With most teams about halfway through conference play, it’s worth checking in on how the Big Ten is shaking out. It’s been a tough year for the conference, with teams like Minnesota and Northwestern falling well short of expectations. There aren’t a ton of surprises at the top — there appear to be four legitimately good teams with Purdue, Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan separating themselves from the pack. Here’s a look at how the league stacks up today:
1. Purdue (19-2, 8-0 B1G)
Riding a 15-game winning streak, the Boilermakers have a strong case as the best team in the country (Kenpom has them at No. 2, just behind Villanova). For all the buzz about Keita Bates-Diop, Carsen and Vince Edwards look like the two best players in the Big Ten right now. Behind a host of sharp-shooters, the Boilermakers have connected on nearly 44 percent of their three-point attempts (best in the country), nailing 20 in a win over Iowa on Saturday. Purdue squeaked by Michigan 70-69 and hasn’t played Ohio State or Michigan State yet, but all signs indicate this is a conference-winning squad.
2. Ohio State (18-4, 9-0 B1G)
The Buckeyes are the darlings of the Big Ten, surging to an undefeated 9-0 mark in conference play after being picked to finish 11th in the conference by the media before the season started. Senior Keita Bates-Diop is the likely Big Ten Player of the Year, averaging 19.7 points per game on 50/38/81 shooting splits after missing most of 2016-17 with an injury. C.J. Jackson has improved his play across the board as well and become one of the more consistent point guards in the Big Ten. No one is expecting the Buckeyes to run the table, but with Michigan State in the rearview mirror and nine conference wins banked, Ohio State will finish at or near the top of the conference in Chris Holtmann’s first year.
3. Michigan State (18-3, 6-2 B1G)
Michigan State drops below the Buckeyes after Ohio State smacked the Spartans 80-64 in Columbus. I think Michigan State is positioned for a more successful postseason, though; five Spartans average more than 11 points per game and Michigan State is the best team in the nation at protecting the rim. A Feb. 10 matchup with Purdue is the only other true test for Sparty and it’s conceivable Tom Izzo’s squad could ride into the Big Ten tournament with only three conference losses. This uber-athletic team still has Final Four potential.
4. Michigan (17-5, 6-3 B1G)
The Big Ten’s final top-25 team, Michigan has been a pleasant surprise this season. After losing Derrick Walton, Zak Irvin and D.J. Wilson from last season’s Sweet 16 team, the Wolverines have been able to keep the boat afloat offensively and tighten the screws on the other end of the court, boasting the 20th-best defense (by KenPom) nationally. Michigan owns the tiebreaker over Michigan State, but after a 20-point loss to Nebraska on the road, the Wolverines have some work to do.
5. Nebraska (14-8, 5-4 B1G)
Picked to finish 13th in the conference by Big Ten media, Nebraska has surged to the top half of the conference behind the standout play of three transfers — James Palmer Jr. (who earned co-Big Ten Player of the Week honors this past week), Isaac Copeland, and Anton Gill. Defense has been the calling card for Tim Miles’s squad, as the Cornhuskers possess the fourth-best adjusted defensive efficiency in conference play. Nebraska hung tough with Ohio State on Monday night behind 34 from Palmer and doesn’t have to play any of the conference’s ranked teams for the rest of the season, so the Cornhuskers have a chance to rack up some wins.
6. Indiana (12-8, 5-3 B1G)
I’m really not convinced this Indiana team is good. KenPom doesn’t seem to think so either.
Nonetheless, Indiana dominated Northwestern on Jan. 14 and beat Maryland at home last night, so here we are. The loss of De’Ron Davis really hurts the Hoosiers. Juwan Morgan is playing great, but it’s hard to see the junior willing Indiana to victory every night like he did against Maryland. Moreover, Indiana still has to play Ohio State twice, along with Michigan State. If I had to wager on a team to fall out of the top six in the conference standings, I’d pick the Hoosiers.
7. Maryland (15-7, 4-5 B1G)
I had the Terps at fifth in the conference before their Monday night loss in Bloomington. Without a signature conference win, it is hard to gauge just what to expect from Maryland, though this team seems to have NCAA tournament talent. Anthony Cowan and Kevin Huerter have been great in the absence of Justin Jackson. With two brutal games coming up (vs. Michigan State, at Purdue), Maryland will have to prove its mettle or risk being dragged down into the middle of the conference.
8. Northwestern (12-9, 3-5 B1G)
If you read this website with any regularity, you probably have a good idea of how Northwestern’s season has gone. The Wildcats have struggled to put it all together on a nightly basis and a team that begun the season ranked 18th in KenPom is now 90th. A 2-3 zone defense has righted the ship defensively, but Northwestern is still in search of a signature win and plays five of its next six on the road.
9. Minnesota (14-8, 3-6 B1G)
How far the mighty fall. Preseason conference contenders, Minnesota peaked at No. 12 in late November before their season started to slip away from them. The Golden Gophers have won exactly one conference game since noted scumbag center Reggie Lynch was suspended for “violating” Minnesota’s “sexual misconduct policy” and Amir Coffey missed five games with a shoulder injury. Coffey scored 11 points in his return against Ohio State, but Minnesota has dug itself too deep of a hole to sniff the top of the conference.
10. Wisconsin (10-10, 3-4 B1G)
It’s been a very rare off year for Wisconsin. Greg Gard’s squad suffered a lot of attrition from last season’s Sweet Sixteen team and the Badgers have been forced to play an unusual amount of freshmen and sophomores. Forward Ethan Happ has been good, but he hasn’t taken the leap many expected him to in his junior season. Wisconsin’s remaining schedule doesn’t do the Badgers any favors either — matchups with Michigan State (twice), Purdue, and Michigan loom.
11. Penn State (13-8, 3-5 B1G)
Without wing Josh Reaves, Penn State has looked lost. Following a tough loss to Northwestern, the Nittany Lions have dropped three of four since the junior was ruled academically ineligible and fallen to 11th in the conference in adjusted defensive efficiency. The preseason Big Ten dark horse candidates have slid to the middle of the conference, but the solid play of sophomores Tony Carr, Mike Watkins, and Lamar Stevens should have Penn State fans encouraged for the future.
12. Rutgers (12-9, 2-6 B1G)
We’ve moved into “very bad team” territory. After a thrilling win over Seton Hall moved the Scarlet Knights to 10-3 and prompted plenty of “Is Rutgers basketball back?” pieces, Steve Pikiell’s squad is just 2-6 in league play, including a crushing OT loss to Michigan State in East Lansing. Rutgers still has one of the best defenses in the country, but quite literally is one of the ten least-efficient shooting teams in the country. It might be another lost season in Piscataway, but the Scarlet Knights will still have that one night in December.
13. Iowa (10-11, 1-7 B1G)
I’m a little surprised at how bad Iowa has been this year. I was impressed with how Tyler Cook, Jordan Bohannon, and Cordell Pemsl played last year as freshmen and I expected the Hawkeyes to improve around that trio. I was very, very wrong. The Hawkeyes have the worst adjusted defensive efficiency in the conference and only have one win, an overtime victory over Illinois where the Hawkeyes were down by 20 points at one point.
14. Illinois (10-11, 0-8 B1G)
Illinois looked competitive in its first two Big Ten games back in December, taking Northwestern and Maryland to overtime on the road. Things have gotten worse and worse for the Illini — six straight conference losses to start the new year and the suspension of starting point guard Te’Jon Lucas for violation of team rules. The good news is Illinois plays four of its next five games at home and could notch its first conference win against Rutgers or Wisconsin.