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Big Ten men’s basketball power rankings, first edition: Where do the ‘Cats rank among conference foes?

After their loss to Northwestern, are the Boilermakers still the team to beat?

Purdue v Northwestern Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

With the opportunity to watch almost two months of non-conference play, a couple squads have cemented themselves as bonafide teams to watch while others have taken a tumble from their preseason expectations. Now, thanks to the looming gauntlet of Big Ten games approaching (plus a few we’ve already been lucky enough to watch), there’s no better holiday gift than diving into our first in-season Big Ten power rankings of the year.

1. No. 1 Purdue Boilermakers

Record: 11-1 (1-1 B1G)

Next Game: vs. Eastern Kentucky

Purdue is still the Big Ten’s benchmark. The No. 1 team in the country’s only blemish is its 92-88 overtime loss to Northwestern on Dec. 1. Nonetheless, Zach Edey is still the best player in college basketball, averaging an absurd 24.0 points and 10.4 rebounds per contest. Braden Smith with his 13.3 points, 6.7 assists and 5.5 rebounds per game is a top-three ball-handler in the Big Ten. With wins against ranked Arizona, Marquette, Tennessee and Gonzaga, the Boilermakers aren’t just the Big Ten’s most dangerous team, but the country’s.

2. No. 11 Illinois Fighting Illini

Record: 9-2 (1-0 B1G)

Next Game: vs. FDU

Minus a seven point loss to Tennessee on the road, Illinois has been incredibly impressive over the past month. Terrance Shannon’s natural scoring abilities paired with the offensive talent of Marcus Domask, Quincy Guerrier and Coleman Hawkins gives Illinois an offense that can compete with anyone. Just look at the Fighting Illini’s thrilling 98-89 win at Madison Square Garden over ranked FAU as a flash of what this squad is capable of. However, a concern for Brad Underwood’s squad is a 0.99 team turnover-to-assist ratio. If Illinois learns how to share the rock and take care of the ball in conference play, it is the clear second rung on the Big Ten ladder.

3. No. 23 Wisconsin Badgers

Record: 9-3 (1-0 B1G)

Next Game: vs. Iowa

Outside of their three losses on the season — all to great teams in Tennessee, Arizona and Providence — the Badgers have been impressive. Wisconsin beat an elite Marquette team at the Kohl Center and tallied their first Big Ten win of the season on the road at Michigan State. Led by St. John’s transfer AJ Storr’s 15.0 points per game, the Badgers have five players averaging nine-plus points per contest. Their core is experienced, too, with Steven Crowl, Tyler Wahl, Chucky Hepburn and Max Klesmit all playing over 25 minutes per game. If Greg Gard can get the Badgers off to a hot start in January, Wisconsin will cement itself as one of the teams to beat in the Big Ten.

4. Northwestern Wildcats

Record: 9-2 (1-0 B1G)

Next Game: vs. Jackson State

With arguably the best win in college basketball this year over top-ranked Purdue, the ‘Cats also have one of the country’s worst losses to Chicago State. However, with a big bounce-back win against Arizona State in Phoenix, Northwestern showed it’s back on track thanks to its physicality, hustle and methodical play. Boo Buie’s 18.5 points per game has Agent Zero as the conference’s best clutch scorer, but look for the supporting cast of Brooks Barnhizer, Ryan Langborg and Ty Berry to dictate wins and losses. No matter the opponent, Chris Collins’ squad finds itself in close games — already playing five contests with margins of five points or less within five minutes left of regulation. If the ‘Cats can continue to be clutch, nail triples and improve on the glass, their drive and fight every single play has them as a top-five Big Ten team.

5. Ohio State Buckeyes

Record: 10-2 (1-1 B1G)

Next Game: vs. West Virginia

Bruce Thornton’s sophomore jump paired with Jameson Battle’s transfer from Minnesota has elevated the Buckeyes to a hot start in non-conference play. Thornton is averaging 17.4 points and 4.1 assists per game, while Battle’s 41.9 percent shooting from deep has ignited an Ohio State offense that ranks in the top half of the Big Ten. Don’t forget about Roddy Gayle Jr. or Zed Key either — who are both double-digit scorers. Playing West Virginia on Saturday will be another good test, but with a conference win against Minnesota and good victories over Alabama and UCLA, Ohio State is primed to finish better than its 5-15 record in conference play from a season ago.

6. Michigan State Spartans

Record: 7-5 (0-2 B1G)

Next Game: vs. Indiana State

Michigan State’s season has been filled with twists, turns and surprises. After losing to James Madison in their opener, the Spartans dropped big time matchups to ranked Arizona and Duke teams and lost their first two conference games to Wisconsin and Nebraska. But a win over No. 6 Baylor a week ago changed the feel of this Michigan State squad. Tyson Walker is one of the Big Ten’s best closers, averaging 19.8 points per contest, and with AJ Hoggard and Jaden Akins contributing double-digit points per game, Tom Izzo’s squad is a win-streak away from vaulting up the power rankings. Indiana State is not an opponent to look past, making the Spartans’ upcoming matchup a good gauge of where this team is at. The Spartans have the talent, but they need to find consistency with the thick of conference play right around the corner.

7. Indiana Hoosiers

Record: 9-3 (2-0 B1G)

Next Game: vs. Kennesaw State

Indiana losing Jalen Hood-Schifino and Trayce Jackson-Davis in the offseason had many fans uncertain what Mike Woodson’s Hoosiers would look like. Led by Trey Galloway, Kel’el Ware and Malik Reneau, the Hoosiers scream being a feisty Big Ten team with their size and physicality. Throw in impact freshman Mackenzie Mgbako who’s improving each game he plays in and the Hoosiers are a sneaky team to make some noise in conference play. They lost badly to Auburn, but they are the only Big Ten team with two conference wins having already beaten Maryland and Michigan and played Kansas to the end in a heart-breaking loss at home. With its ability to play with two athletic bigs in Ware and Reneau that both average nearly 15 points per game, Indiana’s size poses a matchup nightmare to smaller Big Ten lineups.

8. Nebraska Cornhuskers

Record: 10-2 (1-1 B1G)

Next Game: vs. SC State

The eight slot may be a little low for the Cornhuskers after an incredible start to the season. Though they began the campaign on a seven-game win streak, a loss to Creighton and a second-half meltdown to Minnesota on the road to open conference play have led to questions about the Cornhuskers’ legitimacy. Wins over Michigan State and Kansas State have quieted the doubters, but even then, it’s unclear if Nebraska has what it takes to keep up with the top dogs in the conference. However, with Juwan Gary, Keisei Tominaga, Brice Williams and Rienk Mast — who’ll give Nebraska a huge lift when he returns from a knee injury — all averaging 13-plus points per game, Nebraska has the weapons to finish better than its 16-16 record last year and potentially make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2014.

9. Michigan Wolverines

Record: 6-6 (1-1 B1G)

Next Game: vs. McNeese State

Michigan being in the nine spot might feel a little high for the Wolverines, who have had their fair share of struggles this season. Unable to win close games — with five of Michigan’s six losses being by six or fewer points — Dug McDaniel’s 19.2 points per game has Michigan as the Big Ten’s third-best scoring offense. But the barometer of success for the Wolverines will be Tennessee transfer Olivier Nkahmhoua’s play. The athletic forward excels with his back to the basket and is a force on the boards. He’s averaging 17.2 points per contest, has 12 or more points in all but one game this season and will need to keep up his tenacious play against the Big Ten’s physical bigs to keep Michigan competitive in conference play.

10. Maryland Terrapins

Record: 8-4 (1-1 B1G)

Next Game: vs. Coppin State

Maryland’s start to the campaign has been brutal. Seen as a potential top-three Big Ten powerhouse to enter the season, the Terrapins’ struggles to win away from the Xfinity Center has led to losses to Villanova, Indiana, Davidson and UAB. Good news for Maryland is it may have turned a corner with a huge road win at UCLA — yes, the Terrapins can win on the road. Throw in one of the Big Ten’s best scorers in Jahmir Young, averaging 19.3 points per game, and the dynamic lefty’s ability to ignite the Terrapins’ offense is critical to Maryland’s conference outlook. What it really comes down to is Julian Reese’s ability to contribute. When on the court and playing well, Reese’s impact offensively and defensively with 14.0 points, 9.7 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game is superfood for Maryland. But the Terrapins’ big man has struggled through foul trouble in big moments so far. What version of Reese that shows up any given contest is the biggest x-factor for a squad that needs to help Young carry the load.

11. Minnesota Golden Gophers

Record: 9-3 (1-1 B1G)

Next Game: vs. Maine

At the beginning of the season, Minnesota would have been the clear favorite for the last spot on this list, but now sit at nine wins — the same number they finished all of last season with. The Golden Gophers have feasted on an easy non-conference schedule and managed to capitalize on Nebraska’s second half collapse for their first conference win at The Barn. Minnesota has some pieces too, with Dawson Garcia continuing to show he’s one of the conference’s better scorers averaging 18.2 points per game, Elijah Hawkins developing as a facilitating engine (currently tied for second in all of college basketball with 7.6 assists per game) and Joshua Ola-Joseph as an athletic forward who is a willing rebounder and double-digit scorer. With a four-game win streak, if Minnesota continues to mesh, the Golden Gophers should easily finish with more than the two wins in conference play they had just a year ago.

12. Penn State Nittany Lions

Record: 6-6 (1-1 B1G)

Next Game: vs. Rider

After losing Head Coach Micah Shrewsberry and stars like Jalen Pickett and Seth Lundy, this Nittany Lions’ squad is completely different from last year’s. However, with Kanye Clary’s 17.3 points per game and Ace Baldwin’s 13.9 points and 4.1 assists per contest helping leading the way, Penn State has played competitive basketball. It lost to Maryland in overtime on the road but mounted a big-time comeback over Ohio State at home. If Clary and Baldwin keep balling out and Georgetown-transfer Qudus Wahab continues averaging nearly a double-double per contest with his 10.1 points and 9.0 rebounds per game, expect Penn State to be a dark horse team in the Big Ten standings. For now, inconsistency has the Nittany Lions just above the bottom of these power rankings.

13. Rutgers Scarlet Knights

Record: 7-4 (0-1 B1G)

Next Game: vs. Stonehill

Beating Seton Hall in the Garden State Hardwood Classic was a quality win for the Scarlet Knights, but other than an 11-point win over Georgetown, Rutgers has been uninspiring in non-conference play. Cliff Omoruyi is still one of the conference’s best big men, but even his numbers are down in a post- Cam Spencer, Caleb McConnell and Paul Mulcahy world. Getting Mawot Mag back is a huge lift, but with Aundre Hyatt’s 12.1 points per game leading Rutgers in scoring, the Scarlet Knights will struggle to score in conference play. Rutgers does boast the Big Ten’s best scoring defense, but its lack of natural scorers is incredibly concerning with January approaching.

14. Iowa Hawkeyes

Record: 7-5 (0-2 B1G)

Next Game: vs. NIU

If Iowa ends the year here, it would certainly be a shock. Nonetheless, the Hawkeyes have trudged through non-conference play beating the teams it should, but losing games to ranked Creighton, Oklahoma and Purdue squads. A loss at home against Michigan and a blow-out defeat on the road to rival Iowa State are also forgettable. The Hawkeyes have scorers with Ben Krikke, Payton Sandfort, Tony Perkins and Patrick McCaffrey scoring in double digits but are allergic to playing defense — currently ranked second-to-last in the Big Ten in scoring defense. One of only two teams that are 0-2 in conference play, until the Hawkeyes show they can beat a legitimate opponent, they’ll be stuck at or near the bottom of this list.