sagarin 15)
The story of the week for the Terps was obviously Melo Trimble knocking down a ridiculous game-winning three to beat Wisconsin on the road. The shot was awesome, but the problem was that it covered up what could have been an ugly loss. Maryland was up eight with a minute and a half to go before watching the lead quickly, completely evaporate to an offensively-challenged team. They couldn’t get stops when they needed it most. I think that’s something to keep an eye on with this team that, despite their high ranking in the polls, hasn’t really performed at that level most of the year. This week will give the Terps two more opportunities to prove their ranking.
This week: Michigan on the road and Ohio State at home
4. Indiana (Previous: 6; KenPom 22; Sagarin 17)
The Hoosiers looked as good as they have all year with their big win over Ohio State this weekend and early returns have shown them to be a better team without James Blackmon, who’s lost for the year due to injury. It wouldn’t surprise me if they continued to be better defensively because Blackmon often times couldn’t seem to be bothered to put much effort into that side of the floor.
I would advise a little bit of a pause with this team, though. It’s an exciting 4-0 start for this team, but realize that their wins are at home over two teams that currently wouldn’t be in the tournament and on the road against two of the worst teams in the league. It’s easy to forget with the weekend’s blowout that they had to absolutely grind out their win against Wisconsin in Assembly Hall.
Well, if we’re supposed to pause, aren’t you a hypocrite for moving them up in to the contenders category? Kind of, but they are going to keep racking up wins with their soft schedule.
Tier 2: Tourney Locks
5. Purdue (Previous: 4; KenPom 13; Sagarin 12)
Good Purdue: they practically didn’t miss a shot in the second half against Michigan on their way to winning by 17.
Bad Purdue: They gave up 52 combined points between Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn on their way to losing by 14 at Illinois.
So, what’s the issue with the Boilers? For one, I think Illinois exposed the best way to take advantage of Purdue’s (formerly) number one defense in the country. The Illini spread them out on pick-and-pops and the sort on their way to shooting 54% on the game, including 52% from deep.
Purdue is never going to be a consistently elite offensive team. They had a great half against Michigan, but their outside shooters don’t knock them down on an every-game basis. Purdue’s offense is predicated around getting the ball inside on every possession possible and that doesn’t really fit with the three-point happy offenses of today’s game. If the Boilers ever get down double digits it feels bigger than usual because it’s difficult for them to knock down a string of three-pointers to quickly get back in the game.
Long-term this may just be a lull in the season for this group and they’ve got a couple of should-be gimme wins coming up to get them back on track. For reference, this is Matt Painter’s second best team to their 2009-10 group that won the league despite Robbie Hummel tearing his ACL in late February. That team started 14-0 with wins over Elite Eight-qualifier Tennessee and Final Four-qualifier West Virginia. They then proceeded to lose to Wisconsin, blow a 12-point halftime lead at home to Ohio State, and then lost to Northwestern. They were sitting at 2-3 in the conference and the panic was setting in. They then rattled off ten straight before the Hummel injury and had some huge wins in the process. The point is, you don’t have to look far for an example of a Purdue team going on a rough stretch before turning it around and going on a big run.
Until that run happens, though, Purdue will find itself on the outside of the contender group. And for their fanbase’s sanity, let’s hope the run happens and the star player getting injured gets left out of this season’s story.
This week: Penn State at home
6. Michigan (Previous: 5; KenPom 31; Sagarin 21)
The Wolverines got blitzed by the Boilers in the second half, but it was without Caris LeVert. They need him to come back soon, but if Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman keeps putting up 25 points the Wolverines could have a similar situation that MSU had with the development of Eron Harris.
This week: Maryland at home and Iowa on the road
Tier 3: Bubble Teams
7. Ohio State (Previous: 7; KenPom 61; Sagarin 59)
The Buckeyes looked like a young, immature team this week. They picked up an impressive win over Northwestern on the road, but followed it up by getting dump trucked by Indiana. It was an embarrassing loss and an even more embarrassing effort. But ultimately I think it’s one of those teaching moments for a young squad. To their credit, they gave a better effort in the second half when their fate was already sealed, but that’s not saying much. They have an opportunity to regain focus with Rutgers coming to their place this week and they’ll need it if they’re going to have any chance to upset Maryland over the weekend.
This week: Rutgers at home and Maryland on the road.
8. Northwestern (Previous: 8; KenPom 46; Sagarin 47)
Operation: Make the Tournament had a hitch in the road with that loss at home to the Buckeyes, but it ultimately won’t damage their resume. The Wildcats responded well by blowing out Minnesota at The Barn. Freshman Aaron Falzon busted loose for a 20-piece on the Gophers by hitting six threes. Tuesday will be very important for Northwestern when they host Wisconsin.
This week: Wisconsin and Penn State at home
Tier 4: NIT/CBI Bubble
9. Wisconsin (Previous: 9; KenPom 63; Sagarin 58)
I keep waiting for the Badgers to turn the corner, but they just can’t seem to do it. The Maryland game was a big opportunity, but Melo Trimble happened to them. The good news is that they have two more chances this week to swing things in the right direction.
This week: Northwestern on the road and Michigan State at home
10. Illinois (Previous: 10; KenPom 97; Sagarin 93)
The Illini have probably played the toughest schedule in the first two weeks and they registered their first win in an impressive fashion over Purdue. No surprise it was on the backs of Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn. Just imagine if they had some quality big guys. They’ll most likely move up past Wisconsin in the near future.
Special congratulations to Kendrick Nunn, who missed the Michigan State game due to the birth of his son.
This week: Nebraska at home
Tier 5: They Stink
11. Nebraska (Previous: 12; KenPom 112; Sagarin 98)
The Huskers have really settled into the role of competing, but losing to any decent team in the conference while they take care of the cellar dwellers. Not sure how long tweeting at halftime can hold off the evidence that you’re doing a poor job, Tim Miles.
This week: Minnesota at home and Illinois on the road
12. Penn State (Previous: 11; KenPom 151; Sagarin 138)
The Nittany Lions puffed out their chest and proved why they’re better than Minnesota, but they also got blitzed by Michigan State. I’ve watched Penn State games for years and it kills me every time to watch the head man coach his heart out, only to fall short at nearly every turn. Pat Chambers worked his way up Villanova’s staff, took the Boston U job, made the tournament, and then decided to parlay all that success into a gig that the previous guy left to go be Navy’s head coach RIGHT AFTER TAKING PENN STATE TO THE TOURNAMENT FOR THE FIRST TIME IN A DECADE. And everyone seems to think he left because that team made the tournament despite the fact they didn’t have access to their own arena or practice facility for a week because the school was preparing for a freaking Bon Jovi concert. I want Pat Chambers to succeed because he seems like such a quality guy, but I don’t want the athletic administration at Penn State to succeed under any circumstances. It’s a constant internal battle.
This week: Purdue and Northwestern on the road
13. Minnesota (Previous: 13; KenPom 185; Sagarin 177)
Minnesota isn’t as bad as Rutgers, but they are so close to forcing me to make a new category just for them because it’s insulting to Penn State and Nebraska to be associated with them. I said this at the time, but I hope Minnesota’s administration really is starting to understand how poor of a decision they made getting rid of Tubby Smith. Tubby is busy competing with the elite teams in the Big 12. Meanwhile, they hired Richard Pitino – who is quickly running the program into the ground – because he had one mediocre season at FIU and his dad is a HOF coach. Yeah, Pitino’s season at FIU was a large improvement over his predecessor, but his predecessor was also Isiah Thomas – who destroys everything he touches.
This week: Nebraska on the road and Indiana at home
Tier 6: Rutgers Got Blown Out At Home By Nebraska
14. Rutgers (Previous: 14; KenPom 278; Sagarin 253)
BY 34!!!! Losing by 25 to a conference foe shouldn’t be your best performance of the week. Eddie Jordan is 2-20 in Big Ten play so far.
This week: Ohio State on the road