Despite an up-and-down start to the year for several teams in the Big Ten, conference play always presents new opportunities.
Entering the 2017 calendar year, odds-makers from across the country still had a handful of Big Ten teams among the best betting odds to be cutting down the nets in Phoenix come the first Monday of April.
The likes of the Indiana Hoosiers, Wisconsin Badgers, and Purdue Boilermakers look to be the conference’s best bets to have a Big Ten cut down the nets.
However, the National Championship is still over two months away, and the Big Ten conference is a mess. There’s no clear-cut favourite at this moment in the season, teams are losing games they should win, and vice versa. There are several ‘good’ teams in the conference, but no ‘great’ teams.
We tried to dissect the teams in the conference, and rank them to the best of our abilities. So, here goes nothing.
1. Wisconsin Badgers (14-3, 3-1)
Greg Gard has done a tremendous job with the Badgers since taking over for Bo Ryan midway through last season. Players bought into his system right away, and this season is no different. Wisconsin is undoubtedly the top team in the conference, both on paper and on the court, and they have the look of a team who could very well make a run come March.
The three losses for the Badgers were all against teams who were nationally-ranked at the time, and they are just a half-game behind Maryland for top spot in the Big Ten standings, with a game in hand.
Wisconsin’s veteran trio of Bronson Koenig, Nigel Hayes, and Ethan Happ have led the team, while freshman guard D’Mitrik Trice has emerged as a strong three point threat in limited action (54.1%).
2. Purdue Boilermakers (14-4, 3-2)
Home to one of the best front courts in the entire country, the Purdue Boilermakers are a team who have had their ups and downs this season, much like the rest of the Big Ten.
Losses to the Villanova Wildcats and Louisville Cardinals are understandable, but conference losses to the likes of Minnesota and Iowa leave more questions than answers. Caleb Swanigan is a top-three contender for National Player of the Year honours, and the Boilermakers have the talent surrounding him to not only win the conference title, but make a run come March.
It’s a matter of getting there, that could trip up Purdue. More losses in games they should win will pose problems down the stretch. But, it’s better to get them out of their system now, before it’s an elimination game.
3. Northwestern Wildcats (15-4, 4-2)
Could this finally be the year that we see Northwestern’s name on a line in the NCAA Tournament?
They are playing like a top team in the conference, sitting at 15-4 overall. In their four losses, which have come by nine points or less, they’ve been competitive right down to the wire, and could have easily won any of those games. Northwestern lost back-to-back games to Michigan State and Minnesota, but have since won three straight Big Ten games.
Bryant McIntosh, Scottie Lindsey, and Vic Law are all having All-Big Ten seasons, and have the Wildcats in a position that their fans have long been waiting for.
4. Minnesota Golden Gophers (15-4, 3-3)
With the exception of an 18-point loss to Michigan State last week, which resulted in a season sweep for the Spartans, Richard Pitino’s crew has looked impressive. Wins over the UT-Arlington Mavericks and Purdue Boilermakers highlight their 15 wins so far.
Freshman Amir Coffey and sophomore Jordan Murphy have the program going in the right direction. They may be a bit ahead of their time, and a drop off could very well be just over the horizon, but for now, Minnesota looks like a top team.
Regardless, they’ll be a tough out come the post-season.
5. Maryland Terrapins (16-2, 4-1)
The Terrapins are a bit of a mystery this season. While their record is tops in the Big Ten, and they sit alone atop the standings with a 4-1 record in conference play, something seems off about Maryland.
Their non-conference win over the Kansas State Wildcats looks better and better with each passing day, as Kansas State continues to be a thorn in the side of teams in the Big 12. Outside of that win, the Terrapins have looked less than impressive. But, losing four starters will do that.
Melo Trimble is still the leader of the team, but he needs to limit his turnovers. Freshman Justin Jackson has been a nice surprise. Once the Terrapins get fully healthy, they will be a top four team in the conference.
Three of their next four games are on the road, which will be a big test for the team.
6. Michigan State Spartans (12-7, 4-2)
What’s going on with Sparty?
Credit Tom Izzo for scheduling arguably the toughest non-conference slate in the country this season. He gave the Spartans plenty of opportunities to land a marquee non-conference win. However, the injury bug bit the Spartans hard in the front court, and they went 4-4 over their first eight games.
Add in a home loss to the Northeastern Huskies, and the questions continued to mount for Izzo’s crew.
But, one thing is for certain. You can never count out Tom Izzo and the Spartans as the season wears on. Miles Bridges is back and healthy, and Michigan State seems to have found a rhythm on offense. If they can avoid another bad loss in conference play (72-67 @ Ohio State).
Two losses in their last three games have created some more questions, but the Spartans always seem to weather the storm.
7. Indiana Hoosiers (12-6, 2-3)
Without question, the Indiana Hoosiers have been one of the most disappointing teams in the entire country.
They were projected to be the team to beat in the Big Ten, and they’ve already got three conference losses to their name. Sophomore big man Thomas Bryant was supposed to be a Player of the Year candidate, yet he hasn’t been able to live up to the hype.
Four losses in their past six games have the Hoosiers trending in the wrong direction. On paper, they’re still a top three team in the Big Ten, and they’ll get things back on the right track. There’s no real need to worry in Bloomington just yet, but Hoosiers’ fans should have a bit of sweat on their brow.
8. Illinois Fighting Illini (12-6, 2-3)
The Fighting Illini have been an up-and-down team in Big Ten play. Literally.
They’ve alternated wins and losses through their first five games, and two of their three losses have been by double-digit margins. A healthy Malcolm HIll (16.8 ppg) leads the way for John Groce’s crew.
If the trend continues, they’ll score a big road win over Purdue in their next outing, only to fall at Michigan later in the week. Illini fans don’t want to rely on a ‘trend’ to see when their team could win next.
Illinois needs to get some little things figured before the trend switches to a losing streak.
9. Nebraska Cornhuskers (9-8, 3-2)
Nebraska’s stretch of six losses in a span of seven games, capped off with a loss to the Gardner-Webb Runnin’ Bulldogs, seems to be a distant memory.
Even though they sit at just 9-8 overall, Nebraska opened up conference play with three straight wins, and were flying high after road wins over Indiana and Maryland. They’ve fallen back to Earth, having lost their last two games.
Tai Webster (18.1 ppg) and Glynn Watson, Jr. (15.2 ppg) have kept the Huskers in several games this season, but they need more help if they want to stay in the top half of the standings.
10. Iowa Hawkeyes (11-8, 3-3)
First, there was the four-game losing streak that was followed by a five-game winning streak in December to get the Hawkeyes back on track.
Then, there were big wins over Purdue and Michigan, only to follow them up with a 35-point drubbing at the hands of Northwestern.
The play of Peter Jok has been the only consistent thing for Iowa as of late. The Preseason All-Big Ten First Team selection has carried the Hawkeyes this season, and they will need him to keep putting up big numbers if they want to have a shot at a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
11. Michigan Wolverines (12-6, 2-3)
Four of five games in conference play for Michigan have been decided by single digits, and they’re just 2-2 in those contests. With both Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton, Jr. healthy this season, many would have expected the Wolverines to come away with wins in close games.
Rivalry games always seem to bring out the best in Michigan, which is an indication that we haven’t seen everything that the Wolverines have to offer yet. Circle the dates against Michigan State and Ohio State on your calendars, which happen in three games from January 29th to February 7th.
12. Penn State Nittany Lions (11-7, 3-2)
When Penn State landed a commitment from Tony Carr, a Philadelphia-born guard, fans of the Nittany Lions rejoiced that a hometown recruit chose to stay home.
While he’s played well as a freshman, the Nittany Lions lack a leader on offense who can take a game over when needed. They have five players averaging between 10.3 and 12.6 points per game, showing they have balance on the offensive end. But, they lack a player with the ‘killer instinct’ who can put the team on his back and go on a run by himself to push the team ahead in a close contest.
Without the star-calibre player, the Nittany Lions will find themselves on the wrong end of some close games down the stretch this year.
13. Ohio State Buckeyes (11-7, 1-4)
Ohio State picked up their first conference win of the year on Sunday, taking down Michigan State by five in Columbus. Outside of that win, the Buckeyes haven’t looked anywhere close to the team we thought they’d be in the preseason.
Many predicted Thad Matta’s team to be a sleeper pick in the conference. Instead, they were just been asleep over the first four games of Big Ten play.
It’s a long season, and they have 13 games to get things turned around. With the Big Ten the way it is at the moment, the Buckeyes could still make a run at the crown.
14. Rutgers Scarlet Knights (11-8, 0-6)
To nobody’s surprise, Rutgers is at the bottom of the Big Ten standings once again in 2016-17.
Corey Sanders is a star for the Scarlet Knights, but he can’t do it alone. They need a more consistent offense if they want to move out of the cellar of the conference. Four players are averaging double-digit points per game this season.
But, for the time being, there are no signs of that happening for Steve Pikiell and company.
– T. Bennett