The Big Ten men’s basketball tournament is less than one month away and Selection Sunday will soon follow on March 15. As quickly as it seemed this college basketball season started, the end of the regular season is in sight.
For a good majority of the Big Ten’s 14 teams, the season will not end when the conference tournament concludes in Indianapolis. Thanks to a weak bubble caused by conferences like the ACC and Big 12 not performing well this season and a competitive Big Ten, 12 teams have a realistic shot to make the NCAA Tournament.
Just because 12 teams can make the tournament doesn’t mean 12 teams will. For some squads engulfed in the middle or bottom of the standings, these next two weeks are make-or-break. It’s go time. Teams that need a resume-boosting victory (looking at you, Minnesota and Indiana) need to do so fast.
I don’t want to insinuate that if teams like Minnesota, Indiana, Ohio State or Michigan go on a losing skid they’ll miss out on the NCAA Tournament, because the conference tournament will provide one last opportunity for quality victories. What I am saying is it’s time for teams in the middle of the standings to prove their worth.
This upcoming weekend is one of the biggest of the season, and we’ll know a lot more about some of those middle-of-the-pack squads by this time next week. March is almost here, and I’m excited to see which Big Ten teams rise to the top or fold under pressure.
Let’s take a look at how the Big Ten stands before this weekend with the week 14 Big Ten power rankings. All records are accurate as of Feb. 12.
1. Maryland Terrapins (20-4, 10-3 Big Ten)
Mark Turgeon’s squad proved why it’s not only one of the best teams in the Big Ten, but one of the best teams in the country on Feb. 7 with an impressive 75-66 victory at then-No. 20 Illinois.
The Terrapins trailed by as many as 14 points in the first half, but Turgeon switched Maryland’s defense from man-to-man to zone, a move that confused the Illini while also allowing Maryland to climb back into the game. Senior guard Anthony Cowan Jr. led all scorers with 20 points and sophomore forward Jalen Smith posted an 11-point, 11-rebound double-double.
As impressive as Maryland looked in beating Illinois, it couldn’t have looked less convincing on Feb. 11 against Nebraska. The Terrapins nearly fell to Nebraska in what would’ve been a catastrophic blow in Maryland’s quest for a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Maryland did blow a 14-point second-half lead, but Smith rejected an effort from Nebraska sophomore guard Cam Mack in the game’s final seconds to preserve a 72-70 victory. Smith dominated the undersized Huskers with 16 points and 13 rebounds and sophomore guard Eric Ayala posted a season-high 16 points.
I’m chalking Maryland’s performance against Nebraska up to a combination of overlooking the Huskers and looking ahead to its next contest, a showdown with Michigan State on Feb. 15 in East Lansing, Michigan. Maryland then hosts Northwestern on Feb. 18.
2. Penn State Nittany Lions (19-5, 9-4 Big Ten)
Penn State’s magical season continued with two impressive victories this week.
The Nittany Lions beat Minnesota 83-77 in an exciting contest on Feb. 8, a contest that featured an awesome showdown between Penn State senior forward Lamar Stevens and Minnesota sophomore center Daniel Oturu. Stevens finished with 33 points and seven rebounds while Oturu posted an impressive 32-point, 16-rebound double-double.
Sophomore guard Izaiah Brockington followed Stevens’ performance with 10 points, and three different Nittany Lions finished with eight points.
Pat Chambers’ group followed up that performance with an impressive road victory over Purdue on Feb. 11. Senior forward Mike Watkins led all scorers with 19 points, and Penn State rode a 54% performance from 3-point range to an 88-76 victory. Five Penn State players finished with double-figures in scoring against Purdue, with freshman forward Seth Lundy’s career-high 18 points leading the bunch.
The best part of this Penn State team is that it can beat teams in a variety of ways with different players leading the scoring charge. This is a team that should be able to rattle off multiple wins in the NCAA Tournament if it stays hot.
Penn State will look to extend its seven-game winning streak when it hosts Northwestern on Feb. 15 and No. 22 Illinois on Feb. 18.
3. Iowa Hawkeyes (17-7, 8-5 Big Ten)
Iowa thrashed Nebraska 96-72 on Feb. 8 in its lone contest last week.
Sophomore guard Joe Wieskamp led all scorers with an efficient 30-point performance and junior center Luka Garza had 22 points and eight rebounds. The Hawkeyes led by as many as 36 points in the second half before calling off the dogs, a testament to Iowa’s No. 19 scoring offense.
As important as it was for Iowa to get back on track, and as much as I like Garza, Wieskamp and freshman guard CJ Fredrick as players, I still have two major concerns about the Hawkeyes.
The first is Iowa’s lack of a true point guard. Freshman guard Joe Toussaint has potential, but right now I’m not comfortable with him being Iowa’s primary ball handler and his offensive game needs more polishing.
The second is Iowa’s atrocious defense. The Hawkeyes concede an average of 71.7 points per game, the No. 244 mark in Division I. Good offense can only get teams so far in March, and if the Hawkeyes don’t shore up their defense, they could be a team that fades quickly toward the end of the regular season.
Iowa visits Indiana on Feb. 13 and Minnesota on Feb. 16.
4. Michigan State Spartans (17-8, 9-5 Big Ten)
It seemed like the mighty had fallen.
Michigan State, the preseason No. 1 team in the country, lost its third-consecutive game on Feb. 8 at Michigan, a 77-68 defeat. The Spartans had another flat offensive performance, shooting 33% from the field and 26% from 3-point range. On Monday, Tom Izzo’s group fell out of the AP Top 25 for the first time all season.
Betting against Izzo, especially during this time of the year, is never the best idea, and Michigan State got back on track with a huge 70-69 road victory over No. 22 Illinois on Feb. 11. Junior forward Xavier Tillman had the game-winning putback dunk with 6.6 seconds left, two of his 17 points on the night.
Freshman guard Rocket Watts had a breakout performance against the Illini with a career-high 21 points on 9-for-14 shooting. Sophomore forward Aaron Henry had 13 points and senior guard Cassius Winston had 12 points.
I can’t express enough how massive this win was for Michigan State. Not only did it win, it did so without Winston needing to be superman. If Michigan State’s other role players can step up, this is a dangerous team come tournament time.
Michigan State hosts No. 9 Maryland on Feb. 15.
5. Illinois Fighting Illini (16-8, 8-5 Big Ten)
No, I’m not going to send Illinois to the depths of these rankings because of losses to Maryland and Michigan State, two teams that will most likely be ranked in the top 15 of the AP Poll by the season’s end.
Brad Underwood’s squad should consider itself lucky, as a bad week could’ve been much, much worse. On the last play of the Michigan State game, sophomore guard Ayo Dosunmu slipped on the court and immediately grabbed his knee. Everyone instantly feared the worst, especially since it was a non-contact injury.
Thankfully, Dosunmu’s MRI came back yesterday and showed he had no structural damage in his knee. Illinois didn’t give a timetable for his return, but his offensive prowess (15.8 points per game) will be missed in his absence.
Senior guard Andres Feliz, junior guard Trent Frazier and sophomore guard Alan Griffin will need to replace Dosunmu’s production. Illinois is still an NCAA Tournament team and should be able to keep its head above water without Dosunmu, but it faces a major test at the RAC against Rutgers on Feb. 15.
Illinois then visits No. 13 Penn State on Feb. 18
6. Wisconsin Badgers (14-10, 7-6 Big Ten)
Wisconsin picked up a much-needed home victory against Ohio State on Feb. 9.
Senior guard Brevin Pritzl scored 19 points off the bench to lead the Badger offense in the 70-57 victory, including five 3-pointers. A 16-0 run to close the first half helped Wisconsin pull away from the Buckeyes, and Wisconsin improved its record at the Kohl Center to 11-1 on the season with Sunday’s victory.
Junior forward Aleem Ford was the only other Badger in double-figures.
The Badgers visit Nebraska on Feb. 15 and host Purdue on Feb. 18. Victories in both of those contests would help secure Wisconsin’s place as an NCAA Tournament team. However, a loss, especially in Lincoln, would put the Badgers’ postseason plans in murkier waters.
7. Purdue Boilermakers (14-11, 7-7 Big Ten)
Purdue’s success at home has been well-documented this season, but Matt Painter’s squad proved it can win on the road in a dominant 74-62 victory over Indiana on Feb. 8.
The Boilermakers stifled a raucous Assembly Hall crowd by forcing 14 Hoosier turnovers and shooting 50% from 3-point range. Freshman guard Isaiah Thompson and sophomore forward Aaron Wheeler went a combined 5-for-5 from 3-point range and sophomore guard Eric Hunter Jr. led Purdue in scoring with 12 points, followed by 11 from Wheeler.
The 3-point shot failed the Boilermakers in their Feb. 11 contest with No. 13 Penn State, an 88-76 defeat. Purdue shot 24% from 3-point range, and didn’t have the offensive firepower to close the gap against Penn State.
Three Boilermakers scored 15 points or more in the loss against Penn State, led by 17 points from sophomore forward Trevion Williams. Purdue visits Ohio State on Feb. 15 and visits Wisconsin on Feb. 18.
8. Rutgers Scarlet Knights (17-8, 8-6 Big Ten)
If Rutgers played every game at the RAC, it would probably win the National Championship.
Unfortunately it can’t, and the Scarlet Knights are starting to hit a bit of a wall in conference play. Rutgers escaped what would’ve been a devastating loss to Northwestern on Feb. 9 as Northwestern led by as many as 18 points, but Rutgers won 77-73 in overtime.
Junior guard Geo Baker turned in a solid performance for the Scarlet Knights with 25 points, six rebounds and five assists. With Sunday’s victory, the Scarlet Knights moved to 16-0 at home this season.
Steve Pikiell’s squad couldn’t dig itself out of a big hole on Feb. 12 in Columbus, Ohio, falling 72-66 to Ohio State. Rutgers trailed by as many as 20 points against the Buckeyes, mainly due to the fact it got no production from the starting lineup.
The Scarlet Knight starters combined for 24 points against Ohio State, while the bench had 42 points. Junior guard Jacob Young led the bench’s stellar night with 17 points, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the Buckeyes.
Rutgers hosts No. 22 Illinois on Feb. 15 and hosts Michigan on Feb. 19.
9. Ohio State Buckeyes (16-8, 6-7 Big Ten)
I really, really like what I’m seeing from Chris Holtmann’s squad.
Ohio State has won four of its last five games, jumping from Big Ten bottom-feeder to a team trending upwards at the right time. The Buckeyes rebounded from the 70-57 loss to Wisconsin nicely in Wednesday night’s 72-66 triumph over Rutgers.
The Wesson brothers led the way against the Scarlet Knights, with junior forward Kaleb Wesson leading the Buckeyes in scoring with 16 points and senior forward Andre Wesson adding 13 points. Sophomore guards Luther Muhammad and Duane Washington Jr. each had 10 points.
The Buckeyes look to be an NCAA Tournament team, and a victory over Purdue in Ohio State’s next game on Feb. 15 would help their case. The Saturday clash with Purdue is the Buckeyes’ lone contest this week.
10. Michigan Wolverines (15-9, 6-7 Big Ten)
Both Ohio State and Michigan should probably be higher on this list, but I learned my lesson from overvaluing both of these teams earlier in the season. I’m waiting on both to sustain this level of play for a few weeks, and just like Ohio State, Michigan appears to be getting back on track.
Senior guard Zavier Simpson led the offensive charge with 16 points and eight assists in Michigan’s 77-68 home victory over then-No. 16 Michigan State on Feb. 8. Junior forward Isaiah Livers had 14 points in his return to the Wolverine lineup and junior guard Eli Brooks had 11 points while sophomore guard David DeJulius added 10 points to round out Michigan’s attack.
The Wolverines then pounded Northwestern on the road on Feb. 12 in a dominant 79-54 victory. Senior center Jon Teske had a miserable performance, finishing with six points on 3-14 shooting. Simpson also had an off night, finishing with four points and five assists.
Brooks and Livers picked up the offensive slack, combining for 35 points against the Wildcats to keep Michigan’s offense on track. Senior forward Austin Davis finished with nine points on 4-for-4 shooting as another boost to the offense.
Michigan hosts Indiana on Feb. 16 and visits Rutgers on Feb. 19.
Rest of the Big Ten
11. Minnesota Golden Gophers (12-11, 6-7 Big Ten)
12. Indiana Hoosiers (15-8, 5-7 Big Ten)
13. Nebraska Huskers (7-17, 2-11 Big Ten)
14. Northwestern Wildcats (6-17, 1-12 Big Ten)