I love this time of year when I can fully turn my attentions to basketball, and not just Purdue football is lousy again. No, it's the exciting time when we've just had the wealth of early season invitationals and tournaments plus the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The season has been active for almost a month and most teams have played 8-10 games, so it is a good sample to do some early evaluations.
We've already seen plenty of that in the Big Ten. The conference still looks tough, but probably not as tough as last year when four teams (Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State) were pretty much interchangeable in the top 10 nationally. Yesterday's draw in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge can attest to the league's toughness. The Big Ten had the No. 1 team in the country lose, but still played to a 6-6 tie.
That tie and the current run over 3-0-2 against the ACC can all be credited to our Boilermakers. Purdue is the only school in either conference that has won every game in the last five seasons, helping the Big Ten to this run. Even last year, Purdue's worst team in awhile, won.
You're welcome, Big Ten.
Now that we have a decent sample size its time for an initial Power Rankings:
Definite NCAA teams:
- Ohio State (7-0) - One of these days I will stop doubting Thad Matta. I thought the Buckeyes would drop off quite a bit after losing Deshaun Thomas, but Aaron Craft is playing some great basketball and they have great balance. A total of six players are averaging between 9 and 11.4 points per game, so who do you really stop? Craft and Shannon Scott are also distributing the ball at a great rate too. Ohio State very likely will be undefeated when they start conference play at Mackey Arena on December 31, as the only real test they have left is Notre Dame.
- Wisconsin (9-0) - The Badgers have shown they can get it done the Wisconsin way or by scoring a ton of points. They actually scored 100 against North Dakota, but last night's strangulation of Virginia in Charlottesville was more typical. They have all the earmarks of a great Bo Ryan team: smothering defense, deliberate pace, a large bruising forward with a Polish name (Frank Kaminsky). People call it ugly, but their style is beautiful to use if you win. Maybe that is why Purdue has more success in Madison than other teams. We're certainly not afraid to ugly it up with them.
- Michigan State (7-1) - I am really not sure what happened to the Spartans last night. I guess North Carolina just owns them. How can Michigan State look so good against Kentucky, but look so bad at home against a North Carolina team with losses to Belmont and UAB? Sparty doesn't have another major test until going to Texas on December 21 and Indiana on January 4th.
- Iowa (8-1) - Of the five Big Ten teams that did not make the NCAA Tournament last season the Hawkeyes were my pick to go this year. They already have more quality non-conference wins over Xavier and Notre Dame than all of last season. A road game coming up at Iowa State will be another chance to get one. Roy Devyn Marble is playing like one of the best guards in the conference. This is a sleeper team for the Big Ten title.
Fighting For At Large Berths:
- Indiana (6-2) - The ACC/Big Ten Challenge proved again that Tom Crean cannot prepare for a zone, making me wish that more teams would adjust for a special zone just to run against Indiana. Aside from that, the Hoosiers have more than enough talent to make the tournament this year and it shouldn't be a question. They are 6-0 against the softer portion of their schedule but 0-2 against real teams. The Notre Dame game in Indianapolis next week will be a big one for both teams. If Indiana doesn't win They'll be relying solely on the conference portion of their schedule for their NCAA profile.
- Illinois (7-1) - Had the Fighting Illini not blown the game against Georgia Tech I probably would have had them ahead of Indiana. Instead, they missed a chance for a major conference win, but they have three left with neutral site games against Auburn and Missouri as well as a road game at Oregon. Rayvonte Rice has been an instant impact transfer after coming over from Drake, as he is averaging 18 points per game.
- Purdue (7-2) - Was last night the real Purdue? If so, that is an NCAA team. If the Purdue from the second half of the Washington State game shows up we'll be lucky to make the NIT. The players in the postgame press conference last night talked about it was just fun to come out and play basketball, which is what they came to do. Everyone was on the same page and Purdue was finally in sync. It is a delicate balance though. Given the relative weakness of the non-conference schedule the Boilers might only be able to afford one more non-conference loss, and only then if it were against Butler or West Virginia.
- Michigan (5-3) - The Wolverines way down here? Well, for now, yes. They are off to a slow start and don't especially look good in that 5-3 beginning. They also still host likely new No. 1 Arizona before playing a decent Stanford team, so it could slip to a dangerously low record early. Surprisingly Nik Stauskas is their top scorer despite having Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary on their team. This is still probably an NCAA team, but there are definitely some questions now.
- Minnesota (7-2) - This is a preliminary spot for the Golden Gophers, who I thought were going to be one of the worst teams in the conference. They didn't have much in the way of decent wins before beating Florida State last night, which raised a few eyebrows because they were in control throughout. The rest of the non-conference schedule is ridiculously light, but consecutive home games against Michigan and Purdue to start league play will give everyone a better idea.
Lurking as an upset:
- Penn State (6-3) - The Nittany Lions do this every year. You know they are going to burn someone in Big Ten play. D.J. Newbill and Tim Frazier give them an excellent backcourt to burn multiple someones, but I don't think there is enough strength there for a serious run at the NCAAs. Those two average over 38 points per game combined and shoot the ball extremely well. Unfortunately, they would be in a much better position had they beaten Mississippi and Pitt in their last two games.
- Nebraska (6-2) - Maybe Nebrasketball is not that bad. They saved the Big Ten last night by beating defending ACC Champ (and heavily depleted) Miami to quietly start 6-2. The losses aren't bad, either, as they came against a ranked UMass team and a UAB team that beat North Carolina. This weekend they have an in-state rivalry game at Creighton that could announce the Cornhuskers as a dangerous team is they win it. Their December 28 through January 20 stretch is absolutely brutal, however: at Cincinnati, at Iowa, at Ohio State, Michigan, at Purdue, Ohio State. A win over Creighton and 3-3 run through that would be impressive.
Not This Year:
- Northwestern (4-5) - Well, I guess the good news is that Northwestern won't be eliminated from an NCAA berth but about six gut-wrenching Big Ten losses like the last several seasons. Instead, they have taken care of that by losing any game that could help them from the non-conference (Stanford, Missouri, UCLA, and NC State) and almost losing to IUPUI. At least this is a younger team being built by Chris Collins that could break through next year. Well, that is until they lose to Indiana because Peter Jurkin banks in an 84-foot three-pointer and gets fouled as time expires with IU trailing by three. At least next season they get Rutgers, losers to such powers as Fairleigh Dickenson, George Washington, Drexel, and William & Mary to kick around.