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Big Ten men’s basketball power rankings, fifth edition: Bucky snags the top spot

The gauntlet of Big Ten play is in full swing and we’re beginning to separate the contenders from the pretenders.

NCAA Basketball: Ohio State at Wisconsin Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

Students are back from break and the Big Ten season is in full swing, as some of the best players in the country attempt to will their team to crucial wins. As the postseason slowly approaches, Wisconsin and Purdue are emerging as the favorites to win the conference, as certain teams’ tournament chances dwindle. Here’s our fifth edition of our Big Ten men’s basketball power rankings:

1. No. 8 Wisconsin Badgers

Previous Ranking: 2

Record: 15-2 (6-1 B1G)

Next Game: vs. No. 14 Michigan State

Yeah, it’s safe to say Johnny Davis is the real deal. The projected lottery pick has the Badgers rolling, as they haven’t lost a game since Dec. 11 and have won 14 of their last 15 games. The team has collected wins over No. 10 Houston, at No. 4 Purdue and No. 19 Ohio State. Their margin of victory sits at only 6.9 points a game, which is below Northwestern Indiana and Iowa, but Greg Gard’s team has been able to win games down the stretch, putting themselves in the drivers seat in the Big Ten.

2. No. 4 Purdue Boilermakers

Previous Ranking: 3

Record: 15-2 (4-2 B1G)

Next Game: @ Indiana

With the best offense in the country and Matt Painter having three of the top 25 players in the country in his rotation, it’s a wonder how the Boilermakers started 1-2 in conference play. Regardless, they’ve bounced back by winning three straight, including a 96-88 double overtime win over Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. Their biggest weakness lies in their perimeter defense and the fact that two of their three best players can’t play together. Still, with Purdue not having to play a ranked team on the road until Feb. 26, the Boilers are in great position to compete for the conference title and make a run come tournament time.

3. No. 17 Illinois Fighting Illini

Previous Ranking: 4

Record: 13-4 (6-1 B1G)

Next Game: @ Maryland

After a 2-2 start that included a 20-point loss to the Cincinnati Bearcats, the Illini are rolling, headlined by their star Kofi Cockburn. The big man is playing at an all-Big Ten level as expected, and Trent Frazier and Andre Curbelo make up one of the better backcourts in the country. On top of that, Utah transfer Alfonso Plummer makes this team more dangerous than many anticipated. It is a rarity for a player’s numbers to increase when they join a superior team in a superior conference, yet Plummer has seen an increase in points, assists and rebounds since leaving the Utes. He is no Ayo Dosunmu, but he is an elite scorer and perfect second option to Cockburn, and has Illinois looking closer to the No. 11 ranked team they were thought to be before the season.

4. No. 14 Michigan State Spartans

Previous Ranking: 1

Record: 14-3 (5-1 B1G)

Next Game: @ No. 8 Wisconsin

The Spartans just had their nine game winning streak snapped, not by Purdue, or Ohio State or Wisconsin, but by the Pete Nance-less Northwestern Wildcats in East Lansing. It’s safe to say that it was probably a tough few days of practice for Gabe Brown and Co. following the defeat, as the Spartans prepare to travel to Madison to face the Big Ten frontrunner. It’s January, and in college basketball losses like this are bound to happen, but the manner in which Izzo’s unit has been playing makes this game appear to be more than an anomaly. Their Big Ten worst 14.5 turnovers per game and lack of a bonafide star have allowed inferior teams to stay competitive, as shown in their 71-69 escape at home against Minnesota three days prior to their first conference loss. Seniors Brown and Marcus Bingham Jr. need to step up if this team wants to compete in the Big Ten and make a run come March.

5. No. 19 Ohio State Buckeyes

Previous Ranking: 6

Record: 12-4 (5-1 B1G)

Next Game: @ Minnesota

Didn’t the Hoosiers embarrass the Buckeyes by 16 less than two weeks ago? Yes. Does this mean that Indiana should have a leg up on the Buckeyes in the rankings? We don’t believe it’s that simple. More so than most other sports, a single head-to-head matchup is a difficult metric to base rankings on in college basketball, and the Buckeyes are a prime example of this. The Buckeyes collection of wins against Duke and Wisconsin accompanied by their losses all coming to top-40 KenPom teams away from home means their full resume gives them the edge over the Hoosiers and Hawkeyes. With games against Nebraska and Minnesota up next on their schedule, the Buckeyes could rise in both the AP poll and the Big Ten standings.

6. Indiana Hoosiers

Previous Ranking: 5

Record: 11-6 (4-3 B1G)

Next Game: vs. No. 4 Purdue

Trayce Jackson-Davis’ offensive numbers have been the story of Bloomington all year, and for good reason, as he’s averaging nearly 20 and 10. However, Mike Woodson’s defense is what makes this Indiana team a current tournament team, and Jackson-Davis’ conference-best 2.9 blocks per game has contributed to this greatly. The Hoosiers have allowed the fewest number of PPG in the conference and have opponents shooting just 36.5% from the field. Their biggest issue lies in their turnovers and lack of outside shooting, as they have shoot just 34.6% from behind the arc and average 14.4 turnovers per game. This was the difference in their most recent 83-74 loss to the Hawkeyes, where they committed 23 turnovers to squander a double-digit lead. If the Hoosiers can figure out the issues that have plagued them all year, their defense and star player gives them a chance to surprise some people come March.

7. Iowa Hawkeyes

Previous Ranking: 7

Record: 13-5 (3-4 B1G)

Next Game: vs. Penn State

The Hawkeyes boast the No. 3 offense in the nation, according to KenPom, and have scored under 70 points only once all season. Additionally, they’ve won six of their last seven. All of their losses have come to teams sitting inside the AP top 20 and Keegan Murray leads the nation with an average of 23.9 points per game. Their defense and lack of a signature win is what’s holding Fran McCaffery’s team back, as they are one of two teams in the conference giving up an average of over 70 points per game and their most impressive win came vs. Indiana or at Minnesota, depending on who you ask. Their most recent loss to Rutgers doesn’t help their case, but with a solid record and scoring ability, the Hawkeyes are still a team that can hang with anyone if their shots are falling.

8. Rutgers Scarlet Knights

Previous Ranking: 10

Record: 11-6 (5-2 B1G)

Next Game: @ Minnesota

It’s pretty surreal how impactful a single shot can be for a program. After a rough 4-4 start that consisted of a three game losing streak to DePaul, Lafayette and UMass, the Scarlet Knights have been victorious in seven of their past nine. Following Ron Harper’s shot to shock Purdue, the team has been playing great basketball and hasn’t given up 70 or more since Dec. 12. Their starting lineup consists of four of the top-20 steal leaders in the Big Ten, including Caleb McConnell, who leads the conference in the category. The RAC has been rocking all season, as the Scarlet Knights have yet to lose in conference play at home, and they just held Iowa to 27.9% shooting, winning 48-46. With a relatively light stretch of conference play coming up for Steve Pikiell’s team, the Scarlet Knights could climb all the way back into the tournament mix after their dreadful start.

9. Minnesota Golden Gophers

Previous Ranking: 9

Record: 10-5 (1-5 B1G)

Next Game: vs. Rutgers (Jan. 22, 11:00 a.m. CT)

After Minnesota’s dream 10-1 start that consisted of wins on the road against both Mississippi State and Michigan, the Gophers have lost four straight. It’s confusing to know where to place Minnesota considering their Big Ten schedule has been brutal, with their losses coming to all above average conference opponents who are projected tournament teams. As of now, their lack of bad losses and the two decent wins I discussed prior elevates them above the bottom tier of teams, although their home game against Rutgers will say a lot about whether their hot start was a fluke or an indicator of a program going in the right direction.

10. Michigan Wolverines

Previous Ranking: 11

Record: 8-7 (2-3 B1G)

Next Game: @ Indiana

Although they have been disappointing for a majority of the year, the Wolverines have shown life against Illinois and Maryland following their COVID issues at the start of 2022. Their game against the Illini looks anything but promising on paper, with the Wolverines losing by 15 in a game where they scored only 53 points on 36% shooting, yet without Hunter Dickinson the Wolverines showed heart and grit and kept it close for a large portion of the game. This effort continued Tuesday as they dominated Maryland at home 83-64. The biggest difference for the Wolverines as of late has been the play of Coastal Carolina transfer Devante Jones, who has put up 12 or more points in five of the last six games. The Wolverines are still far from the team they hoped to be, but there’s still a glimmer of hope for Michigan.

11. Penn State Nittany Lions

Previous Ranking: 11

Record: 8-7 (3-4 B1G)

Next Game: @ Iowa

The Nittany Lions will likely not reach the tournament, but coach Micah Shrewsberry has surprised us and many others with the play of Penn State this season, especially in conference play. Over the last five games, Shrewsberry’s unit has three wins vs. Indiana, at Northwestern and vs. Rutgers, and only lost to Ohio State and Purdue by seven and five points, respectively. They are in the top 90 in both offense and defense, according to KenPom, and are playing hard on both ends of the ball. It’s step one on a long journey for Penn State if they want to compete in the Big Ten in the future, but things are looking bright for State College.

12. Northwestern Wildcats

Previous Ranking: 12

Record: 9-7 (2-5 B1G)

Next Game: @ Purdue (Jan. 22, 12:00 p.m. CT)

The Northwestern Wildcats have seven losses on the year, all of which have been by eight points or less. It’s difficult to tell if it’s Chris Collins or Scott Frost coaching Northwestern with the way the team seems to fall apart late in seemingly every close game. Statistically the ‘Cats haven’t been nearly as bad as their record reflects, as they have the best turnover margin in the conference and are in the top half of the conference in offense, steals, blocks, assists and rebounds. However, their defense and late game collapses have been their demise. The ‘Cats have given up an average of over 80 points per game over their last six games and have lost five of their last six. As of now, the tournament appears out of reach for NU.

13. Maryland Terrapins

Previous Ranking: 11

Record: 9-9 (1-6 B1G)

Next Game: vs. Illinois (Jan. 21, 6:00 p.m. CT)

The Wolverines has been the headliner in terms of Big Ten disappointments this year (for good reason, of course), but it is absurd that this Maryland team was the No. 21 ranked AP team coming into the year. The Terps followed up their win in Evanston by losing by double digits to both Rutgers and Michigan, putting them at 13th in the conference and making them .500 on the year. Eric Ayala is averaging over 19 points per game in their last six games and yet Maryland has only won one of these games. The Terrapins are the only team in the conference with a sub-one assist-to-turnover ratio, and considering the gauntlet of a conference that the Big Ten is, it’ll likely be a rough final couple of months in College Park.

14. Nebraska Cornhuskers

Previous Ranking: 14

Record: 6-13 (0-8 B1G)

Next Game: @ No. 19 Ohio State (Jan. 22, 1:15 p.m. CT)

Nebraska has now lost their first eight conference games by an average margin of over 16 points. They allow nearly 80 points a game and shoot less than 30% from beyond the arc, which as you may have guessed are far and away the lowest in the conference in each respective statistic. The misery from football season persists, only unlike on the field, the Huskers aren’t competitive, getting blown off the court seemingly every time they hit the hardwood. Still, their fanbase fills up Pinnacle Bank Arena, with over 15,000 in attendance per game, which is applaudable considering the product Fred Hoiberg has them watching.