After over a month of power rankings, we finally have a new No. 1. Last week Michigan held the top spot for a few days, but it couldn’t make it to the end of the week without a loss and gave the crown right back to Iowa. This week, the Wolverines left no doubt who should sit atop the Big Ten hierarchy.
Per usual, teams among the second and third tiers of the conference rose and fell, and there was quite a bit of movement among the top teams as well. The Big Ten, like nearly every other conference, is still navigating COVID-19 postponements as teams shut down or restart play.
The Big Ten still has ten teams projected to make the NCAA Tournament per ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi with another right on the bubble. There is still ample time for trajectories to change before mid March.
1. Michigan Wolverines (13-1, 8-1 Big Ten)
Michigan was dominant this week, beating Maryland, a solid bubble team, by 24 points before winning by 17 at Purdue, a clear tournament team as it stands. The Wolverines have now won eight of nine conference games in the Big Ten and are just the second team to hold No. 1 status in these power rankings.
Michigan had a fitting star in last week’s games to accompany its status. Senior forward Isaiah Livers has quietly been one of the best players in the Big Ten. He averaged 21.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and three assists per game while shooting 54.5% in the two wins, driving the Wolverines’ offense.
The Wolverines rank at No. 4 in the AP Top 25, No. 3 in kenpom.com’s adjusted efficiency rankings and are widely projected as a No. 1 seed for the NCAA Tournament. Head coach Juwan Howard’s squad is off to a blistering start through 14 games, a far cry from a Michigan team that wasn’t even ranked for its first six games.
Now comes the chaser. The University of Michigan shut down all athletics for 14 days on Saturday, Jan. 23 following a COVID-19 outbreak. The Wolverines were set to have a bit of a breather by Big Ten standards with Indiana and Michigan State coming to town and a trip to Northwestern. Now, those three games are canceled, and Michigan will hope to resume play against No. 19 Illinois on Feb. 16. The Wolverines also may hope those games end up getting played as they were three of the easier matchups remaining on their Big Ten schedule.
Perhaps this short break will be a blessing in disguise for a Michigan team that had played four games in a week-and-a-half span. It may also give college basketball fans a better appreciation for one of the best teams in the nation.
2. Iowa Hawkeyes (12-3, 6-2 Big Ten)
While Michigan won both of its games last week, Iowa dropped its only contest, tallying its third loss of the season. The Hawkeyes lost to Indiana 81-69 at home as they shot 38% from the field. Senior center Luka Garza’s characteristic 28 points and 12 rebounds couldn’t save the Hawkeyes from their second conference loss.
Iowa’s next game, a home matchup with Nebraska, was canceled due to the Huskers’ own COVID-19 outbreak. The No. 7 Hawkeyes will look to resume play on Friday with a trip to No. 19 Illinois, the first matchup between the two teams this season.
3. Ohio State Buckeyes (12-4, 6-4 Big Ten)
Ohio State joined the upper echelon of Big Ten teams on Jan. 16 with a win at Illinois, but moved up further from last week despite losing its first game of the week. Ohio State fell at home to Purdue even after leading by five with under two minutes left. That hiccup would not repeat itself, however, as the Buckeyes bounced back in a big way with a 74-62 road victory over then-No. 10 Wisconsin.
Additionally, Ohio State got back its floor general, junior guard CJ Walker, who had missed the previous four games with a hand injury. Sophomore forward EJ Liddell led the Buckeyes in their victory over the Badgers with 20 points and seven rebounds. After nearly doubling his scoring and rebounding totals from last season, Liddell is now at 14.5 points per game and 6.8 rebounds per game. He has a solid argument for most improved player in the conference, and is the best player on one of the Big Ten’s best teams.
The No. 13 Buckeyes are back in action Wednesday against Penn State then host Michigan State on Sunday, two very winnable games for a team that’s won four of its last five.
4. Wisconsin Badgers (12-4, 6-3 Big Ten)
Like the Buckeyes, the Badgers split their pair of games last week, but the teams switch spots in these rankings due to their head-to-head matchup. Wisconsin is now 0-2 against teams with winning records in Big Ten play and has six remaining games against opponents who meet that standard. Wisconsin is a stable program viewed as a consistent winner and perennial Sweet 16 threat, but maybe its place is less solidified at the top of the Big Ten than one may assume.
One player in particular who has struggled for the Badgers this year is senior forward Nate Reuvers. He was Wisconsin’s leading scorer last year and was one of ten players named preseason All-Big Ten this year, but has fallen to fifth in scoring on the team. His minutes, rebounds and shooting percentages have all dropped as well.
Despite their relative struggles, the No. 14 Badgers are still in contention for the Big Ten title even as their schedule gets more difficult. After winning comfortably over Northwestern and falling to Ohio State last week, Wisconsin travels to Maryland and Penn State this week.
5. Illinois Fighting Illini (10-5, 6-3 Big Ten)
The Fighting Illini hold their spot after winning their only game of the week over a plucky Penn State group to sweep the season series. Sophomore center Kofi Cockburn had one of his better games of the season, putting up 21 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks in 26 minutes despite shooting just below his season average of 70% from the field.
Both Cockburn and junior guard Ayo Dosunmu have made considerable steps in the last year, but the Fighting Illini have not been the national power many expected them to be entering this year. This is probably due to some combination of the lackluster performances of their two lauded freshmen guards, Adam Miller and Andre Curbelo, and similar results from senior guard Trent Frazier.
Illinois desperately needs someone to help carry the load when it hosts No. 7 Iowa on Friday, its first game against a top three team in the Big Ten standings.
6. Purdue Boilermakers (11-6, 6-4 Big Ten)
The Boilermakers continue to climb after splitting a pair of difficult games last week. They opened the week with an important two-point victory at then-No. 15 Ohio State as they out-shot and out-rebounded the Buckeyes in Columbus for a season sweep. Purdue then reverted to the mean a bit with a 70-53 home loss to Michigan, a defeat that snapped a four-game winning streak.
The Boilermakers are last in the Big Ten in scoring but do rank third in points allowed. Even with a small point differential of 3.5 per game, Purdue continues to win its close matchups. Next on the calendar is a matchup with No. 21 Minnesota on Saturday.
7. Minnesota Golden Gophers (11-5, 4-5 Big Ten)
Minnesota switches spots with Purdue after losing its only game of the week in embarrassing fashion. Coming off a monumental 18-point win over then-undefeated Michigan, the Golden Gophers dropped their next game to Maryland in a 14-point home defeat. It was Minnesota’s first home loss of the season and was uncharacteristic for a team that plays significantly better at home than it does on the road.
The Golden Gophers certainly have a higher ceiling than the team ranked directly above them, their win over Michigan and a 17-point victory over Ohio State in the midst of four double digit losses serving as proof. However, they will have to travel to Purdue this week. It would be both surprising and encouraging to see Minnesota beat a similar-caliber team on the road, given its record so far.
8. Indiana Hoosiers (9-7, 4-5 Big Ten)
The Hoosiers played twice this week. The first game was a potentially season-altering win and the second was a disappointing loss. Indiana ranks No. 24 per Kenpom.com but profiles more as a bubble team.
The Hoosiers were terrific in an 81-69 upset win at then-No. 4 Iowa. Sophomore forward Trayce Jackson-Davis continued to look like an All-American as he put up 23 points and seven rebounds. Indiana also got a combined 43 points from their three starting guards against the Hawkeyes after I noted their inconsistency last week. The next game was the polar opposite as the Hoosiers dropped a home game to a teetering Rutgers squad.
Indiana has the week off after its game with Michigan was canceled. The Hoosiers return to action on Tuesday, Feb. 2 against Illinois.
9. Rutgers Scarlet Knights (8-6, 4-6 Big Ten)
I almost kept the Scarlet Knights in last week’s spot above the Hoosiers given that they did just beat Indiana on the road. However, Rutgers’ week was still less impressive than Indiana’s altogether. Before the win over Indiana, Rutgers had lost five in a row including at Penn State to start last week to give the Nittany Lions their first Big Ten win.
As a whole, last week was a net negative for the Scarlet Knights, as they continued their fall from grace to the bubble, and they will have ample opportunity to right the ship this week. They take on Michigan State at home and Northwestern on the road, two games they will have a very good chance at winning if they play up to standard.
Senior guard Geo Baker, who was a preseason All-Big Ten honoree, matched two season highs against Indiana with 19 points and five assists. It was a promising game for a player who has struggled this year — he is below double figures in scoring for the first season in his college career.
10. Maryland Terrapins (9-7, 3-6 Big Ten)
The Terrapins have entered the top 10 of the power rankings for the first time this season. The week started off poorly for the program with an 87-63 loss at Michigan, but rebounded in a big way with a 63-49 win at then-No. 17 Minnesota. Maryland impressively outrebounded the Golden Gophers 38-30 in the process despite not having anyone taller than 6-foot-7 in the starting lineup.
The rest of the season figures to continue to be a series of ups and downs as Maryland tries to tread water in the Big Ten and stay on the right side of the NCAA Tournament bubble. The Terrapins host No. 14 Wisconsin on Wednesday, a team they upset on the road.
11. Michigan State Spartans (8-4, 2-4 Big Ten)
The Spartans drop further after nearly three weeks of inactivity. They have the resume of an NCAA Tournament candidate and would be right on the cutting line if the season ended today. Fortunately for Michigan State, it’s scheduled to resume play at Rutgers on Thursday.
12. Penn State Nittany Lions (5-6, 2-5 Big Ten)
The Nittany Lions could be on the precipice of climbing up these power rankings. After two-and-a-half weeks of inactivity gave way to two losses to resume Big Ten play, Penn State had one of the best weeks of anyone in the conference. Unfortunately, at 0-5 the Nittany Lions were already so far down the ladder that it will take many more strong performances to get back in the NCAA Tournament picture.
Penn State took down Rutgers and Northwestern. These are, granted, two stumbling teams, but they are teams with several Big Ten wins nevertheless. The Nittany Lions have a brutal week ahead as they’ll visit No. 13 Ohio State and host No. 14 Wisconsin. Winning even one of the two would put them in position for a strong finish to a season that is less than halfway done if all of their postponed games are played.
13. Northwestern Wildcats (6-8, 3-7 Big Ten)
Northwestern has finally fallen all the way back to the basement of the Big Ten, just one spot above where it sat in the first iteration of these power rankings this season. The Wildcats lost their seventh straight game as they dropped road contests to Wisconsin and Penn State last week.
Perhaps a hopeful note the Wildcats can take away is that their 81-78 loss to Penn State was the closest game they played since they beat Ohio State in December. Northwestern hosts Rutgers on Saturday.
14. Nebraska Huskers (4-8, 0-5 Big Ten)
Nebraska has not played since Jan. 10 due to positive COVID-19 tests within the program. The Huskers are set to return to play on Tuesday, Feb. 3 against Michigan State, a team that is coming off an extended break itself due to COVID-19.