So far, basketball season has been much, much better than we expected. It is a soothing balm after the arduous pain and suffering that football season caused. Purdue has played nine games and has won all nine games by at least 12 points. It has played a nice balance of cupcakes and challenging opponents. So far, every game seems to be one where the Boilers simply wear opponents down to where they have nothing left by the 8-12 minute mark. In the final 8-12 minutes of each game so far the Boilers, if they already did not have a big lead, have been utterly dominant. They blew open close games with Pittsburgh, Florida, and New Mexico, and against everyone else they were already way ahead.
Can any other Big Ten team say that? Well, so far it looks like a three team race for the title if things don't change, and Purdue has two of their three games against the other "contenders" at home.
1. Michigan State (9-0) - For now, Sparty is No. 1 because they have played and beaten two top 25 teams, while Purdue has yet to play a top 25 team. The wins over Kansas and Louisville are better than Purdue's wins, but they have a good litmus test on Saturday against the same Florida team Purdue has already beaten. It also helps they are the No. 1 team in the country by the major polls.
2. Purdue (9-0) - The only other team that is undefeated is a worthy No. 2, but I would like to see us play a ranked team before putting ahead of MSU. As it is, I have visions of No. 1 vs. No. 2 nationally at a sold out and extremely loud Mackey Arena on February 9th. Barring a disaster, Purdue will be 11-0 and likely in the top 10 nationally when it plays its first ranked team in Butler. If the Boilers get to conference play at 13-0 it can start dreaming of No. 1 seeds in March.
3. Maryland (7-1) - There is no shame in losing at North Carolina, but the Terps haven't quite been as good as expected. We all know Melo Trimble is going to be outstanding. In fact, both he and Denzel Valentine are my picks for B1G POTY, but there have been questions. What was that game against Rider, for example? There was also a near loss to Georgetown. Tonight they play UConn in the Garden, which is a very good test.
4. Iowa (7-2) - So far, it looks like there is a pretty steep dropoff from the top 3 teams to the rest of the league. It is a bit of a jumbled mess, and assuming Purdue-Maryland-Michigan State in some form are locked into the 1-2-3 spots the battle for the fourth and final double bye in Indianapolis will be a fun one. Right now I have Iowa here because they at least have a top 25 win (though it was over Wichita State, who went 0-3 in that tournament). The losses to Dayton and Notre Dame aren't horrible, either.
5. Michigan (6-2) - The Wolverines beat Texas and won at NC State. If they beat a ranked SMU team on the road tonight they probably have an edge on the other 10 teams here. Again, the losses aren't terrible (Xavier and Connecticut). If they win tonight they probably won't lose before their January 7 game at Purdue.
6. Northwestern (7-1) - Yeah, come at me, bro! Is this the year that Northwestern's pain on Selection Sunday finally ends? They at least have two wins over major conference opponents (Missouri and Virginia Tech). The one loss was to North Carolina by 11, so not bad. They have five games left in the non-conference and if they get to the Big Ten season at 12-1 I would consider them halfway to the NCAAs. From there, a 9-9 or better finish should be enough to get in. Can this Northwestern team win nine Big Ten games or more? Absolutely.
7. Wisconsin (6-3) - I thought Wisconsin was done, but don't count out Bo Ryan. It would not stun me in the least to see Wisconsin sitting at No. 4 in the league on March 10th because that is what Bo does. The awful loss to Western Illinois was erased by winning at Syracuse and it certainly looks like they have turned a corner even with three losses. Purdue's conference opener is not going to be an easy one in Madison.
8. Indiana (6-3) - The Hoosiers hang on here based on their sheer talent level. With three McDonald's All-Americans and a possible NBA first rounder in Troy Williams they have everything they need to compete in terms of offense. Defense though? YEEEEESH! I have no idea why people expected that the loss of two post players and the addition of one freshman center was suddenly expected to transform this team when they couldn't play defense last season. They are still the same as last year. They have enough firepower that, when they are hot, they can beat anyone. They are still severely flawed, however. James Blackmon can't defend a folding chair and mentally checks out if things aren't going his way. Troy Williams is ridiculously athletic, but not scary at all because he plays with a low basketball IQ. Kevin Farrell needs to be a better leader. Thomas Bryant is soft inside (seriously? No rebounds against Duke? At 6'10" you should accidentally get two rebounds per game). Indiana is going to be a chaos team. They will beat Maryland, Purdue, or Michigan State at least once because they have an on fire game. They will also lose to someone like Penn State, Minnesota, or Illinois because if you punch them in the mouth they fold. They pretty much have to beat Notre Dame next weekend because otherwise they have nothing to show from their non-conference.
You Can't Spell Big Ten Basketball Without NIT
9. Penn State (5-2) - Yes, Shep Garner has earned the Talor Battle Memorial Penn State Guard That Can Win Games By Himself Award (the TBMPSGTCWGBHA), taking over for D.J. Newbill. Losing to Duquesne and Radford is not good, but at least they won at Boston College to help the Big Ten. Tonight they have a chance to save a little face by beating a very good George Washington team on the road.
10. Nebraska (6-3) - What do we know about the Huskers? Shavon Shields is good and they play well at home, but they are 6-0 against non-Top 25 teams and 0-3 against the Top 25. They played very well against Cincinnati and Miami too. Because of Shields and Andrew White this is going to be a very tough team to play every night.
11. Minnesota (5-3) - Minnesota would have been higher, but then they lost over the weekend to South Dakota. That pretty much erased the good work from beating Clemson earlier in the week. What will happen tonight against South Dakota State? How about this weekend when they host Oklahoma State?
Can They Even Break .500?
12. Ohio State (3-4) - Is Thad Matta finally getting bitten in a down cycle? The Buckeyes down this low is very strange, but they have lost to Texas-Arlington and Louisiana Tech. Sure, they pushed Virginia at home, but this is not a good team. Losses to UConn and Kentucky in the non-conference are still likely, and it is very difficult to recover from six non-conference losses.
13. Illinois (4-5) - Our interim University in the League at least got rid of one interim, as they no longer have an interim home in Springfield. Other than that, Illinois is bad. The highlight was pushing Notre Dame in the Challenge. The lowlights? Take your pick. Needing a buzzer beat to beat lowly Chicago State? Losing to North Florida by 12? Losing to Chattanooga? It is going to be a long season in Champaign.
14. Rutgers (3-5) - I considered having Rutgers ahead of Illinois, but at least the Illini have challenged good teams in Providence and Notre Dame. Rutgers is, unfortunately, still Rutgers. They were tied at halftime with their non-D1 satellite campus in Newark to start the season. They just lost to a mediocre Seton Hall by 29. Their only Division I wins are over Howard by 12 and Central Arkansas by 3. I would say they will be lucky to win a Big Ten game, but somehow they stunned Wisconsin last year in one of the most inexplicable upsets in Big Ten history. They play Illinois twice in 14 days in February as a battle for last place.