I’m throwing in the towel. I have no idea how to possibly rank these teams this year and it’s for a good reason. Nearly all of them are good!
If I were to put together rankings – based on results, eye test, or a combination of both – anyone could easily poke holes in the order because at this point so much is uncertain and we have so much more to learn. A simple game using the transitive property leaves any set of rankings open to get bludgeoned.
In recent years, there’s been fairly clear tiers to the conference. There’s usually four of five tiers and the top tier has three or four teams, and a lot of times, the winner of the conference is just the one team in that top tier who plays the easiest schedule.
This year? Best of luck finding the tiers. 12 of the 14 teams are legitimately good and would either be in the NCAA Tournament today or would be one of the first few cut.
So I’m waving the white flag. I don’t really have a rankings. I’ll just let KenPom do it for me and I’ll provide the commentary.
Nothing better to show off the craziness of the league than pointing out KP ranks OSU second in the league (eighth in the country) and the Buckeyes are currently 1-4 in Big Ten play, tied for dead last. Also, all five teams who were ranked going into the weekend lost.
I know I used to have a segment in here about the five best games to watch this week. At times it was pretty difficult to find five games worthy of your time. Now? Just watch all of the games.
1. Michigan State (KP: 5)
It looked like the Spartans may have been separating themselves from the pack a bit, as they were on a three-game winning streak, winning each game by at least 16.
But it may have been a bit of fool’s gold. Home court advantage has never been more apparent in the league and MSU had played four of their first five at home, with the lone road game being a fairly tight game at last place Northwestern.
MSU is probably still the best team in the league, but Sunday showed that they’re not just going to waltz their way to another conference title. They’ve got eight more road games to go.
Tom Izzo teams have always been elite at getting out in transition, even after made buckets by an opponent. This team has done that more than ever, playing at the fastest pace by far of any Izzo team.
It’s worked well. They entered the game at Purdue as the most efficient offense in the country. But Sunday’s game showed what can happen if they aren’t able to get in transition and are forced to play in the half court. Purdue turned it over just six times and only a few were of the live-ball variety. It resulted in just four fast break points for the Spartans and a total of 42, 20 points below their previous season low.
This week: home for Wisconsin
2. Ohio State (KP: 8)
The Buckeyes might be the toughest team to pin down this year. The analytics love them and so did everybody else up until about two weeks ago.
The defense has been pretty great wherever they go, but offensively they’ve hit a slump. They’ve shown enough this year to make you think they can get out of it, but four straight games of poor outings does make you start to wonder.
For 12 games, they shot 41% from three and they were shooting a lot of them. The last four? Just 29% from distance. Turnovers have always been a bit of an issue, but that’s only amplified recently. Maybe the most telling statistic is that OSU is shooting just 37.6% from two-point range in these four straight losses. Obviously it’s just four games, but for context, the worst season-long two-point percentage in the country is 39.1%. Shout out to Alcorn State.
Working in OSU’s favor is that they’re about to hit probably the softest part of their conference schedule. Nothing is easy this year in the Big Ten, but the Buckeyes need to get right in these next five games.
This week: home for Nebraska, at Penn State
3. Maryland (KP: 12)
The Terps have clearly solidified themselves as a great team in College Park, but the book is still out on them away from the Xfinity Center. They’re 0-3 in true road games, looking listless at Iowa, after trailing at Penn State nearly the whole way and losing at Seton Hall without the Pirates’ best two players earlier in the year.
A big part of that is Anthony Cowan really struggling to be efficient on the road the past couple of years. If that doesn’t change, it’s unlikely for the Terps to get a Top 2 or 3 seed in the tournament. But we’ve seen him do it before when he was an underclassmen.
Probably the bigger question is whether Eric Ayala and Aaron Wiggins can emerge from their shooting slumps and get closer to last year’s numbers when they were freshmen. The two of them shot a combined 41% from three-point range last year – at a high clip – and are now shooting just 27%. Those guys are essentially shooting 1.4 more threes per game and making 14 percent less. Not ideal for efficiency.
This week: at Wisconsin and home for Purdue
4. Purdue (KP: 17)
What a difference a week makes. Last Sunday, Purdue lost 63-37 to Illinois. The 37 points were the lowest total in 71 years for a Purdue team. Cut to a week later and Purdue wins 71-42 over Michigan State.
It goes without saying that the Boilers are neither as bad as they looked at Illinois or as good as they looked at home against MSU. The discrepancy between the two does loudly illustrate how different they can be depending on where they’re playing.
But it’s worth noting that Purdue did play a pretty good game start-to-finish at Michigan and probably should’ve won if they make just one more play in multiple key situations. But the asterisk on that one is that the Boilers got 36 points and 20 rebounds from Trevion Williams, which is not exactly something you can count on every night. The jury is still out on Road Purdue.
This will never be a great offensive team, but if the Boilers just start to get something from their role players on the road like they did against MSU, they can be a good one.
This week: at Maryland
5. Iowa (KP: 19)
Quite an interesting week for the Hawkeyes. It started with a dreadful outside shooting performance at Nebraska, which resulted in a loss against the Jervay Green-less Huskers. Iowa had incredible success inside, but still opted to shoot 33 three-pointers and only managed to make four (12%). It was the most efficient game from two-point range all season, yet they also set a new high for three-point attempts at the same time. Not ideal.
But the bounceback game in the form of a 67-49 win at home against Maryland was an impressive response. And they did it with defense. The Hawkeyes only shot 38% from the floor and had 18 turnovers, but they were responsible for the Terps worst offensive performance of the year. Add in the 44-32 advantage Iowa enjoyed on the glass and it was a rather gritty win, the type of win that there hasn’t been enough of in recent years in Iowa City.
This week: at Northwestern, home for Michigan
6. Michigan (KP: 21)
It’s hard to evaluate Michigan based on their recent results because they’re missing what might be the most important part of their offense in Isaiah Livers, who has taken nearly five three-pointers a game and hit half of them. Zavier Simpson makes the whole offense go, but Livers brings a different element.
It’s too early still to make judgments on Juwan Howard, but the Wolverines are clearly different than years past. Luke Yaklich’s presence helped make UM an elite defensive team after years of lackluster defense. The D has reverted back to its old ways without Yaklich and John Beilein, but there is a brisker pace in Ann Arbor under Howard and the offense has a ton of upside if they get back to full strength.
Their November isn’t what we thought it was when it was happening, but this is still a really good team that needs to get healthy. They’ve got upperclassmen leadership and underclassmen with a lot of skill.
This week: at Iowa
7. Wisconsin (KP: 22)
Around Thanksgiving time, the Badgers were horrible. They lost neutral-site games against Richmond and New Mexico, two teams unlikely to compete in their mid-major conferences. They also got blown out by NC State, who will likely miss the tournament.
That seems like a really long time ago now because Wisconsin has been great the past couple of weeks. They let a late lead slip away against Illinois, but they’re responsible for two of the five road wins in league play this year. They also added in a blowout at Tennessee. They’ve moved up 30 spots in KP’s rankings the last five games.
The shift has largely came defensively. This is never going to be a great offensive team and they already had a good defense, but they’ve been playing at an elite level the past couple of weeks.
Another factor is obviously the presence of Micah Potter, who was forced to sit out the first semester. Potter played his most minutes of the season (28) on Saturday at Penn State and here’s guessing he sees even more minutes soon. Potter thanked Greg Gard fot the additional PT by scoring 24 points and grabbing 13 rebounds.
This week: home for Maryland, at Michigan State
8. Illinois (KP: 29)
Somewhat under the radar, but the Illini picked up one of the biggest wins of the week when they snuck out a victory up in Madison. Illinois is not a good shooting team consistently, but they had an efficient night at Wisconsin and took care of the ball again, which is a big area of improvement recently.
It’s hard to overstate the impact Kofi Cockburn has had on this team as just a freshman. He’s helped them become an elite offensive rebounding team and kicked up both the interior offense and defense. His presence as a rim protector has helped them at all levels. Every guard on the team is fouling less this year and now opponents are shooting way less free throws per game than they were the past couple years. The guards aren’t gambling as much now for steals because they don’t have to. Credit to Brad Underwood for adapting his philosophy.
Shooting is holding them back from going up another level, but that can change. Both Ayo Dosunmu and Trent Frazier have been reliable threats in the past couple of years. If those two get going from outside, this is a really dangerous team.
This week: home vs. Northwestern
9. Rutgers (KP: 32)
I don’t know the entire history of Rutgers basketball, but this is by far the best team I’ve ever seen from the program. They’re legitimately good and I’m not even sure they’ve hit their peak yet. It physically pains me to think about how good they could’ve been if Eugene Omoruyi stuck around.
Rutgers has really struggled to shoot the ball (are you picking up this is a common thread in Big Ten basketball?), but best of luck trying to score on them in the half court, especially at the RAC. Myles Johnson has turned into a pretty damn good anchor to the back of the defense and is doing a much better job this year of staying out of foul trouble. It doesn’t hurt that he’s shooting 71% at the other end.
Keep in mind that since Big Ten play started up again, Geo Baker’s been out and they’re still playing this well. Ron Harper Jr. was really starting to figure things out at the end of last season and that’s carried over into this season.
And with Baker out, Texas transfer Jacob Young has really started to turn it on. Caleb McConnell has shown more than a handful of times that he can make a big impact on a game and Akwasi Yeboah has been a steady contributor as a grad transfer.
Rutgers has had one or two stars over the past few years, but not big enough of stars to make them truly competitive in the league. Steve Pikiell now has one of the deeper rotations in the league and it’s really starting to show up in the win column.
This week: home for Indiana and Minnesota
10. Indiana (KP: 33)
The Hoosiers narrowly avoided a bad loss against a shorthanded Northwestern team during the week, but responded nicely by putting away Ohio State late in the second half on Saturday and picked up a quality win in the process.
I feel like we still have a lot to learn about IU because they’ve spent so much time at home so far this season. The good news is we get to find out because the schedule the rest of the way is pretty unrelenting.
I do know that they’re one of the best rebounding teams in the league and their best form of offense so far is shooting a shitload of free throws. I also know that Trayce Jackson-Davis is one of the youngest guys on the team and is the most consistent, steadiest guy on the team and might have the most mature game.
On the negative side, we also know that the Hoosiers don’t shoot it very well and given that most of the data is from home games, it’s not likely to improve with more than half of their remaining games due to come away from Assembly Hall.
This week: at Rutgers and Nebraska
11. Penn State (KP: 36)
Tough week for the Nittany Lions. They got off to a good start at Rutgers, but couldn’t manage enough offense and missed out on a golden opportunity to pick up a road win when the Scarlet Knights were without Geo Baker.
The shooting woes continued against Wisconsin and they trailed at home for the entire game.
This feels like an important time for Penn State. The fans who actually care about the basketball team have been dying to get back to the tournament for the first time in nearly a decade. They put themselves in a great position with a 12-2 start and multiple quality wins and they avoided bad losses, although the Ole Miss loss is trending that way.
They just lost a couple of games that were winnable/they should’ve won. Now they have to go to the Barn and play an OSU team at home that’s desperate to get back on a winning streak. They can’t let things spiral.
This week: at Minnesota, home for Nebraska
12. Minnesota (KP: 38)
The Gophers might be just as good as about anybody in this league, but they’ve probably got the toughest road in order to reaching the NCAA Tournament. The reason: they didn’t start this good and did themselves no favors in the non-conference.
The good news of course is that they will have ample opportunities to rack up some quality wins that they didn’t get in November and December. Also good news: they just got another big win on Sunday.
The early season struggles were fairly predictable after losing Amir Coffey, Jordan Murphy, Dupree McBrayer, and Isaiah Washington from last year’s team and losing Eric Curry to injury.
But things have flipped for this team and it’s for two big reasons: Marcus Carr and Daniel Oturu are awesome. Oturu’s the more consistent of the two, but he’s got the ability to dominate the inside of any game and Carr can take over from the perimeter.
If they can get Gabe Kalscheur and Payton Willis heated back up again, they’ll be able to beat just about anyone.
This week: home for Penn State, at Rutgers
13. Northwestern (KP: 104)
Well, Northwestern got a win, but it was against the only team below them and it was at home, which doesn’t get you very far. They need to get Boo Buie back and they need him to be as good offensively as he was right before he got injured.
This week: home for Iowa, at Illinois
14. Nebraska (KP: 131)
Nebraska continues on the path of “occasionally great, otherwise shit” that they’ve been on for a while now. The inconsistency makes sense when you consider they only have one guy back from last year and he was a role player.
They have enough talent to be better than they are, but they fail to do some simple aspects of the game like “rebound” and “make free throws.”
Jokes aside, the Huskers have shown themselves to be a viable threat when any team makes a trip to Lincoln and that still makes them very relevant in the discourse of the league.
This week: at Ohio State, home for Indiana