It’s been two months since our last look at the Big Ten and that’s because of two reasons: 1) I didn’t have time and 2) the league pretty much stinks and it’s futile to try to rank 12 of the teams.
I was one of the league’s biggest defenders last year and it paid off with how the Big Ten performed in the NCAA Tournament. I don’t think I can do that this year.
It’s not that teams had a bunch of terrible losses through non-conference play. Conference-wide, there were only six losses to teams outside the KenPom Top 100 and four of those belong to Rutgers and Indiana. But a recurring theme in the recaps that follow is that a lot of teams didn’t beat anybody all that noteworthy.
After a year with a lot of young, talented teams, the expectation was that many in the Big Ten would raise their level of play and it would be a competitive year with a lot of NCAA Tournament teams. It’s now looking like it’ll certainly be competitive, but if the tournament field was selected today the Big Ten would have maybe five teams competing and two of them might be playing in Dayton the first couple days.
But hey, at least they’re not the Pac-12!
Nine Stars from the Past
Week Two Months:
Miles Bridges and Nick Ward, Michigan State – averaging 32.4 points, 15.3 rebounds, and 2.8 blocks per game
Vincent and Carsen Edwards, Purdue – averaging 31.6 points, 12.9 rebounds, and 5.1 assists per game
Jordan Murphy, Minnesota – averaging 19.1 points, 12.6 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks per game
Keita Bates-Diop, Ohio State – averaging 18.7 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks per game
Anthony Cowan, Maryland – averaging 15.5 points, 5.1 rebounds, 4.5 assists, and 1.5 steals per game
Charles Matthews and Moritz Wagner, Michigan – averaging 31.0 points and 12.6 rebounds per game
Six Games to Watch This Week:
Indiana at Wisconsin, Tuesday, 7:00 pm EST, ESPN
Penn State at Maryland, Tuesday, 7:00 pm EST, BTN
Nebraska at Northwestern, Tuesday, 9:00 pm EST, BTN
Maryland at Michigan State, Thursday, 8:00 pm EST, FS1
Northwestern at Penn State, Friday, 8:00 pm EST, FS1
Michigan State at Ohio State, Sunday, 4:30 pm EST, CBS
1. Michigan State (KenPom: 2 / BracketMatrix: 1 seed)
Good Things That Have Happened: It was pretty much all good for the Spartans. That’s why they’re currently #1 in the country. They won their bracket at the PK80 tournament. It wasn’t the toughest road to the title with matchups against DePaul and UConn, but the trip was worth it playing North Carolina in the championship and rolling the Heels behind an incredible defensive performance.
They didn’t have the strongest non-conference schedule, but they did tack on a blowout win over Notre Dame at home and started out 2-0 in conference.
Not Good Things That Have Happened: They lost to Duke in the Champions Classic, but there’s no shame in that. The win at Rutgers certainly wasn’t the prettiest, but every Big Ten champion usually has a couple of those on the road in league play every year. The key is being able to grind them out for wins.
Outlook for the Remainder of the Year: The biggest takeaway from the first half of the season for the Spartans is how well they’ve shot the ball from the perimeter. It was a concern before the season and they’re currently shooting 41.1%, good for 17th in the country. It’s still far from being the focal point of the offense, but they’ve got four guys shooting above the national average.
They’re likely still in for a dogfight for the conference title, but regardless of how that turns out, they’re looking at probably a 3 seed at the worst. The sheer number of capable players that they can trot out gives Tom Izzo a lot of options. He’s got probably four guys he can feature in the offense with the improvement in Year 2 for Josh Langford and the immediate impact Jaren Jackson has provided.
This week: home for Maryland, at Ohio State
2. Purdue (KenPom: 3 / BracketMatrix: 3 seed)
Good Things That Have Happened: The Boilers were able to rack up quite a few quality wins in non-conference play, as many as anybody in the country. That will be important for a program that has seemingly been stuck in 4/5 seed purgatory for eternity. They’ve already picked up two road wins that will likely be “quality” at years end with victories over Marquette and Maryland.
The win that sticks out is the 25-point romp over Arizona in the Bahamas. Talk about playing a team at the right time. Both Purdue and the Cats were staring at rock bottom if they lost that game and Purdue just happened to be more equipped to bounce back sooner. Arizona’s a different team with Rawle Alkins – as we’ve seen since he came back – but his absence in that game is the sort of detail that kind of gets lost in the resume spreadsheets in March.
Not Good Things That Have Happened: Western Kentucky. It may not go down as a “bad loss”, but a team as experienced and talented as Purdue had no business losing to the Hilltoppers. WKU beat SMU the next day and will probably be an upper-tier C-USA team, but still not a good look.
Purdue also lost to Tennessee in the Bahamas, but the Vols are pretty good and exactly the type of team that has given the Boilers trouble for what seems like decades.
Outlook for the Remainder of the Year: Purdue appears to be the only team that’s likely to give Michigan State any competition for the league title. The teams only meet once, which is in East Lansing, but the Spartans probably have a tougher schedule otherwise.
Purdue’s pretty much been what I expected them to be, with one big (7’3″) exception: Matt Haarms. Back-up center was a concern heading into the year with the unknown health of Jacquil Taylor and the almost total unknown that was Haarms. But the Dutchman has changed things for Purdue defensively, giving them an elite shot-blocking presence and a more mobile big to defend PNRs when Isaac Haas need a breather.
This week: home for Rutgers and Nebraska
3. Michigan (KenPom: 33 / BracketMatrix: 10 seed)
Good Things That Have Happened: The road win at Texas was hopefully a big one. Texas will probably look good analytically all year, but the Big 12 is the best league in the country and, well, somebody’s gonna lose some games and Texas might be one of them.
Wins over UCLA, IU, and VCU are good, but definitely not game-changers.
I guess outside of that, it was important that it turns out that Charles Matthews is the type of lead-guy they need to have some success this year.
Not Good Things That Have Happened: The LSU loss was similar to Purdue losing to WKU. Not a killer, but it certainly wasn’t good.
There were no bad losses for the Wolverines, but I guess you could say the lack of opportunities to get important wins is a “not good thing”. Usually when you have a ticket to the Maui Invitational you’re looking at some quality competition, but due to the loss in the opening round to LSU, Michigan didn’t play anybody inside the Top 80 of KenPom.
Outlook for the Remainder of the Year: Safe money is probably on the Wolverines making the NCAA Tournament, but there’s work to do. This is one of the rare seasons where a John Beilein team is better defensively than offensively. In fact, at this rate, it would be the best defensive team Beilein’s had in the history of KenPom (since 2001-02 season).
Offensively, they still need to get more from guys not named Charles Matthews and Mo Wagner. They’re both shooting on 27% of their possessions with nobody else that plays consistent minutes above 20%. For reference, both MSU and Purdue have four guys above 20%. Obvious candidates for the Wolverines are MAAR and Duncan Robinson. Also, consistent production out of Xavier Simpson would be massive.
This week: at Iowa, home for Illinois
4. Minnesota (KenPom: 43 / BracketMatrix: 11 seed)
Good Things That Have Happened: They won whatever tournament they were in of the 10 CBB tournaments that happen at the Barclays Center every year. They also got a nice road win at Providence. They avoided a catastrophic loss.
Not Good Things That Have Happened: Well, they did lose to Nebraska. Although it doesn’t appear to be major, Nate Mason does have an ankle injury and I’m sure he’ll be able to play on it soon, but those things linger and will likely hinder a guy like Mason who relies on explosiveness for a while.
Outlook for the Remainder of the Year: All things considered, it was a pretty disappointing first two months for the Gophers. They’re about as experienced as anybody in the country, they were a 5 seed in the tournament last year, and they’ve maintained status quo so far. Analytically, they’ve regressed as a team. I was a Richard Pitino detractor until I had to eat crow last season, but, buddy, I’m ready to fire up the Little Richie criticism again if need be. There doesn’t feel like there’s a lot of individual improvement from a season ago. Jordan Murphy is playing pretty well, but he’s been putting up double-doubles from the jump and is now just getting more opportunities.
This week: home against Illinois and Indiana
5. Ohio State (KenPom: 48 / BracketMatrix: Next Four Out)
Good Things That Have Happened: They started out 2-0 in conference play with a big road win at Wisconsin and a home victory against rival Michigan. They didn’t have any bad losses, which has been a problem for Ohio State teams in the past couple years. Also, Keita Bates-Diop has become what everyone hoped he would become.
Not Good Things That Have Happened: It’s not a bad loss, but the way in which they lost to Butler was tough to swallow. Obviously that was an emotional game already for Chris Holtmann, but then they blow a big lead in a short amount of time and they leave Portland 1-2 instead of 2-1. Clemson is a good team, but you would’ve expected a much better effort at home in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, especially defensively.
Outlook for the Remainder of the Year: Still a lot of work left to do for the Bucks, but you’d expect them to keep getting better under Holtmann. The personnel for this team was never ideal for his system, so as the season goes on I think it’s fair to expect him to utilize the roster better. Obviously, they’re going to lean very heavily on Bates-Diop, who has been fantastic, being the KenPom MVP in all seven of the team’s games in December.
This week: at Iowa, home for Michigan State
6. Maryland (KenPom: 30 / BracketMatrix: 11 seed)
Good Things That Have Happened: They beat Butler handily at home, they also grinded one out at Illinois. Most importantly, Anthony Cowan has taken over the role as “the man” very nicely.
Not Good Things That Have Happened: In a vacuum, the loss to St. Bonaventure isn’t bad, but the fact it kept the Terps from having a shot at TCU is a bit costly. Instead they had to play New Mexico and that win doesn’t really help them at all.
But the obvious worst thing to happen was losing Justin Jackson for the season. That sucks.
Outlook for the Remainder of the Year: Jackson had been kind of underwhelming this year for his talent level, but he obviously still brought a lot to the table and his absence limits the ceiling of this team quite a bit. With that said, a positive spin would be this: at least it wasn’t Anthony Cowan…or Kevin Huerter. Both those guys have been phenomenal and the real reason Maryland has got off to a pretty good start. The success of the Terps will continue to rely upon their production. I think Maryland is still in a decent spot to push for an NCAA Tournament bid.
This week: home for Penn State and Iowa, at Michigan State
7. Northwestern (KenPom: 53 / BracketMatrix: Others Receiving Votes (1))
Good Things That Have Happened: They held off Illinois at home.
Not Good Things That Have Happened: They lost to Georgia Tech, who has lost to Grambling State, Wright State, and Wofford so far this year. They also struggled to beat Loyola (MD), Saint Peter’s, La Salle, and DePaul.
Outlook for the Remainder of the Year: Now that I’m looking things over, Northwestern probably doesn’t deserve to be this high. But really nobody does beneath them either because that’s how bad it’s been in the league so far. Things would’ve gotten really bad for the Cats if they lost McIntosh, but his injury in the Brown game doesn’t appear to be anything serious.
I expected less from Northwestern than what it appeared many thought, but not even I expected this. Their inability to roll over bad teams has been surprising. It’s largely been a defensive regression, but they suffer from the same issue as Minnesota in the lack of individual offensive development category.
This week: home for Nebraska, at Penn State
8. Penn State (KenPom: 41 / BracketMatrix: Others Receiving Votes (2))
Good Things That Have Happened: Won at Iowa, destroyed in-state rival Pitt, didn’t get embarrassed by Texas A&M.
Not Good Things That Have Happened: Lost to Rider and Wisconsin at home.
Outlook for the Remainder of the Year: I don’t know. It kind of feels like a typical Penn State team, but they’re not playing in a typical Big Ten. So maybe they have a good year in the league. They certainly have enough players to do so. It kind of feels like a make or break year for Pat Chambers. Not saying he gets fired if Penn State doesn’t have a good year in the league, but it’s hard to make many excuses this year. He has the players, the competition is down, and they probably need to do something.
This week: at Maryland, home for Northwestern
9. Nebraska (KenPom: 97 / BracketMatrix: N/A)
Good Things That Have Happened: They beat Minnesota at home and nearly beat Kansas. Would’ve been a lot more helpful if they actually beat Kansas, though.
Not Good Things That Have Happened: Like a lot of other teams in the league, they didn’t necessarily have any bad losses. They just didn’t beat anybody good outside of the league. The blowout loss at St. John’s was especially problematic.
Outlook for the Remainder of the Year: Nebraska is pretty much always a perpetual rollercoaster under Tim Miles, which always makes them scary as an opponent. Their depth is a concern once again. I have no idea what’s really happened with Jack McVeigh, but his dropoff in production this year is a problem. They’ve got a pretty good crop of players that makes you think “next year will be the year”, but that’s basically every year in Lincoln. I’m sure they’ll be on the bubble for a week or two and then they’ll lose to Rutgers or something.
This week: at Northwestern and Purdue
10. Wisconsin (KenPom: 70 / BracketMatrix: N/A)
Good Things That Have Happened: They won at Penn State.
Not Good Things That Have Happened: They lost seven games. None of them were necessarily bad, but going 2-7 against decent opponents isn’t ideal.
Outlook for the Remainder of the Year: If things weren’t going poorly enough, D’Mitrik Trice and Kobe King both have the dreaded “out indefinitely” with injuries. I don’t really know what to say about this team. Ethan Happ is basically exactly the same as before except now there’s no one around him that can just go score. And there aren’t many shooters. The only reasons their defense is halfway decent is because they rebound well and don’t foul. There’s a shot the Top 4 streak doesn’t end because the conference is so down, but it’s still pretty unlikely.
This week: Indiana at home, Rutgers on the road
11. Indiana (KenPom: 91 / BracketMatrix: N/A)
Good Things That Have Happened: They beat Notre Dame.
Not Good Things That Have Happened: Losing to Indiana State and Fort Wayne at home by a combined 41 points.
Outlook for the Remainder of the Year: I have no idea. I thought that they were turning a corner when they rolled Iowa at home, competed at Louisville, and then beat Notre Dame. They followed that up with the egg at home against Fort Wayne. Now, yes there is some “shooting luck” with the ISU and FW games, but the truth is that IU’s guards pretty much stink and the battle on the perimeter isn’t often going to favor them. They can improve the defensive part of it, but it’s really hard to become a better shooting team midseason.
The good news for IU is that there’s a lot of teams in this league they can beat this year and potentially get things kickstarted. The bad news is that they open 2018 with road games at the Kohl Center and the Barn.
This week: at Wisconsin and Minnesota
12. Illinois (KenPom: 87 / BracketMatrix: N/A)
Good Things That Have Happened: They won the Border Battle or whatever they call it against Mizzou.
Not Good Things That Have Happened: Mizzou was the only good-ish win that they had. They lost a game in Chicago against NMSU. They also struggled with UT-Martin, Austin Peay, and Grand Canyon at home.
Outlook for the Remainder of the Year: It’s gonna take a pretty sizable turnaround for them to even be on the bubble, but you can kind of see the path. They’re biggest issue is that scoring is a real problem. Brad Underwood’s strength has never been halfcourt offense, but it’d do wonders for this team if Mark Alstork and Michael Finke just started making shots that they’ve made earlier in their career. Alstork is more capable of getting his own shot, which makes his play a bigger key. I have a theory and that theory is that you can’t depend on Leron Black to carry your offense and at the same time be a good offense. Alstork needs to be better, as does Finke, as does Aaron Jordan, who’s disappeared over the last couple weeks.
This week: at Minnesota and Michigan
13. Iowa (KenPom: 78 / BracketMatrix: N/A)
Good Things That Have Happened: Well, they did win nine games. Unfortunately none of the teams they beat are in the Top 120 of KenPom.
Not Good Things That Have Happened: They lost two games in the Cayman Islands to mid-major schools. They started out 0-2 in league play. They lost to their in-state rival. They lost in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Now, I wouldn’t consider any of those teams bad, but it’s not a good look when you go 0-6 against the Top 100 and none of those six teams would be in the NCAA Tournament if they selected today.
Outlook for the Remainder of the Year: I predicted Iowa to finish sixth, so obviously I didn’t see this one coming. I still don’t really think they’re that bad, but at some point you actually have to beat somebody and we’re two months in for the Hawks. The offense is fine, but could definitely be better. You’d like to see more consistent production out of the backcourt. For me, the biggest problem once again is that they just play with no edge defensively. They don’t rebound well at that end and they don’t really make any plays. The NCAA Tournament isn’t impossible, but they need to get it going with a couple big wins this week.
This week: Michigan and Ohio State at home, Maryland on the road
14. Rutgers (KenPom: 121 / BracketMatrix: N/A)
Good Things That Have Happened: THEY BEAT SETON HALL…
Not Good Things That Have Happened: …which they followed up with by losing to Stony Brook and Hartford at home.
Outlook for the Remainder of the Year: I keep waiting for Rutgers to turn the corner, but it’s probably going to take at least another year. And I’m not talking about turning into a tournament team. I’m just talking about them getting out of the “conference doormat” phase. They’re still so much better than they were under Eddie Jordan, but that transition has really only happened defensively. The offense is still really bad.
This week: Purdue on the road, Wisconsin at home