The Big Ten’s count of teams in the AP Top 25 fell to five this week. While this may sound bleak, three of those aforementioned squads are in the top five.
This is the first time in Big Ten history that the conference has put three teams into the top five after the month of January. It seems highly unlikely the conference could land three teams as No. 1 seeds given the dominance of Baylor and Gonzaga, but there remains a chance the Big Ten could get four teams among the tournament’s top eight seeds, especially with Iowa lurking right outside that group.
ESPN, The Athletic, CBS Sports and USA Today all featured nine Big Ten teams in their most recent bracket predictions, with most of them putting two more Big Ten teams on the outside looking in among bubble teams.
We now seem to be at the point where teams have just about settled into place, with only marginal changes to be expected hereafter. The Big Ten’s top tier is still composed of Final Four contenders, if not, teams with the ability to make that final step into NCAA Tournament glory.
The second group is teams that are essentially tournament locks. Most teams in this category will hope to snag a couple wins in the tournament, but it also wouldn’t be a shock if they lost in the first round.
The third group is teams on the bubble who are trying desperately to prove themselves as worthy of playing in mid-March, and the fourth group is teams that are losing far more often than they’re winning in conference play. Here, below, is a closer look at this distribution.
1. Michigan Wolverines ( 14-1, 9-1 Big Ten)
The Wolverines resumed play for the first time in nearly three weeks due to a COVID-19 pause and continued their winning ways. Michigan’s Big Ten supremacy looked to be in jeopardy for much of Sunday’s game at No. 21 Wisconsin. A loss would have been understandable as the break could have led to some rust, but Michigan eventually overcame a 12-point halftime deficit and pulled away in the final minute to take home a 67-59 win.
Michigan ranks No. 3 in the AP poll, Kenpom’s adjusted efficiency rankings and the NCAA’s NET rankings. The Wolverines probably have the best chance of anyone outside of undefeated Gonzaga or Baylor winning the NCAA Tournament from what we’ve seen nationally thus far. The Wolverines host No. 25 Rutgers on Thursday before visiting No. 4 Ohio State on Sunday for one of the most anticipated games this season.
2. Ohio State Buckeyes ( 17-4, 11-4 Big Ten)
The Buckeyes have the longest winning streak in the Big Ten — six games — and impressed despite a relatively quiet week with just one game. Ohio State did not play a courteous host when Indiana came to town on Saturday, beating the Hoosiers convincingly, 78-59. The Buckeyes seem to sit in a tier of their own with Michigan, not only in the Big Ten, but nationally. They have lost four times in conference play but have yet to play Michigan and beat the team directly below them, Illinois, on the road.
Ohio State could continue its precipitous rise all the way up to the No. 1 spot in these power rankings with a win over Michigan this week.
3. Illinois Fighting Illini ( 14-5, 10-3 Big Ten)
The Fighting Illini joined the Wolverines and Buckeyes in the national top five when Monday’s rankings were released, making them the best five-loss team in the nation. Illinois is nearly as hot as Ohio State, having won five in a row, most recently squeaking out an overtime win at Nebraska. It wasn’t Illinois’ finest moment, but no fault was due to their stars. Junior guard Ayo Dosunmu tallied 31 points, six assists and four steals, and sophomore center Kofi Cockburn posted 21 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks.
If Illinois’ secondary players are able to offer better contributions, this may be the conference’s most dangerous team come postseason play. Few teams across the country have a top two that can compete with Dosunmu and Cockburn. The Fighting Illini host Northwestern on Tuesday and face the daunting task of visiting Minnesota on Saturday.
4. Iowa Hawkeyes ( 15-6, 9-5 Big Ten)
The Hawkeyes took care of business last week, proving that they belong in the top tier of teams rather than the middle pack below them. Iowa led for the vast majority of its game against No. 25 Rutgers on Wednesday, never letting the Scarlet Knights get within striking distance in its 79-66 win. Then the Hawkeyes blew the doors off at Michigan State just a week and a half after letting the Spartans get too close for comfort within the friendly confines of Carver-Hawkeye arena.
Senior center Luka Garza is still the national player of the year favorite, leading the country in scoring while playing for one of the top teams in the best conference, but junior guard Joe Wieskamp has looked just as indispensable for the Hawkeyes lately. The native Iowan has led the team in scoring in each of the last three games, averaging 21.7 points and 8.3 rebounds per game in that span. The highlight of that stretch was his 26 point, 10 rebound showing against the Scarlet Knights, a Garza-level stat line.
The Hawkeyes actually rank above Illinois and Ohio State in Kenpom’s adjusted efficiency rankings where they sit at No. 4 nationally. This week brings a Thursday visit to No. 21 Wisconsin before Penn State comes to town on Sunday.
5. Wisconsin Badgers ( 15-7, 9-6 Big Ten)
I really have no idea what to do with teams five through eight. Every team in this second tier of the Big Ten is nearly a lock for the tournament and sits at the bottom of or right outside the national top 25. They also all seem to finish 1-1 about every week. It’s a near interchangeable group.
The Badgers are no different, but they perhaps came the closest to a perfect week, so for that reason, I’m keeping them in the same spot as last week like the four teams above them.
The Badgers played a pair of close games with less close final scores. On Wednesday, they overcame a first half deficit at Nebraska and slowly pulled away to win 61-48 despite a 32.3% shooting performance from the field. On Sunday, Wisconsin led No. 3 Michigan nearly the entire time from the tip until the final five minutes until the Wolverines took over and came away with a 67-59 win. A win over the Wolverines may have been watered down by the fact that they were coming off a three week COVID-19 pause, but it would have been a marquee win nonetheless.
On Thursday, the Badgers play No. 11 Iowa for the first time this season, testing Wisconsin’s Big Ten best scoring defense (62.6 points per game allowed) against the conference’s top scoring offense in Iowa (87.4 points per game). On Sunday, the Badgers visit Northwestern where they’ll attempt to complete the season sweep over the Wildcats.
6. Rutgers Scarlet Knights ( 12-7, 8-7 Big Ten)
Rutgers’ four-game win streak ended with a loss at Iowa on Wednesday, but it rebounded with a convincing 64-50 win over Northwestern on Saturday. The dynamic offensive attack Rutgers used to boast seems largely gone; they’ve failed to score more than 76 points since topping 80 twice in their first four Big Ten games. Nonetheless, the Scarlet Knights have found a way to win regardless, employing the nation’s 13th best defensive efficiency. And for that reason, they have finally been boosted back into the top half of these rankings.
A huge opportunity awaits with a game at No. 3 Michigan on Thursday. A win could move the Scarlet Knights somewhere around a 4 or 5 seed for the tournament projections, especially if they take care of business against Maryland on Sunday.
7. Minnesota Golden Gophers ( 13-8, 6-8 Big Ten)
Minnesota played up to its reputation last week, securing a big win at home and losing to a lesser team on the road. The Golden Gophers took down then-No. 24 Purdue 71-68 on Thursday on the backs of some late-game heroics from junior guard Marcus Carr (19 points, four rebounds and five assists) and junior guard Gabe Kalscheur (16 points and eight rebounds). Days after, Minnesota lost at Maryland 72-59, allowing the Terrapins to complete the season sweep.
Fortunately for Minnesota, Maryland is the only team that has beaten it at home. In theory, the Golden Gophers should have a solid chance at taking down No. 5 Illinois in Minneapolis on Saturday, but it’s a tall order. Before then, they have a Wednesday trip to Indiana.
8. Purdue Boilermakers ( 13-8, 8-6 Big Ten)
The Boilermakers fall two spots after losing their only game of the week. Purdue didn’t play poorly in its three-point loss at Minnesota, a very tough team to play on the road, but Purdue is making me start to feel like this rank is exactly where it belongs, instead of the top five spot it was vying for last week.
Purdue seems to have a lower ceiling than the other teams in this range. Minnesota has some huge wins, Rutgers has top-level talent and Wisconsin is perhaps a slightly better version of the Boilermakers. Purdue would not be my top choice of this group to go head-to-head with one of the nation’s best teams in the tournament, but it wouldn’t be a shock to see the Boilermakers go as far as the Sweet 16.
The Boilermakers still have some hope. They are 3-7 in quad 1 games, but do boast a season sweep over now-No. 4 Ohio State. And thankfully for them, the schedule gets easier to end the season, starting with a home game against Michigan State on Tuesday and a trip to Nebraska on Saturday.
9. Indiana Hoosiers ( 11-9, 6-7 Big Ten)
The Hoosiers have been treading water for some time now, and it’s unclear if they belong in the second tier with teams five through eight in the Big Ten or in the third with the bubble teams on the outside looking in. Indiana is a tournament team as it stands, but a late-season slip would likely see the Hoosiers miss the tournament for the fourth straight season.
This week didn’t do much to change Indiana’s aforementioned status. It clawed out a three-point win at Northwestern, which perhaps should’ve been better for a team with some pedigree. One positive was seeing senior guard Al Durham and sophomore guard Armaan Franklin step up to combine for 47 points, but at the same time, talismanic sophomore forward Trayce Jackson-Davis had a season-low 10 points.
This week brings two home games, Minnesota on Wednesday and Michigan State on Saturday, both of which the Hoosiers will be favored in.
10. Maryland Terrapins ( 11-10, 5-9 Big Ten)
The Terrapins have climbed back into the top ten of the Big Ten and after a week outside. They also got back above .500 with their home win over Minnesota, a team they also managed to beat on the road. Maryland has some big wins, and all of its losses are in quad 1 games, but its subpar record raises the question of what the value is of a subpar team in a really good conference. The Terrapins do win some of their numerous games against top opponents, but one could also imagine them dominating in a lesser one.
This week brings two home games against Nebraska, one of them a rescheduled road game from earlier this month due to a COVID-19 postponement. While it’s hard to beat any team twice, losing once at home to the Huskers would not profile as a good loss for a team already facing relatively long tournament odds.
11. Michigan State Spartans ( 10-8, 4-8 Big Ten)
If it wasn’t already clear, this Michigan State team will probably not be making the NCAA Tournament; the first time in over two decades. The Spartans are in the bottom third of the Big Ten and have beaten only one team with a winning record in conference play (8-7 Rutgers).
The Spartans did pick up a solid win on Tuesday over Penn State, 60-58, but were blown out by Iowa, 88-58, on Saturday. If Michigan State fans are looking for a bright spot, it’s junior forward Aaron Henry’s potential return next year along with a top recruiting class. Through the last four games, Henry is averaging 18.3 points, 5.8 rebounds and and four assists per game.
12. Penn State Nittany Lions ( 7-10, 4-9 Big Ten)
The Nittany Lions fell two spots after entering the top ten last week. After winning four of its last six, Penn State dropped both of its games last week, and cruelly, only by a combined three points. It led in the final minutes against both Michigan State and Nebraska, and had last-second shots to win in both, but couldn’t convert either.
Now, instead of the fun dark horse NCAA Tournament candidate, Penn State looks like a long shot. Given the difficulty of the schedule, second nationally behind Northwestern, the Nittany Lions could probably still make the tournament if they somehow manage to finish with a winning record. This week offers a visit from No. 4 Ohio State on Thursday and a road trip to No. 11 Iowa on Sunday.
13. Nebraska Huskers ( 5-12, 1-9 Big Ten)
The Huskers became the last team to pick up a Big Ten win last weekend, and a quad 1 win at that. The Huskers played their fifth game in ten days on Sunday, and their third since last week’s power rankings. This was inarguably Nebraska’s best week of play, despite its 1-2 record in the games as the Huskers led Wisconsin for much of the first half before slowly falling apart then took Illinois to overtime and won at Penn State.
While the current record may not show it, this team is measurably better than last year’s group that finished the season with 17 straight losses, and the Huskers have the talent to upset a couple more conference foes as they cram more games into a short window. This week brings back-to-back games at Maryland, on Tuesday and Wednesday, and a home game against Purdue on Saturday.
14. Northwestern Wildcats ( 6-12, 3-11 Big Ten)
The Wildcats fall below the Huskers because of the teams’ opposite trajectories, with Nebraska seemingly picking up some momentum and Northwestern having lost 11 straight. Last week, Northwestern had the chance to sweep the season series against Indiana but lost a three-point double overtime thriller to the Hoosiers. The Wildcats did not look too competitive following it, losing 64-50 to Rutgers.
Northwestern’s schedule, now rated as the nation’s hardest per Kenpom, will not relent in the immediate future. It plays at No. 5 Illinois on Tuesday and hosts No. 21 Wisconsin on Sunday. Two games at the tail end of the schedule and home games against Maryland and Nebraska, offer a smidgeon of light at the end of the tunnel and a chance to stop the downward spiral.