The Big Ten is clearly the deepest league in the NCAA, with twelve teams looking strong enough to make the tournament, come March. Blue Bloods Michigan State and Wisconsin have faltered, with surprise teams Northwestern and Minnesota continuing to roll. The Big Ten is up for grabs.
1. Iowa (7-2, 1-1 B1G)
Last week’s ranking: 1
Over the past two weeks, Iowa has begun to show some flaws in its game, primarily on the defensive end, giving up 102 points to Minnesota in an overtime loss. Luka Garza continues to be a problem for the rest of the Big Ten, starting that game shooting 2-for-11 and still ending with 32 points. Fran McCaffery’s team might be too small and unathletic to become an elite defensive team down the stretch, but with final four aspirations, they’ll have to find somewhere to improve. The Hawkeyes stare down a tough week with games against a red hot Northwestern squad and the no longer sneaky-good Rutgers team on the horizon.
2. Michigan (7-0, 2-0 B1G)
Last week’s ranking: 6
The Big Ten might have to rename their freshman player of the week award at the season’s end, with Hunter Dickinson dominating week-in and week-out. The Wolverines’ mixture of size, depth, and age is unmatched and has been the catalyst early on. Isaiah Livers’ choice to return for his senior year has proved wise thus far, as he leads the team in scoring and is once again shooting over 40 percent from deep. The team continues to play effective offense, shooting 51.5 percent from the field, the 17th best mark in the country.
3. Rutgers (6-1, 2-1 B1G)
Last week’s ranking: 2
Lead by arguably the conference’s best wing player, Ron Harper Jr., Rutgers has continued to ascend into a real conference contender. Geo Baker has returned to form as an unguardable sixth-man after missing games earlier in the year with an ankle injury. The only thing that can slow Rutgers down right now is themselves, as early foul trouble and a late-game scoring drought sealed their lone defeat at Ohio State.
4. Illinois (7-3, 3-1 B1G)
Last week’s ranking: 3
Illinois has been very up-and-down throughout this young season, having dominated currently ranked teams in Duke and Minnesota, but were wrecked defensively against Baylor, Missouri and Rutgers. This squad is extremely talented but has yet to learn how to play together. Freshmen Andre Curbelo and Adam Miller could potentially be stars in the future, but for now, they’ll have to gel with the rest of this Illini squad in order to reach a higher level of play.
5. Minnesota (9-1, 2-1 B1G)
Last week’s ranking: 10
The Golden Gophers looked largely outmatched in their Big Ten opener, a game in which they fell to Illinois by 27. Since then, they’ve rattled off three straight wins, handling a solid St. Louis team before returning to Big Ten play and upsetting both Iowa and Michigan State. Minnesota has averaged 91 points per game during this three-game win streak, led by step back master Marcus Carr, who might have a case for Big Ten MVP if Luka Garza didn’t exist. Transfers Liam Robbins and Both Gach have also been massive contributors early on, and the Gophers look to keep things rolling this week with games at Wisconsin home versus Ohio State.
6. Northwestern (6-1, 3-0 B1G)
Last week’s ranking: 11
Improvement was expected for Chris Collins’ squad coming into the 2020-21 season. But this, a 3-0 start to conference play and several wins over ranked teams, is bordering on paranormal activity.
Northwestern is 3-0 in Big Ten play for the first time since the 1967-68 season. https://t.co/VjwSut58Gx— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) December 26, 2020
After taking their lumps as a young team last season, the Wildcats sit atop the conference standings after two weeks, already having accumulated the same number of conference wins that they had in 2019-20 in 17 fewer tries. The Northwestern offense has been a revelation, shooting lights-out from three (8th in the country) and averaging over 20 assists per game (10th in the country). Boo Buie, the Big Ten’s reigning player of the week, continues to impress and junior forwards Miller Kopp and Pete Nance have enjoyed great early seasons of play as well.
7. Wisconsin (8-2, 2-1 B1G)
Last week’s ranking: 3
Wisconsin’s advanced age has not fully equated to success this season. Entering the season with a high AP ranking, the Badgers have been largely underwhelming so far this year, losing to good but not great teams in Marquette and Maryland. A squad starting five seniors needs more down the stretch and has come up short late multiple times. Greg Gard needs to get more out of his veteran-laden squad.
8. Ohio State (7-2, 1-2 B1G)
Last week’s ranking: 8
The return of E.J. Liddell from an unidentified sickness has been a godsend for the Buckeyes. Chris Holtmann’s team followed a dominant win over Rutgers with a heartbreaking loss to Northwestern in which they failed to pull away while holding a solid lead for most of the second half. In order to reach their full potential, one of Ohio State’s veteran players will have to step up offensively, with the team shooting just over 30 percent from the three-point line. Seth Towns could be that guy, showing major signs of promise in his first few appearances off the Buckeyes’ bench.
9. Michigan State (6-3, 0-3 B1G)
Last week’s ranking: 5
I was never too high on Sparty, and they have proved me right through three games in conference play. MSU needs more down low, with Xavier Tillman’s departure showing gaping holes so far. The Spartans have shot extremely well, but inconsistent defense has doomed them in their three conference losses this season. Tom Izzo will likely find some way to miraculously turn this team around and get them ready for March, so don’t expect the Spartans to stay in this position for long.
10. Purdue (7-3, 2-1 B1G)
Last week’s ranking: 9
Matt Painter’s teams are often defined by tall, lanky big men and consistent three-point shooting, which would be a very apt description for Purdue this year. Freshman phenom Zach Edey has controlled the paint with help from 2019’s breakout star Trevion Williams, while Sasha Stefanovic is shooting 50 percent from deep. The Boilermakers play a style of basketball that lulls opposing teams to sleep and keeps them in the game just long enough to come from behind and steal it down the stretch. The Boilermakers should only improve throughout the season as the four freshmen in the rotation settle in.
11. Maryland (6-3, 1-2 B1G)
Last week’s ranking: 13
Following some ugly losses to Rutgers and Purdue, Maryland looked like a different team against Wisconsin last night. The Terps shot 50 percent from the field led by Eric Ayala’s 17-point effort and a more confident shooting night from Darryl Morsell, while sophomore swingman Donta Scott sealed the game with a dominant dunk over three Badgers defenders. To stay competitive, Maryland will have to find someone to take shots down the stretch after losing the Big Ten’s most clutch player, Anthony Cowan.
12. Indiana (5-4, 0-2 B1G)
Last week’s ranking: 7
Offensive woes have hit the Hoosiers, falling to 0-2 in the Big Ten after losses to Northwestern and Illinois. Indiana averaged only 63.5 points during those two games. After a hot start, Trayce Jackson-Davis has cooled off significantly and upperclassmen break-out candidates Rob Pbinisee and Al Durham have not provided their expected spark. The Hoosiers will get a chance to regroup this week with home matchups versus Penn State and Maryland.
13. Penn State (3-3, 0-1 B1G)
Last week’s ranking: 12
Penn State looked like they had finally found their stride early against Illinois, starting the game on a 16-2 run before completely falling apart defensively en route to a 98-81 embarrassment at home. Veteran big man John Harrar has been out-played consistently this season, with Penn State averaging only 34.5 total rebounds per game, good for 227th in the country. That’s not going to get it done with the talent the Big Ten offers down low.
14. Nebraska (4-5, 0-2 B1G)
Last week’s ranking: 14
Fred Hoiberg’s team isn’t playing for this season; they’re looking to build their chemistry and get ready for next season’s additions of Wisconsin graduate transfer Kobe King as well as an incoming five-star recruit Bryce McGowen, brother of current Nebraska star Trey Mcgowen. The ‘Huskers currently rank 115th in Ken Pomeroy’s KenPom rankings, 61 spots lower than the second-lowest Big Ten team Penn State.