The ferris wheel continued to turn as another week of college basketball brought further clarity, or perhaps further confusion, to the national, and Big Ten, hierarchy.
Penn State resumed play after a two-and-a-half week layoff that saw four games get postponed due to COVID-19. Meanwhile, Nebraska had both of its games last week get postponed and postponed its next two games for this week as head coach Fred Hoiberg and seven players tested positive for COVID-19.
Both Nebraska and Penn State are currently winless in conference play with a combined record of 0-9, so their respective breaks likely mean they are sitting restless for a chance to record that elusive first Big Ten victory. Penn State had that chance in its first game back Sunday and couldn’t quite capitalize. Hopefully, the Big Ten is able to reschedule most of its postponed games.
Among the teams that were in action last week, there was a decent amount of movement. A new team sat upon the throne as the best team in the conference but descended back to its place among the hopeful contenders just days later. A new contender emerged as it knocked a previous contender down a tier in a road win, and the second tier appears just as muddled as ever. This is the closest Iowa has been to losing its hold upon the No. 1 spot in the Big Ten power rankings, and the Hawkeyes are far from flawless.
1. Iowa Hawkeyes (12-2, 6-1 Big Ten)
The No. 4 Hawkeyes played just once this week but looked the part of the best team in the conference on Sunday afternoon as they rolled Northwestern 96-73 on the road. Senior center Luka Garza (26.9 points per game) is leading the nation in scoring. This week, ESPN ranked Garza as the top player in college basketball, just as it had before the season began. There is not much of an argument for anyone but Garza to win all of the major player of the year awards this season.
Iowa’s weakness still lies in its defense. The Hawkeyes reclaimed the top offensive efficiency rating from No. 1 Gonzaga but rank just 10th in the Big Ten in defensive efficiency. This has not proved to be a problem for Iowa in recent weeks as it has won five in a row, bookended by victories over the Wildcats. They play Indiana on Sunday, Jan. 21 but avoid Wisconsin and Michigan for another month.
2. Michigan Wolverines (11-1, 6-1 Big Ten)
For four days, Michigan held the spot as the top team in the conference, and there was not much of an argument. The No. 7 Wolverines were the only undefeated team in conference play and one of two undefeated teams overall among the six power conferences.
In last week’s rankings, I said I thought Wisconsin would prove to be a better team than Michigan by the end of the season, but I ranked the Wolverines a spot higher because they had yet to lose a game, although they had not played as hard of a schedule as the Badgers.
Tuesday’s contest between the two teams made me look like a fool as Michigan manhandled then-No. 9 Wisconsin 77-54. It was one of the most dominant and impressive performances by any team this year. At one point, the Wolverines embarked on a 43-6 run, turning a 3-point-lead with 6:21 remaining in the first half into a 40-point-lead with 10:29 remaining in the second half.
After that game, it was hard to argue against Michigan for the top spot in the Big Ten, as the Wolverines had finally gotten their first marquee win, depending on what you thought of Minnesota at the time.
Still, perhaps stubbornly, I felt a little uneasy putting Michigan above Iowa. I had this team ranked seventh in the Big Ten entering conference play, and while it had completely outplayed my expectations, a small part of me still did not trust them as a team worthy of being ranked in the top five nationally. Before the Minnesota and Wisconsin wins, the Wolverines looked like a solid second-tier Big Ten team. After all, they did have to go to overtime to beat 5-12 Oakland less than two months ago.
It all came crashing down in a 75-57 loss at Minnesota, a team they beat by 25 a week prior, on Saturday. Freshman center Hunter Dickinson, ranked ESPN’s No. 5 player in the country, was held to nine points on just five shots and was thoroughly outplayed by Minnesota junior center Liam Robbins.
3. Wisconsin Badgers (11-3, 5-2 Big Ten)
Hopefully that Michigan elegy explains my interpretation of the order of the Big Ten’s top teams and will justify less explanation for the order of the following teams. Wisconsin holds its spot at No. 3 despite the blowout loss in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The Badgers rebounded nicely with a 60-54 win at Rutgers, their first-ever win at the always-imposing Rutgers Athletic Center.
The loss to the Wolverines appears to be the outlier, as the Badgers shot 30.8% from the field, but Michigan definitely appears to be the better team right now. Perhaps that will change in the Valentine’s Day rematch in Madison, Wisconsin.
The Badgers host Northwestern and No. 15 Ohio State this week, and the latter game should provide more clarity among the Big Ten’s top tier.
4. Ohio State Buckeyes (11-3, 5-3 Big Ten)
The Buckeyes leapfrogged Illinois in the power rankings after beating the Fighting Illini on the road, and have entered the top tier of the Big Ten. No. 15 Ohio State has not lost in two weeks and enters a pivotal week with a visit to No. 10 Wisconsin and a home rematch against Purdue, who felled the Buckeyes a month ago.
Sophomore forward EJ Liddell was phenomenal in Ohio State’s 87-81 win at then-No. 14 Illinois, scoring 26 points on 10-of-16 shooting to go with seven rebounds and no turnovers. He and junior guard Duane Washington Jr. seem like locks at this point for an All-Big Ten team.
5. Illinois Fighting Illini (9-5, 5-3 Big Ten)
Illinois lost its second straight game and its only one of the week to Ohio State and swapped places with the Buckeyes, dropping to the Big Ten’s second tier in the process. The No. 22 Fighting Illini were second in these power rankings just two weeks ago, but five losses in 14 games does not look good for the team with Kenpom.com’s 11th highest adjusted efficiency ranking.
Junior guard Ayo Dosunmu, once a heavy favorite to be named a first-team All-American, has failed to reach 25 points in each of Illinois’ last four games after doing so five times in his first 10 games. The Fighting Illini will enjoy a reprieve to some degree this week as they take on Michigan State and Penn State, neither of which rank in KenPom.com’s top 40.
Illinois still ranks ahead of Minnesota largely because of the fact that the Fighting Illini beat the Golden Gophers 92-65 in their Dec. 30 matchup. This was a game that showed Illinois’ immense potential, but the Fighting Illini will soon need to start looking more like the Big Ten contender they were recently believed to be in order to keep this high of a ranking.
6. Minnesota Golden Gophers (11-4, 4-4 Big Ten)
The No. 17 Golden Gophers got the ultimate revenge on Saturday when they ended a brief losing streak with a dominant win over Michigan, arguably the hottest team in the country at that point. Junior guard Marcus Carr is still not playing on the same plane he began the season on, but Robbins had a huge game against the Wolverines. The seven-foot Drake transfer led all scorers with 22 points to go with eight rebounds, two steals and two blocks. In Minnesota’s three best wins, routes of Michigan and Ohio State and an overtime victory over Iowa, Robbins has averaged 25.3 points, 10.3 rebounds and four blocks per game.
The second-fastest team in the Big Ten will enjoy a short break after a trip to Lincoln to take on the Huskers was postponed and will host Maryland on Saturday.
7. Purdue Boilermakers (10-5, 5-3 Big Ten)
Purdue leaps three spots to the top of a cluster from teams 7-10 that is hardly discernible. The Boilermakers won both of their games last week, beating Indiana by 12 on the road before holding off Penn State in the Nittany Lions’ first game back. The win over the in-state rival Hoosiers was huge as they occupied this spot last week, but have not beaten Purdue in five years and eight tries since.
Junior forward Trevion Williams received a nod in ESPN’s top 25 player rankings, landing at No. 16. He is averaging a near double-double with 15.3 points and 9.7 rebounds per game.
The Boilermakers face a huge week with a trip to No. 15 Ohio State on Tuesday before No. 7 Michigan comes to town. Win one, and they may find themselves in the AP Top 25. Purdue has solidified its status as an NCAA Tournament team and has a chance to further remove itself from the bubble.
8. Rutgers Scarlet Knights (7-5, 3-5 Big Ten)
I remain bullish on Rutgers despite its four game losing streak. I think Rutgers is a better team than Purdue, as the Scarlet Knights beat the Boilermakers on Dec. 30, but they are teams that have gone in completely different directions in recent weeks. That being said, this certainly does not look the part of a Big Ten contender anymore. Rutgers is getting closer to being a bubble team as each loss draws it nearer to .500. Having its tournament status in jeopardy is a far cry from a team ranked No. 11 in the nation less than a month ago.
Still, this team has as much upside as about anybody in the conference. Junior guard Ron Harper Jr. appeared at No. 20 in ESPN’s player rankings but needs to bounce back after a four-point performance last game on 2-of-13 shooting. He is averaging 12.2 points per game during Rutgers’ five game losing streak after averaging 24 through his first six games. One bright spot: senior guard Jacob Young is leading the Big Ten in steals per game (2.3) and steal rate (3.93%). He is the only player in the conference who has played at least nine games to record a steal in every game.
In the week two power rankings, I highlighted Rutgers’ greatest weakness: free throw shooting. In its only game of the week, Rutgers was felled by its continual poor performance from the line. The Scarlet Knights missed the front end of two one-and-ones under the two-minute mark while the game was within two possessions. Rutgers shot 2-of-7 from the line on the day. Wisconsin went 6-of-8 from the line in that span and shot 16-of-21 for the game as it beat Rutgers 60-54. Rutgers’ 57.1% mark from the stripe means every free shot is essentially a coin flip, and it ranks dead last in the Big Ten (second-to-last Nebraska shoots 65.9%).
The Scarlet Knights will get a bit of relief as their next four games are all against unranked teams, but they will travel to Penn State and Indiana this week, two teams more than capable of beating a Rutgers team playing less than its best.
9. Indiana Hoosiers (8-6, 3-4 Big Ten)
Indiana fell two spots after a 12-point loss to Purdue that served as their eighth straight loss to their Hoosier state contemporary. Sophomore forward Trayce Jackson-Davis was named the No. 4 player in the country by ESPN and looked the part even as he lost the duel to Trevion Williams and Purdue, scoring 25 points on 9-of-16 shooting.
The Hoosiers rank in the bottom third of the Big Ten in points per game, rebounds per game, free throw percentage and three-point percentage yet have managed to stay afloat with the third-best adjusted defense in the Big Ten. They could stand to gain from one of their guards stepping up as a consistent second option behind Jackson-Davis.
The Hoosiers travel to play No. 4 Iowa on Thursday before Rutgers comes to town. Losing both would leave Indiana with a .500 record and likely on the wrong end of the bubble for the NCAA Tournament.
10. Michigan State Spartans (8-4, 2-4 Big Ten)
Michigan State fell a spot to make room for rising Purdue, which beat the Spartans in their last matchup, before both of last week’s games were canceled due to COVID-19. It stands in a very similar situation to Indiana as a team currently just above the cut line for the NCAA Tournament as it stands today.
The Spartans play steady, balanced basketball with the highest assist percentage in the nation and the Big Ten’s best free throw percentage (76.6%). Michigan State will go 15 days between games, assuming it gets to play against No. 22 Illinois on Saturday.
11. Maryland Terrapins (8-6, 2-5 Big Ten)
Maryland won its only game of the week against Division II Wingate in dominant fashion before a matchup with Nebraska was postponed. The Terrapins expect that junior guard Eric Ayala, their leading scorer, will return from injury for perhaps the most difficult week of their schedule. Maryland visits No. 7 Michigan and No. 17 Minnesota and could use a win in one or both games to improve its tournament chances.
12. Northwestern Wildcats (6-6, 3-5 Big Ten)
Northwestern’s losing streak continued with a fifth-straight double-digit loss. This is starting to look far more like the team Northwestern was expected to be entering the season than the team that reached No. 19 in the AP Top 25 after winning its first three Big Ten games.
The Wildcats sit at the bottom of the bubble but will need to win more than half of their remaining games to reach the NCAA Tournament, which looks unlikely given their current state. According to Kenpom.com, Northwestern has played the most difficult schedule in the nation thus far, but it won’t get much easier this week with road trips to Penn State and No. 10 Wisconsin.
13. Penn State Nittany Lions (3-5, 0-4 Big Ten)
Penn State played its first game since December on Sunday and fell at Purdue. The Nittany Lions, owners of the second-hardest schedule in the nation to date, are still viewed as an outside contender for a Tournament berth. Four of their five losses have come by eight points or less. One point of concern is their lack of a dominant big man in a conference in which nearly all of the top teams have an all-conference caliber post player.
One area the Nittany Lions excel in is creating turnovers. They rank 14th in the nation in steal percentage and lead the Big Ten in steals per game (8.1). They are the only Big Ten team to have three players averaging at least 1.5 steals per game and five averaging at least one steal per game.
Penn State visits No. 22 Illinois and hosts Rutgers this week. Assuming their postponed games are played, the Nittany Lions still have a lot of games to play. Nonetheless, they will need to win at least one of their games this week to have hope of being a tournament team.
14. Nebraska Huskers (4-8, 0-5 Big Ten)
Last week, the Huskers had games against Illinois and Maryland postponed due to COVID-19, and this week, they have already had games against Minnesota and Iowa postponed. Surely the Huskers hope to get back in action relatively soon to have a chance at bettering last year’s last-place Big Ten finish.
Nebraska’s next scheduled game, a Jan. 30 home game against Penn State, would be a great opportunity to resume play and end the losing skid.