s-BigTenPowerRanks

The holiday season is widely regarded as the most wonderful time of the year — except for those trying to sort out the ever-chaotic Big Ten. The majority of the nonconference schedule is either in the rearview mirror or wrapping up this week, setting the stage for the bulk of conference play. But even as the data points continue to roll in like Amazon Christmas packages, the picture hasn’t gotten much clearer. 

Unfortunately, one of the early gifts under the tree for Big Ten men’s basketball teams has been COVID-19. The coronavirus is wreaking havoc across all sports in recent weeks, and college basketball has not been spared. 

With Christmas Day and 2022 rapidly approaching, here is a wintertime installment of Big Ten men’s basketball power rankings:

1. Purdue Boilermakers (11-1) Previous rank: 1

It’s hard to go undefeated in college basketball. Somewhere down the line, something doesn't go a team’s way. 

That something manifested itself in Rutgers senior forward Ron Harper Jr. and his half-court buzzer beater that sank No. 3 Purdue’s undefeated hopes earlier this month. Despite the loss, the Boilermakers have bounced back. Since then, Purdue has won three straight games and survived a scare from North Carolina State 82-72 on Dec. 12. 

It’s hard to move the Boilermakers out of the top spot because of the matchup problems they create. Sophomore guard Jaden Ivey leads the team in scoring with 16.5 points per game. On top of that, sophomore center Zach Edey and senior forward Trevion Williams give post presence to the team. 

Still, Rutgers proved that the Boilermakers are indeed mortal. Until that happens on a more consistent basis, the Boilermakers are clearly the Big Ten frontrunner at this point in the season.

2. Ohio State Buckeyes (8-2) Previous rank: 2

The Buckeyes are currently dealing with a widespread COVID-19 outbreak within the team and have had two games postponed because of it.

Of those two games, one gave Ohio State a chance to prove itself on a national stage against No. 20 Kentucky. Ranked No. 14 in the AP Top 25, the Buckeyes move into full conference play without an additional nonconference resume builder. Luckily, thanks to the win over No. 2 Duke on Nov. 30, another marquee nonconference win isn’t vital. If Ohio State takes care of its conference slate and the three ranked teams that it features, the Buckeyes will be just fine. 

A dominant win over No. 24 Wisconsin in the middle of December helps, too. Junior forward EJ Liddell leads the team in both points and rebounds per game, averaging 20.6 and 7.2, respectively.

3. Michigan State Spartans (10-2) Previous rank: 3

One could have a bone to pick with these next two spots on the list. 

In these rankings, Michigan State is below a team — Ohio State — that is ranked three spots lower than the Spartans in the most recent AP poll and has one less win than Michigan State overall. The reason for this is simple: The Buckeyes have the best win in the conference. 

The best win on the docket thus far for Michigan State is likely Connecticut or perhaps Louisville, both currently unranked teams. 

There is nothing wrong with what the Spartans have put together this year. They have beaten teams they are supposed to beat and their only two losses are to top 10 squads in No. 7 Kansas and No. 1 Baylor. Until Michigan State puts together a win with some serious pop or the two teams above them falter, No. 3 is where it deserves to be.

4. Illinois Fighting Illini (8-3) Previous rank: 5

Alas Illinois, if only the Marquette and Cincinnati losses hadn’t happened. Bad early season losses are certainly better than losses later in the season, but if those initial stumbling blocks had not happened, the Fighting Illini would likely be No. 2 on this list. 

Illinois is starting to put things together, though. The Fighting Illini have won seven of their last eight contests with the only loss coming to No. 6 Arizona 83-79. The Wildcats are one of just six remaining undefeated teams in college basketball, and Illinois avenged its loss with a 106-48 drubbing of the St. Francis Red Flash on Dec. 19. The upcoming schedule faces several “prove it” games against six ranked teams, including No. 3 Purdue twice. 

As the Fighting Illini heat up, they should be prepared for the schedule to come.

5. Wisconsin Badgers (9-2) Previous rank: 4

The Badgers are also one of the hottest teams in the conference, winning seven of their last eight games. But, over the last three games, it has become clear that No. 24 Wisconsin’s greatest strength in sophomore guard Johnny Davis can also be its greatest weakness. 

Perhaps it is better stated that his absence is the greatest weakness. Davis averages 20.9 points per game and was a huge reason for the Badgers comeback against Indiana on Dec. 8, winning 64-59. Senior guard Brad Davison averages 15.2 points per game, but every other player on the roster averages less than 8.5 points per game. 

The red flags were clear in the showdown against Nicholls State on Dec. 15, in which the Badgers survived 71-68 without the services of Davis, who didn’t play due to testing positive for COVID-19. Davison scored 19 points against the Colonels, but only one other Wisconsin scorer was in double figures. Someone will need to step up for the Badgers as the season matures and as teams become better at defending Davis. 

6. Indiana Hoosiers (9-2) Previous rank: 8

The record says that Indiana is a solid team. In fact, they are projected by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi as a No. 10 seed in the NCAA Tournament. 

The quality of opponents says otherwise. Notre Dame stands as the best Hoosier win thus far, but Indiana’s two losses represent huge missed opportunities. Indiana’s 112-110 double overtime loss to Syracuse hurts, but it doesn’t hurt nearly as bad as the loss against No. 24 Wisconsin. 

Indiana led by as many as 20 points but turned it over nine times in a 64-59 losing effort against the Badgers. Junior forward Trayce Jackson-Davis is dynamic, averaging 19.1 points per game, but he hasn’t always been able to overcome the Hoosier turnovers, of which they average 15.7 per contest. 

Without a true nonconference power on the schedule this season, Indiana looks ahead to conference play needing a ranked win to solidify its body of work.

7. Minnesota Golden Gophers (9-1) Previous rank: 10

Minnesota belongs in a similar category as Indiana. The Golden Gophers have greatly exceeded expectations through the first 10 games of the season. There was no major challenge in the opening schedule, but even in that case it is hard to say that Minnesota was expected to defeat even Pittsburgh or Mississippi State. 

Add in a win over Michigan a couple weeks ago, and suddenly the Golden Gophers are much more interesting than they appeared in the preseason. Sophomore forward Jamison Battle has stepped in to replace the production of transfer Marcus Carr and then some. Battle averages 18.5 points per game and scored 27 points in the 75-65 win over Michigan. An early January meeting with Illinois at home will be a matchup to watch.

8. Michigan Wolverines (7-4) Previous rank: 7

What would be the signal that Michigan is on the right track? After scoring 102 points against Nebraska and shooting 51.3% from the field, it appeared that the Wolverines were back to their Final Four-caliber form. 

Then Michigan lost by 10 to Minnesota at home, and all of the same questions returned. Sophomore forward Hunter Dickinson scored 19 points in that game, and he seems to be the only sure thing on the roster. 

Much like Indiana, Michigan needs the conference slate to solidify its postseason hopes and to right the ship. What the true signal of recovery will be remains to be seen.

9. Northwestern Wildcats (8-2) Previous rank: 9

Losing the DePaul game is costly. The Wildcats had to cancel their game with the Blue Demons last Saturday due to COVID-19 issues within the DePaul program. Northwestern has yet to play a ranked team, but DePaul would certainly have been the best team that the Wildcats have played this year. 

The win over Maryland helps Northwestern in this ranking and is the leading victory on the ledger. Losing the chance to play DePaul deprives the Wildcats of a potential confidence booster prior to conference play. Senior forward Pete Nance, who averages 16.3 points per game, and junior guard Boo Buie, who scores 14.9, will lead Northwestern at home against No. 11 Michigan State in the first major evaluation of the season in January.

10. Iowa Hawkeyes (9-3) Previous rank: 6

Iowa has struggled as of late. After winning their first seven games, the Hawkeyes lost three in a row against two ranked teams and Illinois. A tightly contested loss to No. 3 Purdue made for the first loss of the season, but the 73-53 defeat at the hands of No. 9 Iowa State is much more concerning. 

A 19-point win over Utah State was a solid bounce back for the Hawkeyes, and now they see a back-to-back group of five opponents before facing Maryland. Sophomore forward Keegan Murray remains a constant threat, averaging 23.2 points per game. 

11. Maryland Terrapins (6-4) Previous rank: 11

The Terrapins have been through a lot this season. The high preseason expectations were dashed with upset losses to George Mason and the shocking early-season firing of head coach Mark Turgeon. Somehow, Maryland has kept its head above water. 

A three-game losing streak came to an end when the Terrapins stunned then-No. 20 Florida at the Barclays Center 70-68 on Dec. 12. The game winner came from junior forward Donta Scott with 16.8 seconds to go. That win is enough to keep the Terrapins totally out of the Big Ten cellar. Senior guard Eric Ayala paces Maryland in points per game with 13.7

12. Rutgers Scarlet Knights (5-5) Previous rank: 13

Rutgers is a confusing bunch to sort. On paper, senior forward Ron Harper Jr., sophomore center Clifford Omouruyi and senior guard Geo Baker should be able to put this team in the top half or middle of the pack in the Big Ten. Yet, the Scarlet Knights are just 5-5. 

The dethroning of former No. 1 Purdue is the only reason Rutgers isn’t lower on this list. In their next game, the Scarlet Knights were thumped by No. 15 Seton Hall 77-63. Losing games to Rider and Central Connecticut due to COVID-19 protocols doesn’t help either. Big Ten play continues with Michigan on Tuesday, Jan. 4.

13. Penn State Nittany Lions (5-5) Previous rank: 14

Currently, it is a coin flip between Penn State and Rutgers among the conference’s bottom four squads. The nod goes to the Scarlet Knights due to the Purdue win, but the Nittany Lions are not far behind in quality. 

Penn State doesn’t have a marquee win, though. Or, really, even a good win. The Delaware State Hornets could be the sixth win for the Nittany Lions before they resume their conference action with Indiana on Jan. 2. Jan. 11 marks the first of two meetings with Rutgers.

14. Nebraska Huskers (5-7) Previous rank: 12

There is no other place for the Huskers to be. Nebraska has lost five games in a row and can’t seem to get anything to operate properly. 

Opponents, such as No. 12 Auburn, seemed to be unstoppable from the 3-point range, but even when Nebraska does hold its foes to a respectable 3-point percentage, such as Kansas State’s 23.1%, it can’t seem to get the lid off the basket. The Huskers shot 17.9% from downtown in that game and missed 18 consecutive shots from beyond the arc. Nebraska has a roster of 3-point shooters who can’t make 3-pointers. 

It’s a bad recipe as the calendar turns to 2022 and Nebraska either has to redefine or rediscover its identity while attempting to avoid its third straight season without double-digit wins.

sports@dailynebraskan.com