Big Ten mens basketball rankings

What an incredible two weeks of college basketball.

Feast Week lived up to the billing, proving that the NCAA Tournament (and the Big Ten) is wide open this year. The past two weeks saw former No. 1 Duke lose at home to Stephen F. Austin, snapping a 150-game non-conference winning streak at home by the Blue Devils. Former No. 3 Michigan State faltered in Maui (more on that in a bit) to a Virginia Tech team slated to finish 14th in the ACC.

Top-10 programs like No. 7 North Carolina and No. 9 Gonzaga also suffered losses over Feast Week, but their losses came to stronger competition. The biggest surprise of Feast Week was the emergence of the now-No. 19 Dayton Flyers, which earned second place at the Maui Invitational after taking former No. 4 Kansas to overtime.

Most importantly, as I discussed last week, we learned a lot about the early progress of some of the top contenders in the Big Ten. Some teams made a statement in early-season tournaments, while others failed to deliver on high expectations.

This week is another huge week in the Big Ten, with the Big Ten/ACC challenge providing another measuring stick for Big Ten teams to test themselves against. The challenge, which began on Dec. 2, featured 14 games across three days and wrapped up on Wednesday night.

The Big Ten “won” the Big Ten/ACC challenge by a score of 8-6. After a wild two weeks in the Big Ten, let’s see how the conference stands after Feast Week and the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. All records are accurate of Dec. 4.

1. Maryland Terrapins (9-0)

The Maryland Terrapins are playing the best basketball in the country right now, and I’m not sure it’s particularly close either.

After winning closer-than-expected contests against Temple and Harvard in its first two games of the Orlando Invitational, Maryland thrashed a very good Marquette team 84-63 in the championship. Wednesday night, the Terrapins destroyed Notre Dame 72-51 behind a 15-point, 16-rebound double-double from sophomore forward Jalen Smith.

The toughest thing about Maryland is that it is so hard to defend, with four different scoring options that can hurt a team on any given night. Senior guard Anthony Cowan Jr. averages 16.2 points per game, and sophomore guards Eric Ayala and Aaron Wiggins each average over 10 points per game.

And then there’s Smith, who’s turned into a dominant post presence now that he’s out of the shadow of Bruno Fernando. This Terrapins squad is very, very good — and they will be tested early in Big Ten play as they host Illinois on Dec. 7 and travel to Penn State on Dec. 10.

2. Ohio State Buckeyes (8-0)

Not playing in a Feast Week tournament may have been a good move for Chris Holtmann’s squad, as the Buckeyes thrashed a fatigued North Carolina squad 74-49 Wednesday night in UNC’s most lopsided home loss under Roy Williams.

While the beatdown may have been less of a statement by Ohio State and more of an exposure of North Carolina, beating the No. 7 team in the country by 25 points on the road is an incredible accomplishment. 

UNC lost freshman forward Armando Bacot to an ankle injury in the first half, and the Buckeyes ensured that the Tar Heels couldn’t rely on superstar freshman Cole Anthony to beat them, as Anthony finished with 15 points. Buckeye sophomore guard Duane Washington Jr. posted a strong performance in Chapel Hill, with 18 points to lead Ohio State’s offense. 

The Buckeyes also blew out Morgan State 90-57 on Nov. 29. On Dec. 7, the Buckeyes open Big Ten play with a battle against Penn State.

3. Michigan Wolverines (7-1)

Remember when I talked about teams that boosted their stock over Feast Week? Well, no team made more of a statement than Juwan Howard’s club, as the Wolverines won a loaded Battle 4 Atlantis tournament and jumped from unranked to the No. 4 team in the country.

Senior center Jon Teske was named MVP of the tournament after a 19-point, 15-rebound performance in the championship game against former No. 8 Gonzaga, but junior guard Eli Brooks and junior forward Isaiah Livers also posted strong performances throughout the tournament.

Senior guard Zavier Simpson has the second-most assists in the country, and the Wolverines beating two top-10 (former No. 6 North Carolina was the other) opponents at the Battle 4 Atlantis proved that this team is to be taken seriously as a national championship contender.

Unfortunately, Michigan’s first game back in the United States was a road game at No. 1 Louisville, and Michigan looked fatigued. The Wolverine offense sputtered in a 58-43 defeat that saw Michigan shoot a season-low 26% from the field. Michigan will look to get back on track with contests against Iowa on Dec. 6 and Illinois on Dec. 11.

4. Michigan State Spartans (5-3)

Michigan State is in a funk, and news that senior guard Josh Langford may not play for the Spartans again due to a stress reaction suffered in October was the icing on the cake for a horrible two weeks for the Spartans.

First, there was the Virginia Tech loss, a loss that prevented college basketball fans from seeing a Michigan State vs. Kansas showdown in Maui. Senior guard Cassius Winston was limited against the Hokies due to foul trouble, and without him on the floor the Spartans struggled to score. Michigan State’s 16 turnovers didn’t help either, and Virginia Tech hit some big shots down the stretch to close out a 71-66 victory.

The Spartans handled Georgia and UCLA to finish with a 2-1 record in the Maui Invitational, but then ran into an angry Duke squad looking to prove a point in its second game post-Stephen F. Austin. 

Blue Devil freshman center Vernon Carey Jr. had 26 points and 11 rebounds, while sophomore guard Tre Jones outperformed Winston with 20 points and 12 assists. Jones, an elite defender, hounded Winston as he shot 4-14 from the floor.

Michigan State needs to get right, and it will have an opportunity to do so when it hosts Rutgers on Sunday, Dec. 8.

5. Purdue Boilermakers (5-3)

The Boilermakers had a very strong two weeks, splitting two games in the Emerald Coast Classic before smacking No. 5 Virginia 69-40 on Wednesday night.

Purdue beat former No. 20 VCU and lost in overtime to Florida State, two strong defensive teams. The Boilermakers aren’t offensive juggernauts by any stretch of the imagination, as they’re the No. 222 scoring offense in the country, but head coach Matt Painter’s squad finds a way to win games with strong defense.

Wednesday night’s victory over Virginia was an example of this, as Purdue forced 16 Virginia turnovers and limited the Cavaliers to 16% shooting on 3-pointers. Purdue dominated Virginia from beginning to end, and were led by a career-high 20 points by sophomore guard Sasha Stefanovic.

A date with Northwestern on Dec. 8 is the Boilermakers’ next challenge as Purdue looks to build on its impressive victory and start a stretch of consistent play.

6. Indiana Hoosiers (8-0)

The Hoosiers finally posted a signature victory on Dec. 3, an 80-64 victory over No. 17 Florida State.

Indiana is a puzzling team. On one hand, this is a team that’s faced one real test this season and has played all its games in Bloomington. On the other hand, this team is the No. 7 scoring offense in the country over a month into the season with 85.6 points per game.

Senior guard Devonte Green is a nice player, and his 30-point performance against Florida State was impressive. The Hoosiers also boast a rising talent in Trayce Jackson-Davis, who is averaging 15.5 points per game and 9.4 rebounds per game. Junior forward Justin Smith and junior guard Al Durham also average double-digits.

My hesitation in moving Indiana higher on this list is the fact that it is yet to face a true road test, but the Hoosiers will do so on Dec. 7 when they travel to Wisconsin. The Hoosiers then travel to Madison Square Garden for a neutral-site contest against UConn on Dec. 10.

7. Penn State Nittany Lions (7-1)

Penn State should be 8-0.

The Nittany Lions let a 21-point second half lead slip in the first game of the NIT Season Tip-Off against Ole Miss, falling 74-72. Penn State had no problem rebounding against a struggling Syracuse squad two days later, ironically winning by 21 points, 85-64. 

Sophomore guard Myreon Jones’ 22-point effort guided the Nittany Lions over Wake Forest 76-54 in the Big Ten/ACC challenge on Wednesday night, and senior forward Mike Watkins continued his ridiculous rebounding stretch with 16 boards against the Demon Deacons. Watkins is averaging about 15 rebounds a game over Penn State’s last three contests.

Watkins and senior forward Lamar Stevens (18 points per game, 8 rebounds per game) make up one of the more intimidating frontcourts in the Big Ten, and the Nittany Lions are a solid, deep squad that could surprise in Big Ten play.

Penn State has two great opportunities for a statement win when it travels to No. 6 Ohio State on Dec. 7 and hosts No. 3 Maryland on Dec. 10.

8. Iowa Hawkeyes (6-2)

The Hawkeyes beat former No. 12 Texas Tech at the Las Vegas Invitational without Tech’s leading scorer, freshman guard Jahmi’us Ramsey. On top of that, Hawkeyes are sneakily playing better basketball of late, and Iowa looks poised to make some noise in conference play.

Senior guard Jordan Bohannon is starting and playing well again. Bohannon poured in 20 points in the Hawkeyes’ 72-61 victory over Texas Tech, and scored 17 points in Iowa’s impressive road victory in the Big Ten/ACC challenge over Syracuse.

Junior center Luka Garza continues to dominate opponents in the paint, averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds through the first month of the season. Iowa did drop a game in Las Vegas to San Diego State, but the Hawkeyes have a solid cast of Bohannon, Garza, sophomore guard Joe Wieskamp (11.1 points per game) and freshman guard CJ Fredrick (11.1 points per game).

Iowa has two big tests early in conference play, traveling to No. 4 Michigan on Dec. 6 before hosting Minnesota on Dec. 9.

9. Illinois Fighting Illini (6-2)

Like Indiana, I’m waiting on a statement victory from the Fighting Illini to prove they’re a legitimate force in the Big Ten. 

Smashing schools like Hampton and Division-II Lindenwood is fine, but Illinois whiffed on an opportunity to beat a quality opponent in an 81-79 loss at home in the Big Ten/ACC challenge to Miami. The Illini trailed the Hurricanes by as many as 27 points and had a look to win the game with time running down, but sophomore guard Ayo Dosunmu was called for an offensive foul.

The Illini do have the No. 3-scoring offense in the country with 87.1 points per game, but have put up their highest scoring outbursts against vastly inferior competition. Freshman center Kofi Cockburn continues to dominate in the paint, though, with 16.3 points per game and 11.0 rebounds per game.

Illinois travels to No. 3 Maryland on Dec. 7 and hosts No. 4 Michigan on Dec. 11.

10. Wisconsin Badgers (4-4)

I really considered bringing the Minnesota Golden Gophers into the top 10 for the first time this season, but I’m confident that Wisconsin’s recent slide is an exception, not the standard.

But man, did the Badgers have a bad two weeks. Wisconsin lost to Richmond and New Mexico in the Legends Classic, followed by a road loss to North Carolina State Wednesday night in the Big Ten/ACC challenge. 

The most concerning thing for Badger fans is that the Wisconsin offense has vanished during its three-game skid. Wisconsin averaged 52 points per game during those three losses, something that head coach Greg Gard needs to fix before matchups with Indiana on Dec. 7 and Rutgers on Dec. 11.

Wisconsin has the talent on the roster to step up its offensive play and start winning games, but it needs to turn things around fast.

Best of the Rest

11. Minnesota Golden Gophers (4-4)

12. Rutgers Scarlet Knights (6-2)

13. Northwestern Wildcats (4-3)

14. Nebraska Cornhuskers (4-4)

sports@dailynebraskan.com