Sports Sig (2020)

Just one week, eight days to be exact, have passed since the last power rankings. Despite this being the first power rankings of the season to come this soon after the last, there has been just as much, if not more turnover. Such is life in college basketball’s deepest conference, where the best teams take turns beating each other, and the middle teams regularly join in on the fun. Teams have ascended while some have crashed back to earth. 

Ten Big Ten teams are currently projected to make the tournament in Joe Lunardi’s latest bracketology with two more in the first four out, 12 are ranked in the top 50 of the kenpom.com efficiency rankings, 11 appeared in the top 45 of the season’s first NET rankings and six are ranked in Monday’s AP Top 25. No other conference has more teams than the Big Ten in any of those respective rankings.

With such a deep conference, expect more upsets of varying degrees. Just one team remains undefeated in conference play, only two others have one loss and four teams total have a winning record in conference play. Don’t be surprised if more of the conference’s titans fall and new contenders begin to reveal themselves as we get further into conference play.

Here is the Big Ten hierarchy as it stands with most teams about 40% of the way through their seasons and close to a third of the way through conference play.

1. Iowa Hawkeyes (11-2, 5-1 Big Ten)

Save for a Christmas Day collapse at the hands of Minnesota, the No. 5 Hawkeyes have been surprisingly consistent in Big Ten play despite their defensive shortcomings, winning four straight games, including two this week. Iowa picked up a convincing win at Maryland then got revenge with a 15-point win over then-No. 16 Minnesota as senior center Luka Garza scored 30-plus points for the sixth time this season.

The Hawkeyes now face a relative easy stretch over the next two weeks, if that even exists in the Big Ten this season. Three of their four games will be at home, and none are against a ranked opponent, although three are receiving votes.

Iowa conceded the nation’s best offensive efficiency to Gonzaga, one of the two teams that beat it, but is tied with the Bulldogs for first in the nation in assists per game (21.3) and leads the country in total assists.

2. Michigan Wolverines (10-0, 5-0 Big Ten)

Michigan jumps two spots after a dominant win over then-No. 16 Minnesota, beating the Golden Gophers by 25. One of the teams ahead of the Wolverines last week, Wisconsin, also won its only game, but the Wolverines are one of just two undefeated teams left among the six power conferences. Just as I did last week, it’s time to bump Michigan up as a reward for continuing to win. 

Michigan holds the easiest schedule in the Big Ten thus far according to Kenpom.com, largely due to a rollover nonconference slate, but has now beaten a number of tournament-caliber teams in conference play. 

The Wolverines, who hold the best scoring margin in Big Ten play (+16.0 ppg) have definitely improved their stock from before conference play, and their new No. 7 ranking in the AP poll asserts this. A major test is imminent with No. 9 Wisconsin visiting Ann Arbor on Tuesday night. Fortunately for the Wolverines, they avoid Illinois and Iowa for another month.

3. Wisconsin Badgers (10-2, 4-1 Big Ten)

The Badgers hold their spot in the conference rankings after a solid but unspectacular double overtime win over Indiana at home. I still believe Wisconsin will prove to be a better team than Michigan, at least by the end of the season. The Badgers are ranked fifth in Kenpom.com’s efficiency rankings, while the Wolverines are seventh. They are the only team in the Big Ten, and one of two in the nation, ranked in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. However, they have lost to two inferior teams while Michigan has yet to lose a game.

The Badgers face a difficult week ahead with games at No. 7 Michigan and a hungry Rutgers team that just dropped out of the AP Top 25 from its No. 15 spot. 

4. Illinois Fighting Illini (9-4, 5-2 Big Ten)

The Fighting Illini fell two spots after their four-game winning streak came to an end in a one-possession loss at home against Maryland. Before that, Illinois started the week with a 25-point beatdown at Northwestern. 

Illinois is the last of four Big Ten teams in the top 10 for adjusted efficiency and are the third of five Big Ten teams in the top 10 of offensive efficiency. It is also one of just four Big Ten teams with a winning conference record. The Fighting Illini will be favored in their next three games before a brutal stretch that includes home games against No. 5 Iowa and No. 9 Wisconsin, along with road contests at Indiana and No. 7 Michigan.

5. Ohio State Buckeyes (9-3, 3-3 Big Ten)

The No. 21 Buckeyes looked like more of a Big Ten contender than a second-tier team in their only game of last week, defeating then-No. 15 Rutgers 69-58 on the road. The only thing that precludes Ohio State from a place among the conference’s top group is consistency, or lack thereof. The Buckeyes have yet to win back-to-back conference games.

They have a chance to change that with a home game against reeling Northwestern, a team they almost beat on the road, then could make a huge statement with a win at No. 14 Illinois. Ohio State has perhaps the most balanced scoring attack in the Big Ten and a top 10 adjusted offense ranking to show for it.

6. Rutgers Scarlet Knights (7-4, 3-4 Big Ten)

Despite losing three straight and two last week, Rutgers falls just one spot in these rankings. The Scarlet Knights have not inspired much confidence with their play in the last few weeks, but no team below them won enough of last week’s games to catapult past Rutgers.

Rutgers could still very well be a top-five Big Ten team. It beat Illinois and came within a stones throw of upsetting Iowa two weeks ago, but the schedule will not get any easier. Senior guard Geo Baker, an All-Big Ten player last season, has struggled in particular, averaging 4.5 points in two games last week as he shot 23.5% from the field.

Those two games were a 23-point loss at Michigan State and an 11-point loss to Ohio State at home. Except against defensively-limited Iowa, Rutgers has struggled to score in its losses despite a number of offensive weapons. The Scarlet Knights average 82.4 points per game in wins, which would be good for 29th nationally, and 64.0 points per game in losses, which would rank 310th nationally.

7. Indiana Hoosiers (8-5, 3-3 Big Ten)

The Hoosiers are in a similar situation to Michigan. I’m not sure Indiana belongs in the top half of the Big Ten, but by virtue of being one of the only teams in the Big Ten to win two games last week, they deserve a bump over more promising teams that struggled last week.

The Hoosiers’ ascendance into the Big Ten’s second tier started with a win over Maryland and was followed by a double overtime loss at Wisconsin. Indiana then went to Nebraska and held on to win 84-76. It was a solid, relatively unexciting week that saw the Hoosiers beat two lesser teams and come close to beating a top team. That being said, weeks with more wins than losses are hard to come by for the middle teams in the Big Ten, and should be celebrated.

Unlike all the teams above them and several of those below, Indiana has yet to beat an AP Top 25 team despite holding an 8-5 record with the nation’s 13th-hardest schedule according to Kenpom.com. The Hoosiers have beaten a plethora of bubble teams in Providence, Stanford and now Maryland. Indiana won’t play a team that currently has a losing record for the remainder of the season, which will give it plenty of opportunities to record marquee wins.

8. Minnesota Golden Gophers (10-4, 3-4 Big Ten)

The No. 23 Golden Gophers had a difficult week, losing their two games by a combined 40 points at Michigan and Iowa, the top two ranked teams in the conference. They managed to not fall any further because of their resume leading up to this week, as they have beaten Saint Louis, Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State. 

Junior guard Marcus Carr has continued to struggle. After scoring over 20 points in six of Minnesota’s first nine games, he has failed to do so in the last five games, averaging 13.5 points per game last week on 28.6% shooting. The Golden Gophers rank last as a team in the Big Ten in field goal percentage (41%) and 3-point percentage (30.3%).

Minnesota started in the bottom third of the Big Ten power rankings before conference play but has since shown it has one of the higher ceilings in the conference after a hot December. Things may get worse before they get better. Minnesota hosts No. 7 Michigan on Sunday after last week’s stomping in Ann Arbor. However, after that they’ll play just one more team currently ranked in the AP Top 25.

9. Michigan State Spartans (8-4, 2-4 Big Ten)

The Spartans stay put this week after splitting their two games. They had a dominant win over Rutgers before falling to Purdue by a single point at home. The Spartans play solid if unspectacular defense and inconsistent offense, but one area in which they’ve excelled is passing. Michigan State ranks second in the Big Ten and ninth nationally in assists per game (19.2). The Spartans have seven players averaging at least 1.9 assists per game and none averaging more than junior forward Aaron Henry (3.7 assists per game).

10. Purdue Boilermakers (8-5, 3-3 Big Ten)

Yes, Purdue did just beat then-No. 23 Michigan State in Lansing, Michigan. One could easily make the argument that the Boilermakers are the better team as a result, but I would argue that the Spartans have a considerably higher ceiling. The Spartans just won by 23 against a Rutgers team that beat Purdue just two weeks ago. They also had a better nonconference slate, beating its top opponent of that group, now-No. 19 Duke, while Purdue lost both of its nonconference games against Kenpom.com top-70 teams, Clemson and Miami (FL). 

This argument is reflective of the start to Big Ten play in which there is little separation from one team to another. I considered ranking teams six through 10 in dozens of combinations before deciding on this order.

Purdue ranks in the bottom half of the Big Ten in points per game, rebounds per game, field goal percentage, free throw percentage, 3-point percentage, steals per game and blocks per game. The Boilermakers are last in turnover percentage and play at the second-slowest pace in the Big Ten. Yet, this is a team that knows itself and plays in a lot of close games, win or lose. Whether these issues catch up to the Boilermakers will determine if Purdue keeps its position as an NCAA Tournament team.

11. Maryland Terrapins (7-6, 2-5 Big Ten)

Maryland’s status has not changed much through the entirety of this season as they have sat squarely on the bubble for most of the year. Right now, most experts rank them as one of the top teams outside of the tournament after they ended a three-game losing streak with a big win.

The Terrapins started the week with a loss at Indiana followed by a blowout loss at home at the hands of No. 5 Iowa. Then came a monumental 66-63 victory at Illinois. That win, paired with Maryland’s late December win at Wisconsin forms one of the best pairs of wins in the Big Ten. 

The schedule gets even harder in the immediate future with a visit to Nebraska, a team desperate for a victory that has played its last two Big Ten opponents very closely, before traveling to No. 7 Michigan and No. 23 Minnesota and hosting No. 9 Wisconsin. Maryland should hope to win half of those games and continue fighting for a tournament berth.

12. Northwestern Wildcats (6-4, 3-3 Big Ten)

Northwestern played just once last week, losing by 25 at home to Illinois, but its stock has fallen significantly after its third straight loss by at least 15 points. The first two came at Iowa and Michigan, so maybe there is hope as this team did beat then-No. 4 Michigan State as well as Ohio State and Indiana. But Michigan State is far from the team it was believed to be at that time. 

The Wildcats fell four spots from the ranking last week as the ugly loss to Illinois makes their previous two losses look perhaps more representative of this team than the three-game Big Ten winning streak. One thing in Northwestern’s favor is the fact that it has had the second-most difficult schedule thus far per Kenpom.com, although it is not set to let up anytime soon. 

They also rank fourth in the Big Ten in scoring (79.1 points per game) and third in 3-point percentage (40.2%). However, Northwestern has struggled to find a go-to scorer or leader. None of their five leading scorers reached double digits last game and just two did in the previous game. Sophomore guard Boo Buie, the team’s assist leader, had 30 points in the win over Michigan State but is averaging 0.7 points per game over the last three games on a combined 1-of-20 shooting from the field.

This is a team in the thick of the tournament hunt but could end up closer to its ranking before Big Ten play started (last in the conference) if it continues its downward momentum.

13. Penn State Nittany Lions (3-4, 0-3 Big Ten)

Penn State has not played a game since Dec. 30 due to COVID-19 issues and hopes to get back into action on Sunday. The Nittany Lions have a favorable Kenpom.com efficiency rating, 48th in the nation, implying that this has the potential to be a tournament team. They did beat now-No. 20 Virginia Tech but lost their first three conference games, two of them narrow losses at Michigan and Indiana, before delaying play.

Here’s to hoping Penn State gets to play on Jan. 17 at Purdue. If the Nittany Lions knock off Purdue, it would mean more chaos and more NCAA Tournament contenders in the Big Ten.

14. Nebraska Huskers (4-8, 0-5 Big Ten)

Nebraska is another team that has paused team activities due to a COVID-19 outbreak, postponing Wednesday’s game against Illinois. The Huskers surely hope to get back on the court soon as they have shown forward momentum in their last two games despite losing.

Nebraska has lost seven of its last eight games as this season is starting to look more and more like last year when the Huskers lost their final 17 games. This team at least looks better than last year’s outfit, as Nebraska currently ranks 121st in Kenpom’s efficiency rankings compared to 162nd last year.

Nebraska has been competitive in its last two games, losing at home by seven to Michigan State and eight to Indiana, and was in both games late in the second half. Nebraska has the sixth-leading scorer in the Big Ten, junior guard Teddy Allen, and the third-leading passer, sophomore guard Dalano Banton; however, the team is second-to-last in the Big Ten in field goal percentage, free throw percentage and 3-point percentage. If those percentages improve, the Huskers could and should pick up an upset or two and a couple Big Ten wins.

sports@dailynebraskan.com