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Big Ten men’s basketball power rankings, sixth edition: The Big Ten runs through Champaign

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Surprise standouts, clutch shots and screaming student sections are on full display, as it’s starting to feel a bit more like March.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

We’re a month away from the Big Dance and the Big Ten title is still within reach for a plethora of teams. There is clear parity among the top squads in the conference, but there isn’t a team outside of Lincoln that can’t create some chaos in the standings. Here’s the sixth edition of our Big Ten basketball power rankings:

1. No. 18 Illinois Fighting Illini

Previous Ranking: 3

Record: 16-5 (9-2 B1G)

Next Game: @ Indiana

Kofi Cockburn put up 37 points against the Wisconsin Badgers while missing only three shots, sending Illinois to a 80-67 victory and giving them sole possession of first place in the Big Ten.

When healthy — which is never a guarantee, considering the considerable amount of time Andre Curbelo and Kofi Cockburn have missed this season — the Illini may be more dangerous than they were thought to be in the preseason. Brad Underwood’s team has a tough Indiana road trip next week, as they have to travel to Bloomington and West Lafayette. But if they are able to come out of both of those with wins, Cockburn and company should move back into the national top ten and could begin to separate themselves from the rest of the pack in the Big Ten.

2. No. 4 Purdue Boilermakers

Previous Ranking: 2

Record: 19-3 (8-3 B1G)

Next Game: vs. Michigan

The Purdue Boilermakers could very well be sitting here today with an undefeated record as the number one team in the nation, but Matt Painter’s team continues to lose games they have no business losing. First, it was at Rutgers in a game that saw Ron Harper Jr. hit a game-winning, half-court buzzer-beater to cap off his 30 point performance, than it was Johnny Davis dropping 37 in West Lafayette, before their most recent loss at Indiana in which they shot an atrocious 7-for-17 from the free throw line on the way to losing 68-65. So, despite the fact that they have the best offense in the country according to KenPom, Purdue sits tied for third in the Big Ten. Still, they boast an undefeated non-conference record and a 4-1 record against the AP Top 25, including wins at full-strength Illinois and against Villanova, which make up, in part, for their three unexpected losses.

3. No. 13 Michigan State Spartans

Previous Ranking: 4

Record: 17-4 (8-2 B1G)

Next Game: vs. Rutgers

The Spartans do not have the bonafide star that many Final Four contenders look for, but they make up for it with their experience and outside shooting. With three seniors and only one underclassman in their starting lineup, the Spartans don’t live and die with the shot making ability of a single player, which, especially in this year’s Big Ten, is a rarity. Instead, they are solid in nearly every other tracked statistic, sitting in the top five in the Big Ten in assists, field goal percentage, three point percentage, rebounds, blocks and steals. Tom Izzo’s unit is a cohesive one, which has allowed them to win games despite not having a single player averaging over 13 points per game. They are in the top 30 nationally in both offense and defense on KenPom, and if it weren’t for their ball security woes — they average the most turnovers in the conference at 14 a game — the Spartans would likely be atop the Big Ten standings.

4. No. 11 Wisconsin Badgers

Previous Ranking: 1

Record: 13-5 (6-3 B1G)

Next Game: vs. Penn State

Although they have arguably the best pair of wings in the conference in Johnny Davis and Brad Davison, the Badgers’ lack of a true point guard or a dominant big man has plagued them thus far and may come to bite them come March. Wisconsin averages a Big Ten low 11.3 assists per game, and their offense is undoubtedly suffering because of it. Considering the fact that they have the lowest field goal percentage in the Big Ten whilst allowing their opponents to shoot for a better percentage than against any other conference team, it’s absurd that they are the current AP No. 11 team in the nation. The main reason for their success is the mere 8.4 turnovers a game they give up (the lowest average nationally) and their ability to win close games, which has placed them in the nation-wide top 10 of KenPom’s “Luck” rating. Still, in games where Johnny Davis isn’t producing at a national player of the year level, the Badgers don’t have the players around him to compete with the top teams in the conference.

5. No. 16 Ohio State Buckeyes

Previous Ranking: 5

Record: 12-4 (5-1 B1G)

Next Game: vs. Maryland

Despite E.J. Liddell showing shades of Tracy McGrady in his game against Purdue by scoring eight points in 41 seconds to bring the Buckeyes all the way back from down 20 in West Lafayette, Jaden Ivey still handed Ohio State its fifth loss of the year via a buzzer-beating three. Although that loss was painful for OSU fans fans, the Buckeyes still have all of their goals in front of them, sitting only two games back of first in the Big Ten and currently projecting to be somewhere around a 5-seed in the Big Dance. The play of freshman Malaki Branham has taken the load off Liddell, as he is averaging 14.7 points per game in conference play thus far and is shooting just under 40 percent from behind the arc. Branham and Liddell have powered the Buckeyes to become a top-10 offense according to KenPom. If they can become more sound defensively, they have a great chance to move up in the conference standings, as their next six games are all against teams sitting outside the AP Top 25.

6. Indiana Hoosiers

Previous Ranking: 6

Record: 16-5 (7-4 B1G)

Next Game: @ Indiana

The Hoosiers have flown relatively under the radar this season. The have not been ranked in the AP Top 25 once despite having the fourth best overall record in the conference and presenting the best defense in the Big Ten according to KenPom. A couple of weeks ago, they handed their rival No. 4 Purdue their third loss of the year, beating the Boilermakers by a score of 68-65 to keep their record at Assembly Hall at a perfect 12-0. Of course, as is common in college sports, the team suffered a let down following their rivalry win by losing in blowout fashion to Michigan by a score of 80-62. This game seemed to be more of an anomaly for Michigan than a bad performance for the Hoosiers, as Michigan shot an absurd 64.7% percent from behind the arc despite being in the bottom half of the conference from three on the year. Indiana followed up the upset in impressive fashion, though, blowing out Penn State and Maryland by 17 and 13, respectively. With four of their next five games coming against ranked competition, the Hoosiers have a chance to earn the recognition they haven’t been given nationally this season.

7. Iowa Hawkeyes

Previous Ranking: 7

Record: 14-7 (4-6 B1G)

Next Game: vs. Minnesota

It’s now February and Iowa is still yet to beat a ranked opponent. To make matters worse, they’ve lost three of their last four, including bouts against Rutgers and Penn State, who both sit outside the top 80 according to KenPom. Iowa’s M.O. all year has been beating up on inferior opponents and losing closely to teams that are near or in the AP Top 25. Now, Fran McCaffery’s unit is looking closer to a bubble team, and a lot of these struggles fall on the shoulders of projected lottery pick Keegan Murray, who hasn’t cracked 40 percent from the field in any of the Hawkeyes last four games. Murray’s shooting struggles spell trouble, as the Hawkeyes are without a strong defense to anchor them during period of offensive futility. Murray and the Hawks have a chance to get back on track in Columbus, where they’ll hope to pick up the marquee victory that has eluded them for so long and bolster their resume for March.

8. Rutgers Scarlet Knights

Previous Ranking: 8

Record: 12-9 (6-5 B1G)

Next Game: vs. No. 13 Michigan State

The Scarlet Knights have been an embodiment of the abnormalities and serendipitous nature of college basketball, which is a pretty bold statement for a team that’s only three games above .500. Steve Pikiell’s team held the Iowa Hawkeyes to 46 points to win by a score of 48-46, and considering they average 82.8 points a game and are top 10 in the country offensively according to KenPom, that’s nothing short of extraordinary. This is the same team that gave up 85 points to Massachusetts, and has losses to DePaul and Lafayette. When you turn on a Rutgers game you truly don’t know what to expect, which is why it should be no surprise that in their most recent game at Northwestern, Paul Mulcahy scored 31 points on 13 shots despite his previous career high being 15 points. Rutgers will likely not reach the tournament, but I’d encourage you to check them out because they are far from your ordinary Big Ten team.

9. Michigan Wolverines

Previous Ranking: 10

Record: 11-8 (5-4 B1G)

Next Game: @ No. 4 Purdue

The Wolverines finally looked like the top 10 team they were made out to be this season when they traveled to Bloomington and stomped the Hoosiers 80-62. Despite getting blown out against their rivals in East Lansing by a score of 83-67 and looking far from impressive at home against both Northwestern and Nebraska, the Wolverines have won four of their last five and have a glimmer of hope of playing in the Big Dance. A large reason for this has been the superb play of late by Hunter Dickinson, who had a relatively disappointing start to the season but has now scored 25 or more points in four of the Wolverines’ last six games. With two of their next three games coming against the Purdue Boilermakers, the Wolverines have a chance to get their first signature win of the year, which would go a long way on Selection Sunday.

10. Minnesota Golden Gophers

Previous Ranking: 9

Record: 11-8 (2-8 B1G)

Next Game: vs. Iowa

With only one win thus far in 2022, it’s safe to say that the Gophers 10-1 start was a bit of a fluke. However, despite losing seven of their last eight, the job first-year head coach Ben Johnson has done has been nothing short of brilliant. The Gophers have had the most brutal conference schedule thus far, having played only one team that has a losing record in Big Ten play. In fact, the Gophers have yet to lose a game to a team outside of the KenPom Top 25 and have wins over both Michigan and Rutgers. Barring a miracle, the Gophers tournament hopes are gone, but with teams such as Nebraska, Northwestern, Penn State and Maryland left on their schedule, Minnesota may be able to finish above .500. That’s a feat that shouldn’t go unnoticed considering the Gophers lost their top seven leading scorers from last year’s team that finished 14-15.

11. Penn State Nittany Lions

Previous Ranking: 11

Record: 9-9 (4-6 B1G)

Next Game: @ No. 11 Wisconsin

On Jan. 22, the Nittany Lions lost to Iowa by a score of 68-51. Less than 10 days later, they beat the Hawkeyes in a double overtime thriller by a score of 90-86. Obviously, this team did not have tournament expectations going into the year, but Micah Shrewsberry’s unit has already collected four wins in conference play and is tied for eighth in the Big Ten. Penn State’s struggles lie largely on the road, as they are a measly 2-6 away from the Bryce Jordan Center in Happy Valley. On the flip side, PSU has won its last three games at home, beating Indiana, Rutgers and Iowa.

12. Northwestern Wildcats

Previous Ranking: 12

Record: 10-10 (3-8 B1G)

Next Game: @ Nebraska

The ‘Cats finally lost their first game in blowout fashion, falling 80-60 to Purdue in West Lafayette. How did Northwestern follow this up? In classic Chris Collins fashion of course, losing to Illinois and Michigan by less than five, despite having the lead in the last four minutes of both games. Northwestern was able to get back to .500 with a 79-78 overtime win against Rutgers. That looks good on paper, but when you consider the fact that the ‘Cats blew a 24-point second half lead to a team that averages under 68 points a game, the escape against the Scarlet Knights looks like much less of a positive. Fortunately for Northwestern, they will only face two current AP Top 25 teams in its final nine games, so the team has a chance to finish above .500.

13. Maryland Terrapins

Previous Ranking: 13

Record: 11-11 (3-8 B1G)

Next Game: @ No. 16 Ohio State

The Terps came off their back-to-back double digit losses to Michigan and Rutgers by beating No. 17 Illinois by a whopping 16 points. Of course, the Illini were without their star Kofi Cockburn, but considering Illinois was still able to topple the Spartans without their big man a few days later, the win was impressive for Maryland. They followed this win by traveling to The RAC and beating Rutgers 68-60 before losing to both Indiana and Michigan State. The Terps live and die with their backcourt of Fatts Russell and Eric Ayala, who both are in the top 25 in minutes per game and PPG in the conference. Unfortunately for them, the duo far more often than not doesn’t have enough help around them to win in the Big Ten.

14. Nebraska Cornhuskers

Previous Ranking: 14

Record: 6-16 (0-11 B1G)

Next Game: vs. Northwestern

The sole silver lining for Fred Hoiberg’s team is potential first-rounder freshman Bryce McGowens, who has averaged 24 PPG over the Huskers’ past four games. Unfortunately, despite McGowens play, UNL continues to lose and has yet to win a game in conference play. If they drop their next two games at home against Northwestern and Minnesota, the Huskers could have a real chance of finishing winless in Big Ten play, which wouldn’t be a great look for their third year head coach.