The past week of Big Ten play nearly brought a monumental shift to the conference’s hierarchy. Alas, Purdue held strong as an increasingly unlikely king of the proverbial hill. Fear not, however, most teams still have 10 to 12 games remaining on their schedules. That’s without considering the Big Ten Tournament just under two months from now, meaning about two-thirds of the conference campaign remains.
With that in mind, there’s still plenty of time for upheaval. Until then, Purdue celebrates a month atop our Big Ten power rankings, with an ever-shifting landscape beneath them.
1. Purdue Boilermakers (17-1, 6-1 Big Ten) Previous Rank: 1
A Boilermaker loss would have made for an interesting four-team debate in the top tier between Purdue (best overall record), Michigan State (who would have just beaten Purdue and tied it for the lead in the conference standings), Illinois (who just beat Michigan State) and Rutgers (maybe the conference’s hottest team and the first Big Ten team to beat Purdue this season).
Instead, Zach Edey made his 13th bucket — he finished with 32 points and 17 rebounds — to give his team a one-point lead with three seconds remaining, and Purdue rendered the debate moot. The biggest reason for optimism for sustained dominance? An improved defense. The Boilermakers were a top-five team in the national rankings for much of last season, but a defense that ranked 93rd nationally in adjusted efficiency, per kenpom.com, held it back.
The Boilermakers are now ranked 29th on that side of the ball, as they’re allowing seven fewer points per game, and their offense has improved from 2nd to 1st.
As I’ve stated ad nauseam, there are no easy wins in the Big Ten. But if all goes to plan, it could be a few weeks before Purdue is felled again. It doesn’t have a currently-ranked opponent remaining on the schedule and has a palatable week ahead with a visit to Minnesota before hosting Maryland.
2. Illinois Fighting Illini (13-5, 4-3 Big Ten) Previous Rank: 3
Illinois has finally shown the consistency it lacked amidst its flashes of brilliance early in the season.
The highs may not be as great as they were in the nonconference campaign, but there are few great wins in a Big Ten conference full of good not great squads outside of Purdue. At any rate, the Fighting Illini are riding their longest win streak of the season since their first four games, quickly turning an 0-3 hole in league play into a winning record.
Most recently, Illinois took over late in a compelling back-and-forth battle with Michigan State before notching a decisive road victory over Minnesota, a team perhaps more plucky than it seemed a week ago. Those results only furthered Illinois’ case as one of the league’s best groups.
Coincidentally, or perhaps not, the four-game win streak has aligned exactly with the departure of touted freshman guard Skyy Clark. An important week lies ahead with visits from Indiana and Ohio State, a pair of reeling but uber-talented teams.
3. Rutgers Scarlet Knights (13-5, 5-2 Big Ten) Previous Rank: 5
Cam Spencer has exceeded any realistic expectations from those outside the program.
The senior guard was a big-time scorer last season but transferred to Rutgers with a relatively small sample size (one strong season) and having achieved it at Loyola Maryland, a sub-.500 mid-major.
His skills as a shooter (46.7% on 3-pointers and 93.6% from the free throw line) and as a creator (13.9 points and 3.7 assists per game) have translated seamlessly to the Big Ten level. That much was evident this past week when he made the go-ahead 3-pointer and game-clinching free throws against Northwestern then followed that with 21 points, seven rebounds, six assists and four steals in a win over Ohio State.
What’s more, the Scarlet Knights rose to second in the conference standings with the pair of close wins, avenging the questionable loss to the Buckeyes in the process.
Rutgers’ game at Michigan State on Thursday is probably the league’s most compelling matchup this week.
4. Michigan State Spartans (12-6, 4-3 Big Ten) Previous Rank: 3
Despite an oh for week, I can’t demote the Spartans too much. They were likely a handful of made shots away from a spot atop these power rankings and in the national top-15.
The Spartans led for the middle portion of their game at Illinois and were in it late before losing, then fell to the Boilermakers by one point. The road ahead — versus Rutgers, at Indiana, versus a hot Iowa team then at Purdue — is daunting.
Fortunately, MSU is finally getting the best-case version of guard Tyson Walker they may have expected when he transferred in from Northeastern as a high-scoring lead guard before last season. He went from 18.8 points per game in 2020-21 to 8.2 last season. This year, he’s up to a team-leading 14.8, including a masterful 30 points on 12-of-23 shooting against the Boilermakers, nearly willing Sparty to victory on Monday.
5. Iowa Hawkeyes (12-6, 4-3 Big Ten) Previous Rank: 11
Iowa is this week’s biggest riser by virtue of a four-game win streak that continued with a pair of victories since the last power rankings. The Hawkeyes protected their home court with wins over Michigan and Maryland.
The Hawkeyes’ nation-leading non-steal turnover rate, per kenpom.com, shone through as they totaled just 15 turnovers between the week's two games compared to their opponents’ 25.
Junior forward Kris Murray has been one the nation’s, let alone the conference’s, most improved players. He has directly followed the blueprint set by his twin brother, Keegan, last season. Kris is averaging a near-20 point double-double while shooting over 51% from the floor. He’s also seen his minutes nearly double since last season.
6. Wisconsin Badgers (12-5, 4-3 Big Ten) Previous Rank: 4
The Badgers greatly enjoyed the return of senior forward Tyler Wahl on Tuesday, as they snuck out a one-possession victory over Penn State.
Wahl’s three-game absence coincided with his team’s three-game losing streak, and even though he wasn’t at his best against the Nittany Lions — 3-of-10 for 10 points — UW and coach Greg Gard clearly appreciated his presence, as evidenced by 32 minutes of playing time. The Badgers, who rank 12th in the Big Ten in scoring, needed the help of their leading scorer.
Perhaps at full-strength Wisconsin can emerge from the cluster of teams in the Big Ten’s upper-middle tier and give the conference a third team ranked in the AP Top 25, after dropping out on Monday. That would help combat the Big 12’s six ranked teams in a 10-team league.
7. Michigan Wolverines (10-7, 4-2 Big Ten) Previous Rank: 9
The Wolverines are still stuck in a purgatory of inconsistency, but they at least did what they were expected to do last week. They prevented a three-game losing streak with a tough home win over Northwestern after losing in overtime at Iowa.
In the absence of senior point guard Jaelin Llewellyn, Michigan has enjoyed the contributions of a trio of young guards. Freshman Jett Howard scored a game-high 34 points against the Hawkeyes then put up 16 points and seven assists against the Wildcats. Freshman Dug McDaniel, running the offense in Llewellyn’s stead, averaged 14.5 points, four rebounds and six assists between the two games. And sophomore Kobe Bufkin posted nine points and seven assists against Iowa then scored 20 points against Northwestern.
All three were four-star recruits ranked in the 40-90 range of the 247Sports Composite. The Wolverines have done well to bring in deep recruiting classes, beyond just 5-stars, filled with guys who are able to contribute almost immediately. Junior center Hunter Dickinson serves another prime example.
8. Maryland Terrapins (11-6, 2-4 Big Ten) Previous Rank: 8
The Terps hold steady in the power rankings after splitting the week’s contests.
Maryland earned a needed win over a reeling then-nationally ranked Ohio State but lost rather decisively at Iowa on Sunday. Maryland now has a pivotal game immediately ahead, as it welcomes Michigan on Thursday.
In the 35-point loss to the Wolverines on New Year’s Day, Maryland tied its season-low assist total of seven. The Terrapins are 7-0 when they record 12 or more assists and 4-6 otherwise. It’s not exactly reassuring that they have only one player averaging more than 1.6 assists per game, and he’s also their leading scorer and shot taker, senior guard Jahmir Young. The emergence of a table-setter beyond Young would help.
9. Indiana Hoosiers (11-6, 2-4 Big Ten) Previous Rank: 10
The Hoosiers put forth a pair of results that seemed at odds with each other last week.
They lost by 19 points at Penn State then beat Wisconsin by 18, despite scoring about the same amount of points in both games — 66 and 63, respectively. Sure, the latter win came without the Badgers’ leading scorer, but it was a result few could have predicted considering IU’s three-game skid leading into it.
The Hoosiers themselves are hampered by injuries, given two of their starters could be out long-term. But senior forward Trayce Jackson-Davis and freshman guard Jalen Hood-Schifino are doing their best to keep Indiana afloat. The former averaged 16 points, 11.5 rebounds, four assists and 3.5 blocks across last week’s games, and the rookie posted 13.5 points, 5.5 rebounds and four assists between the two contests. More impressively, those nearly mimic the two’s season averages, so the individual efforts may be sustainable.
They may need to be as Indiana enters a more daunting two-game stretch this week, visiting Illinois then hosting Michigan State. Splitting the matchups would suffice.
10. Northwestern Wildcats (12-5, 3-3 Big Ten) Previous Rank: 7
It’s been a rough handful of days for the Wildcats, who were coming off a great week (wins over Illinois and Indiana) last power rankings. They dropped two close games, to Rutgers and Michigan, though neither loss was damning.
But the Wildcats’ agony was furthered when its Jan. 18 game against Iowa was postponed due to a COVID-19 outbreak within the Northwestern program. One game being canceled or moved is one thing, but NW desperately needs to get back on the court soon, and at full strength, given it has a relatively forgiving stretch ahead — versus Wisconsin, at Nebraska, versus Minnesota.
Stacking those league wins would be invaluable to its NCAA Tournament dreams, which appear very much up in the air at this early juncture.
11. Penn State Nittany Lions (12-6, 3-4 Big Ten) Previous Rank: 12
Penn State has flipped any preconceived notions of its identity on their head this season.
The Nittany Lions are sporting their worst defense, per kenpom.com’s adjusted efficiency rating, since 2016, and their best offense since 2018. And they’re ranked in the national top-25 in the latter measure for the first time in two decades.
Still, their defense looked pretty solid last week in an 85-66 win over Indiana and 63-60 loss to Wisconsin. Could all that add up to the Nittany Lions’ first NCAA Tournament berth since 2010-11? It very well could if PSU keeps playing a low-risk brand of basketball, and the strong shooting numbers (a Big Ten-best 39.5% from distance) hold up.
12. Ohio State Buckeyes (10-7, 2-4 Big Ten) Previous Rank: 6
Thanks to the development of a four-game losing streak, OSU is the biggest faller in this week’s power rankings and boasts the greatest downward trajectory in the conference. But the Buckeyes still probably have a better outlook than each of their bottom-five contemporaries.
After all, their four recent losses have all come by single digits, which probably speaks to this team’s inexperience (seven of the nine players averaging double-digit minutes are new to the team this year) more than anything. Regardless, Ohio State will need to learn to win close games if this team wants to reach its lofty potential. The Buckeyes’ only one-possession win thus far was the early-December victory over Rutgers in which the game-winning shot shouldn’t have counted.
This week has the feel of a course correction for the scarlet and gray, as they venture to Nebraska and host Iowa.
13. Nebraska Cornhuskers (9-9, 2-5 Big Ten) Previous Rank: 13
It’s only the bottom of the conference where the order remains static. It’s been this way for the past few years, as Minnesota and Nebraska finished last and second-to-last, respectively, a year ago and flip-flopped the year prior. The top-to-bottom strength of the league in 2022-23 profiles as a tough draw for the Huskers, who are perceptibly improved from last season.
It’s a good thing for Nebraska that it picked up an overtime road win over the Golden Gophers two weeks ago. Because wins in Big Ten play are becoming increasingly hard to find, as much of the conference is in the hunt for an NCAA Tournament berth.
The Huskers found that out last week in convincing losses to Illinois and Purdue. They could find some struggles ahead if junior forward Juwan Gary, the fourth-leading scorer and second-leading rebounder, is out for the season with a shoulder injury. Although, the schedule isn’t unnavigable.
Nebraska’s double-digit December wins at Creighton and over Iowa look even more impressive now that those teams are finding their groove and could soon be headed for appearances in the AP Top 25.
14. Minnesota Golden Gophers (7-9, 1-5 Big Ten) Previous Rank: 14
Minnesota’s win at Columbus was a lesson, a message to regular college basketball purveyors: this conference is too talented, too deep and too parity-filled to count out any team or predetermine any outcome.
So while the Golden Gophers shot themselves out of an 18-point home loss to Illinois on Monday, their 70-67 road win over Ohio State on Thursday, which broke a nine-game conference losing streak dating back to last February, had to feel sweet. Sophomore forward Dawson Garcia, a Minneapolis native on his third school in as many seasons, led the way as he tied his career high of 28 points.
The Golden Gophers likely won’t be favored in any games the rest of the season, but they got on the scoreboard in a major way last week and have the talent to be a disruptor moving forth.