It’s almost comical how quickly the college basketball season moves.
I feel like I was previewing the season and discussing the importance of early-season tournaments in these power rankings a few weeks ago. Now, we’re officially in March. The Big Ten Tournament starts in less than a week, Selection Sunday is less than ten days away and the NCAA Tournament is less than two weeks away from tipping off.
Nebraska’s first season under Fred Hoiberg hasn’t gone exactly the way many hoped, but the next couple of weeks will be an opportunity to change focus from the Huskers to some of the best basketball teams in the country.
In a season with no truly dominant teams and a bevy of upsets each weekend, the unpredictability of March will be at an all-time high this season. The next three weeks of college basketball will be incredible. Enjoy it. Even if you’re a Nebraska basketball fan.
Before I get into this week’s rankings, I wanted to mention that I won’t be releasing another edition of these until right before the NCAA Tournament. I’ve enjoyed making these each week, and I’d like to thank everybody that’s followed along.
Let’s take a look at how the Big Ten stands in the final power rankings of the regular season. All records are accurate as of March 4.
1. Michigan State Spartans (21-9, 13-6 Big Ten)
Never count out Tom Izzo down the stretch.
The Spartans had a massive week, defeating two top-20 opponents on the road which gives them the opportunity to play for at least a share of the Big Ten regular season title this weekend.
All season, Michigan State had looked for a third option to emerge behind senior guard Cassius Winston and junior forward Xavier Tillman. Freshman guard Rocket Watts has emerged as that option over the past month and the trio took over both road contests.
Michigan State never trailed in a 78-66 victory over No. 9 Maryland on Feb. 29. Winston led the scoring charge with 20 points, three of which came on a 65-foot, buzzer-beating shot to end the first half. Winston did turn the ball over seven times, but his six assists overshadowed that poor mark. Tillman had a 14-point, 12-rebound double-double while Watts finished with 13 points.
Izzo’s group then withstood an early 3-point barrage at No. 20 Penn State on March 3, erasing a 19-point first-half deficit in a 79-71 victory. Winston cleaned up the turnovers, finishing with two to go with 14 points and seven assists. Tillman posted another huge double-double, with 23 points and 15 rebounds against an impressive Nittany Lion frontcourt. Watts impressed again, finishing with 18 points.
Michigan State looks to be rounding into great form, and it will look to finish the regular season strong when it hosts No. 19 Ohio State on March 8.
2. Wisconsin Badgers (20-10, 13-6 Big Ten)
If the season ended right now, Greg Gard’s Badgers would be the No. 1 seed at the Big Ten tournament.
Wisconsin is white hot, extending its winning streak to seven games with three victories this week. When analyzing this Badger team for potential NCAA Tournament success, throw out any result before Feb. 1. The addition of junior Ohio State transfer forward Micah Potter and the departure of junior guard Kobe King changed the trajectory of Wisconsin’s season.
Potter and fellow junior forward Aleem Ford had productive outings in the Badgers’ 81-74 victory at Michigan on Feb. 27. Both finished with 18 points and the pair combined to make five 3-pointers. Junior guard D’Mitrik Trice stole the show, torching the Wolverines for 28 points on 10-16 shooting. As a team, the Badger offense shot 53.7% from the field and 47.8% from 3-point range.
The Badgers trailed Minnesota at home by four points with two minutes left on March 1, and it looked like Wisconsin’s winning streak was in serious jeopardy. Then, senior guard Brevin Pritzl hit a go-ahead 3-pointer with 59 seconds left to give Wisconsin a 67-66 lead it wouldn’t relinquish. Junior guard Brad Davison had a team-high 20 points, and the Badgers held off the Golden Gophers 71-69.
Sunday’s victory over the Golden Gophers moved Wisconsin into the AP Top 25 for the first time this season. Wisconsin won its first game as a ranked squad, handling Northwestern 63-48 last night on Senior Night. Junior forward Nate Reuvers led a sluggish Wisconsin offense with 11 points.
Wisconsin finishes the regular season by visiting Indiana on March 7.
3. Maryland Terrapins (23-7, 13-6 Big Ten)
The good news is that Maryland is still on the inside track to claim a share of the Big Ten title. The bad news is that Mark Tuegeon’s group is playing bad basketball at an inopportune time to do so.
The Terrapins had full control of their own destiny last week. Maryland led the conference by two games with three games remaining in its regular season. That is, until it lost both of its contests this week.
A troubling issue reared its head in Maryland’s 78-66 loss to then-No. 24 Michigan State on Feb. 29 and its 78-67 loss at Rutgers on March 3. Senior guard Anthony Cowan Jr. and sophomore forward Jalen Smith aren’t getting any help.
Cowan Jr. and Smith combined for 33 points against the Spartans, but freshman forward Donta Scott was the only other Terrapin in double figures. The duo combined for 35 points at Rutgers, but no other Maryland scorer could crack double-digit scoring. The Terrapins shot an abysmal 18.8% from 3-point range against the Scarlet Knights.
I’m chalking this up to a poor week, but Maryland could be in serious trouble if players like junior guard Darryl Morsell and sophomore guards Aaron Wiggins and Eric Ayala become invisible. Those three have sufficiently supported Cowan Jr. and Smith all season, and they need to re-emerge as the Terrapins enter postseason play.
Maryland finishes the regular season by hosting No. 25 Michigan on March 8.
4. Ohio State Buckeyes (20-9, 10-8 Big Ten)
Chris Holtmann’s Buckeyes have made their money on the defensive end this season. And in March, good defense goes a long way.
Ohio State won both of its contests this week behind its Big Ten-leading scoring defense which ranks No. 15 nationally. The Buckeyes thrashed Nebraska 75-54 in Lincoln on Feb. 27 behind junior forward Kaleb Wesson’s 16 points and career-high 18 rebounds. Ohio State limited Nebraska to shoot 35.6% from the field and 18.8% from 3-point range.
Junior guard CJ Walker had 15 points and sophomore guard Duane Washington Jr. had 14 points to round out Ohio State’s attack.
Washington Jr. led the charge in Ohio State’s home victory over then-No. 19 Michigan on March 1, finishing with a game-high 20 points in the Buckeyes 77-63 victory. Ohio State went on a late 23-9 run to subdue the Wolverines and give the Buckeyes their third-consecutive win.
The Buckeyes have a big week, as they host No. 23 Illinois on March 5 and visit No. 16 Michigan State on March 8.
5. Illinois Fighting Illini (20-9, 12-6 Big Ten)
Brad Underwood’s group can still snag a share of the Big Ten regular season crown, but it will need to look a bit more impressive than it did last week.
Illinois did go 2-0, but both victories came in lackluster fashion. Sophomore guard Alan Griffin set career highs in points (24) and 3-pointers made (six) against Northwestern on Feb. 27. Fellow sophomore guard Ayo Dosunmu had 21 points and freshman center Kofi Cockburn had a 12-point, 14-rebound double-double in the Illini’s 74-66 road triumph.
Dosunmu led the charge with a game-high 17 points as Illinois held off Indiana at home 67-66 on March 1. He hit a clutch 3-pointer with 1:28 left to give the Illini a 65-60 lead over Indiana and hit two massive free-throws with 13 seconds left to give Illinois a 67-63 advantage. He’s the kind of player that can will teams to victory in the postseason, and Sunday’s contest against Indiana was a good example of that and why he’s regarded so highly among NBA scouts.
Last week was an appetizer, this week is the main course for Underwood’s group. Illinois can not only win a share of the Big Ten, but improve its tournament seeding with two victories. The Illini have been inconsistent this season. It’ll be fascinating to see how they play in two must-win games.
The Illini visit No. 19 Ohio State on March 5 and host No. 18 Iowa on March 8.
6. Penn State Nittany Lions (21-9, 11-8 Big Ten)
Pat Chambers’ team may have peaked too early.
The Nittany Lions lost both of their contests this week and have now lost four of their last five games. Penn State’s poor week started at Carver-Hawkeye Arena as it fell to No. 18 Iowa 77-68 on Feb. 29. Senior forward Lamar Stevens led the Nittany Lion offense with a 20-point, 10-rebound double-double and freshman forward Seth Lundy had an impressive 19 points.
Iowa pulled away from Penn State in the second half as the Nittany Lions were unable to slow Hawkeye junior center Luka Garza. Garza torched Penn State for 25 points and 17 rebounds.
Penn State looked to be rebounding from that loss in a big way against No. 16 Michigan State on March 3. The Nittany Lions built a first-half lead as large as 19 points behind a 59% 3-point effort in the game’s first 20 minutes. Michigan State responded in the second half as the Nittany Lions went cold from the field. Penn State didn’t make any 3-pointers in the second half of its 79-71 loss.
Stevens had a poor showing in his final game on his home floor. He finished with 15 points on 3-19 shooting. If Stevens had a more productive night, the Nittany Lions may have defeated the Spartans.
The Nittany Lions close the regular season by visiting Northwestern on March 7.
7. Iowa Hawkeyes (20-10, 11-8 Big Ten)
This week proved my theories on Iowa to be true.
Behind Garza, the Hawkeyes are nothing more than an inconsistent squad that is without a trustworthy primary ball-handler. Additionally, the Hawkeyes can’t defend, as their 72.1 points conceded per game rank No. 257 in Division I.
Yes, Iowa did look impressive in a much-needed home victory over then-No. 16 Penn State on Feb. 29. Garza was magnificent, and sophomore guard Joe Wieskamp had a productive outing with 13 points. Freshman guard CJ Fredrick rounded out the Hawkeye offense with 10 points.
The Hawkeyes followed that performance with a senior night dud, falling 77-68 to Purdue on March 3. Garza was again productive with 26 points and 12 rebounds, but the rest of the team didn’t show up which has been the story of Iowa’s season thus far. Wieskamp had another quiet night with 10 points and seven rebounds, and Fredrick was limited to eight points.
Purdue raced out to a 42-25 halftime advantage and held on to claim the season sweep over the Hawkeyes.
Iowa is in a precarious position right now, and its inconsistent play makes it a team that can’t be trusted right now come NCAA Tournament time. The Hawkeyes could dispel some of that thinking in their final game of the regular season, as Iowa travels to face No. 23 Illinois on March 8.
8. Purdue Boilermakers (16-14, 9-10 Big Ten)
Purdue will not die.
The Boilermakers picked up two massive victories this week, the first of which came in a 57-49 triumph over Indiana at home on Feb 27. Purdue did enough on the defensive end to frustrate the Hoosiers all night, holding Indiana to 25.4% from the field and 20.8% from 3-point range.
Sophomore forward Trevion Williams led the Boilermaker offense with 19 points and eight rebounds, and sophomore guard Eric Hunter Jr. followed Williams’ performance with 17 points.
Hunter Jr. followed that performance with a career-high outing against Iowa on March 3. He finished with 19 points against the Hawkeyes, while senior forward Evan Boudreaux had a 14-point, 14-rebound double-double. The Boilermakers were able to frustrate Garza, Wieskamp and Fredrick enough on the defensive end to steal a massive 77-68 road victory.
Purdue concludes the regular season by hosting Rutgers on March 7.
9. Michigan Wolverines (18-11, 9-9 Big Ten)
Juwan Howard’s group hit a snag this week, dropping contests to Wisconsin and then-No. 23 Ohio State.
Senior guard Zavier Simpson attempted to will Michigan to victory in its Feb. 27 defeat to the Badgers, finishing with 32 points on 14-22 shooting and six assists. Freshman guard Franz Wagner added 17 points as the only other Wolverine scorer to finish in double figures. Michigan made three 3-pointers in its 81-74 defeat.
The Buckeyes’ aforementioned 23-9 run buried Michigan’s hopes of a rivalry victory over Ohio State on March 1. Wagner had another solid outing, finishing with 18 points followed by 12 from Simpson. Junior forward Isaiah Livers had a quiet week, finishing with 15 points in Michigan’s two losses.
I believe the Wolverines will snap this slump come postseason play. Wagner is starting to come into his own, and if Livers can snap this brief slump Michigan could cause problems as the month progresses.
This week, Michigan hosts Nebraska on March 5 and visits No. 9 Maryland on March 8.
10. Rutgers Scarlet Knights (19-11, 10-9 Big Ten)
Rutgers has still yet to win a game that hasn’t been played at either the Rutgers Athletic Center or Pinnacle Bank Arena.
The Scarlet Knights won their school-record 18th home game on March 3, dominating No. 9 Maryland from the opening tip in a 78-67 victory. Junior guard Jacob Young led Rutgers in scoring off the bench, finishing with 17 points. Sophomore guard Montez Mathis (15 points) and junior guard Geo Baker (11 points) were the other Scarlet Knight scorers in double digits.
Steve Pikiell’s team shot an impressive 49.2% from the field and 43.8% from 3-point range against the normally sound Terrapin defense, earning a massive boost for its NCAA Tournament hopes.
Rutgers is a hard team to figure out, but we’ll learn a lot more about them in Indianapolis at the conference tournament. It will be interesting to see how the Scarlet Knights can fare against some of the league’s best on a neutral floor outside of the friendly confines of the RAC. I’ll feel a lot better about their NCAA Tournament prospects if they can pick up a win or two.
Rest of the Big Ten
11. Indiana Hoosiers (19-11, 9-10 Big Ten)
12. Minnesota Golden Gophers (13-16, 7-12 Big Ten)
13. Northwestern Wildcats (7-22, 2-17 Big Ten)
14. Nebraska Cornhuskers (7-22, 2-16 Big Ten)