Big Ten Power Rankings

It was announced Monday that the Big Ten Tournament tournament will be moved from Chicago to Indianapolis, Indiana, while the NCAA Tournament will be played in an uncharacteristic bubble environment. This will give Big Ten teams a chance to acclimate to the city, which is sure to be helpful given that two-thirds of the conference’s teams are expected to make the NCAA Tournament.

Similar to last week, ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi projected nine Big Ten teams  to make the tournament, with two Big Ten teams among the first eight teams outside of Lunardi’s projected field.

The Big Ten also leads all conferences, with seven teams ranked in the Associated Press Top 25, including three in the top six.

Here is how the Big Ten stands with about a month left of conference play.

1. Michigan Wolverines (13-1, 8-1 Big Ten)

The Wolverines’ stock continues to rise despite not having played in weeks.

The Wolverines had two-and-a-half weeks off due to a COVID-19 outbreak and postponed Thursday’s date with Illinois. Yet, they have climbed to No. 3 in the nation and are one of just three teams with a top 10 offensive and defensive efficiency rating, along with the undefeated Gonzaga Bulldogs and Baylor Bears.

Michigan seems to reside in a tier of its own below the Bulldogs and Bears and a tier of its own atop the Big Ten. It’s currently the best team in the best conference and probably the deepest team in the Big Ten, with several NBA Draft prospects and weapons everywhere on the court. 

That isn’t to say Michigan doesn’t have its challengers. They did get routed by Minnesota, but that was after beating the Golden Gophers a week prior. Minnesota is also rated as having the largest home court advantage among the power six conferences, which may explain the situation somewhat. 

The Wolverines have avoided Iowa and Illinois thus far, but the biggest threat to their Big Ten supremacy may be their rival Ohio State, a team that has mirrored Michigan’s upward momentum in recent weeks. Michigan is currently scheduled to return to action on Sunday at No. 21 Wisconsin. 

2. Ohio State Buckeyes (16-4, 10-4 Big Ten)

Ohio State is incredibly prepared for Michigan to come to town on Feb. 21. 

The Buckeyes are riding a five-game winning streak in the heat of conference play and have won eight of their last nine in a stretch that has seen them go from unranked to now No. 4 in the nation. Ohio State’s precipitous rise, which already included wins at Rutgers, Illinois and Wisconsin, continued last week against an imperious schedule.

The week began with a close win in a shootout at then-No. 8 Iowa. The Buckeyes outlasted the Hawkeyes 89-85 and followed it with a 73-65 win at Maryland in a game that was never as close as the final score suggests. Much has been made of sophomore forward E.J. Liddell in recent weeks, but last week Ohio State utilized more of a committee approach. Junior guard Duane Washington Jr., just behind Liddell in scoring for the season, averaged 17 points per game last week to tie for the team lead. His compatriot was an unlikely one, senior forward Kyle Young, who scored 15 points for just the second and third times this season.

The Buckeyes are off until Saturday’s game against Indiana. Everything is leading up to a stretch of home games against Michigan, Iowa and Illinois to end the season, an opportunity for the Buckeyes to earn themselves the No. 1 seed they’re currently projected to earn in the NCAA Tournament by Lunardi. 

3. Illinois Fighting Illini (13-5, 9-3 Big Ten)

Illinois has turned a full-180 in the last couple weeks, winning four straight games and looking every bit as good as Michigan and Ohio State in the process.

The Fighting Illini joined the Wolverines and Buckeyes in the top 10 this week with a No. 6 ranking and sit at No. 4 nationally on kenpom.com and in the NCAA’s NET rankings. This same outfit was on the verge of falling out of the top 25 altogether just two weeks ago. Such is life in the middle of the Big Ten season, where marquee wins and opportunities to lose are aplenty.

The Fighting Illini were not dominant as they opened the week at Indiana, having to go to overtime to beat the Hoosiers. Still, they snagged a win over a tournament hopeful. Their crescendo was a 75-60 victory over Wisconsin. Each of Illinois’ two headliners played one of their best games in Big Ten play. Sophomore center Kofi Cockburn posted 23 points and 14 rebounds on 10-of-13 shooting, while junior guard Ayo Dosunmu recorded 21-point, 12-rebound, 12-assist triple-double.

This week will bring a recently scheduled trip to Nebraska on Friday. The Fighting Illini have not been as consistent as their contemporaries among the NCAA men’s Final Four contenders but have generally taken care of business, winning seven of their 11 quadrant 1 games, deemed most difficult by the NET. They will be rewarded with a stretch of five games against unranked opponents ahead.

4. Iowa Hawkeyes (13-6, 7-5 Big Ten)

It may be time to panic a little in Iowa City.

The Hawkeyes lost four of their last five games and have dropped lower in these rankings for the third straight week — after four weeks in the No. 1 spot. It’s due more to the inefficacy of the Big Ten’s middle pack than anything else that they haven’t fallen further.

Last week did begin with a win for Iowa, albeit an unconvincing six point win over a Michigan State squad that is a far cry from a tournament team as it stands. Iowa still looked like a good team in its four point loss to Ohio State at home. However, the Hawkeyes hit a new low with a close loss at Indiana to allow the Hoosiers, a bubble team, to complete the season sweep in the series. It was the first time the Hawkeyes lost this season without giving up at least 80 points. The Hawkeyes shot 37.3% from the floor in the 67-65 loss. Senior center Luka Garza failed to hit 20 points for the second game in a row — a mark he has only missed six times in 19 games.

On the bright side, Iowa came within a few shots of going 3-0 on the week. It still sits at No. 15 in the polls and is viewed favorably by advanced metrics, residing at No. 5 on kenpom.com with the No. 1 offense. Still, it’s alarming to see a team that was once viewed as the Big Ten’s best Final Four struggle so much, particularly in close games. If this team, ranked last in the Big Ten defensive efficiency and 121st nationally, cannot score they will be hard-pressed to win in March.

The Hawkeyes will look to bounce back against No. 25 Rutgers on Wednesday before visiting Michigan State on Saturday, two teams that nearly beat Iowa the first time around.

5. Wisconsin Badgers (14-6, 8-5 Big Ten)

The Badgers haven’t been a disaster in recent weeks, but their 4-4 stretch has been concerning. This week brought more of the same mediocrity as Wisconsin again slowly slipped down the AP poll, now to No. 21 after once ranking as high as No. 6. 

The Badgers avenged a loss at Penn State with an impressive 72-56 win over the tournament-caliber Nittany Lions team. The next game, however, brought a near-polar opposite result: A 15-point loss at Illinois in which the Badgers — a big, physical and senior-laden team — were outrebounded 46-19.

Wisconsin will hope to quell this recent stretch of inconsistency this week at Nebraska on Wednesday and No. 3 Michigan on Sunday.

6. Purdue Boilermakers (13-7, 8-5 Big Ten)

The Boilermakers had an unassuming week resulting in them staying put in these power rankings and in the AP poll at No. 24. 

Purdue blew a five-point lead with under two minutes left at Maryland in a gut-wrenching 61-60 loss to a hungry bubble team. It didn’t play all that much better either on Saturday, but it didn’t matter as the Boilermakers came away with a win over Northwestern, 75-70, in which they never trailed. That kind of 1-1 week would be dangerous for a team on the bubble. While Purdue is no lock for meaningful basketball in March, if it continues its recent run of form it should make the NCAA Tournament. 

This week brings a trip to Minnesota on Thursday and a chance for the Boilermakers to complete the season sweep over the Golden Gophers.

7. Minnesota Golden Gophers (12-7, 5-7 Big Ten)

Minnesota ended a three-game losing skid and a stretch in which it lost six of their last eight games with a win Monday night. The Golden Gophers started the week with a four-point loss at Rutgers, who seems to be heading in a different direction than Minnesota. 

Monday’s game presented a welcome gift for the Golden Gophers as they hosted Big Ten basement dweller Nebraska, still rusty after an extended COVID-19 pause, and won 79-61. Junior guard Marcus Carr, Minnesota’s mercurial All-American candidate had a strong week coming off a slump. He bounced back from a six-point performance in his previous outing with 18 points, six rebounds and seven assists at Rutgers, as well as 21 points and eight assists against Nebraska, though he played just 19 minutes in the latter game due to foul trouble.

Minnesota, despite its recent subpar play, remains in the top half of these rankings largely because no team in the Big Ten has the quality of wins the Golden Gophers do. They have beaten Iowa, Ohio State and Michigan, teams primed to earn a high seed in the NCAA Tournament. Minnesota hosts No. 24 Purdue on Thursday then visits Maryland on Sunday hoping to pick up its first road win of the season.

8. Rutgers Scarlet Knights (11-6, 7-6 Big Ten)

The Scarlet Knights look to be a team on the precipice of shooting up these rankings. 

They won their only game last week, 76-72 over Minnesota, as they shot 53.1% from the field. That made it four wins in a row for Rutgers, flipping the script from its five-game losing streak in January. 

Senior guard Geo Baker, a preseason All-Big Ten honoree, once again looks like one of the Scarlet Knights’ best players after struggling through injuries to start the season. He has scored in double figures in all four games of the winning streak, with 16 points against Minnesota.

Rutgers leads the Big Ten in steals per game and is second in blocks and will have to rely on its staunch defense as it travels to Iowa, who it almost knocked off at home. On Saturday, Northwestern will come to town. 

9. Indiana Hoosiers (10-8, 5-6 Big Ten)

The Hoosiers continue the line of teams from 5-9 that keep their place from last week. 

They split their games last week, which should be considered a win as they hosted Illinois and Iowa, two of the conference’s heaviest hitters. The first game brought an overtime loss to the Fighting Illini in which they held Illinois to 38.6% shooting including a 10-point performance on 2-of-11 shooting from junior guard Ayo Dosunmu. Its win this week was one of the most important of the season as it beat then-No. 8 Iowa 67-65 despite shooting just 35.9%. It was the Hawkeyes’ lowest point total of the season and completed a season sweep for Indiana over Iowa.

This week, Indiana will visit Northwestern, a team that beat them at home, and No. 4 Ohio State. The schedule will not get much easier the rest of this season, and it’s almost imperative the Hoosiers win at least half of their remaining games to make the tournament. 

10. Penn State Nittany Lions (7-8, 4-7 Big Ten)

The Nittany Lions again split their games last week and still have a losing record. Yet, they are still right on the bubble. Lunardi has them as the fourth team out of the tournament implying that getting above .500 should provide a tournament berth for the team with the nation’s hardest schedule per kenpom.com. They also rank 28th on the NCAA’s NET metric and 30th on kenpom.com’s adjusted efficiency rankings.

Penn State opened last week with a 72-56 loss at Wisconsin just days after it took down the Badgers, but rebounded with a 55-50 win over fellow tournament-bubble occupant Maryland. Penn State will want to shoot better in the coming games. Last week, it was 38.6% from the field against Wisconsin and 31.5% against Maryland.

This week brings a trip to Michigan State on Tuesday night and a visit from Nebraska on Sunday.

11. Maryland Terrapins (10-10, 4-9 Big Ten)

The Terrapins relinquished their spot to Penn State with Friday’s loss, putting the Nittany Lions back in the top 10 for the first time since week one. They then followed that up with a loss to No. 4 Ohio State 73-65 on Monday. Maryland has some impressive wins (at Wisconsin, at Illinois, at Minnesota, Purdue), but the committee will be hard-pressed to let a team at .500 overall, and way below that line in conference play, into the tournament.

Fortunately, the Terrapins’ schedule gets easier. Maryland hosts Minnesota on Sunday, and the hardest game left on its schedule should be at No. 25 Rutgers.

12. Michigan State Spartans (9-7, 3-7 Big Ten)

The Spartans ended a four game skid with a win over Nebraska on Saturday. Even so, they have a considerable amount of work to do to get at all close to the tournament. The Spartans are 91st in the NET rankings and 62nd in kenpom.com’s efficiency rankings. 

Senior guard Joshua Langford, a former five-star recruit, has been a go-to guy for the Spartans recently, scoring 14, 15 and 18 points in the last three games after scoring at least 14 points just once in his first 12 games this season. Junior forward Aaron Henry continues to be a swiss army knife for Michigan State. He averaged 20 points, 7.5 rebounds and five assists per game last week. 

This week brings two home games for the Spartans as they host Penn State and No. 15 Iowa. Winning at least one would help get them back on track. 

13. Northwestern Wildcats (6-10, 3-9 Big Ten)

Last week’s loss at Purdue made it nine straight for the Wildcats. Looking at their situation optimistically, their last three losses have all come by single digits, two of them on the road, all against NCAA Tournament-caliber teams. Still, it’s almost unfathomable to think this is the same team that started 3-0 in Big Ten play with a win over now-No. 4 Ohio State. 

There will be no easy wins in the next few weeks either. On Wednesday, Northwestern hosts Indiana, and on Saturday, they’ll visit No. 25 Rutgers.

14. Nebraska Huskers (4-10, 0-7 Big Ten)

First, the good news. Nebraska finally resumed play last week after nearly four weeks without games due to COVID-19. The bad news: It lost both games and are now 0-7 in conference play. The Huskers did fare better than a lot of teams coming off an extended pause this season, looking almost competent at times in losses at Michigan State, 66-56, and at Minnesota, 79-61.

Nebraska now boasts both the Big Ten’s leader in steals for the season — junior guard Teddy Allen is averaging 1.8 steals per game — and the leader in steals in Big Ten play — junior guard Trey McGowens is averaging 2 steals per game.

It will have plenty of opportunities to try to pick up its first conference win now that the Big Ten has begun rescheduling their postponed games. However, due to the reschedules, Nebraska now has four games in eight days coming up. Nebraska hosts No. 21 Wisconsin on Wednesday, No. 6 Illinois on Friday and visits Penn State on Sunday.

sports@dailynebraskan.com