After an unsuccessful ACC-Big Ten Challenge and equally unsuccessful Gavitt Games the perception of the Big Ten is not a good one right now. Sure, teams like Maryland, Michigan, and Purdue won their exempt tournaments, but overall the conference perception has taken it on the chin a bit. Michigan State has played hard, but hasn’t knocked off any of its big name opponents. Penn State and Illinois have a couple of ugly home losses to low majors.
The Big Ten currently has only three teams in the AP top 25 with Indiana the highest at No. 13 (though they will go up on Monday). Four are just outside the top 25, but right now the conference looks like it has a bunch of pretty good teams and only one really great team.
So, let’s rank them!
1. Indiana (5-1) – The Hoosiers are virtually unbeatable at home and when they really crank up their offense they are pretty good away from home too. They seem like one of those teams that plays its best basketball when they get a good start and lead by 7-10 because they are great at keeping the lead right int hat range. Last night against North Carolina that’s exactly what happened: They got up by six within the first 90 seconds and kept the Tar Heels at bay from there. Yes, the loss at Fort Wayne was an aberration, but no team in America has two wins as good as the Hoosiers. This is a damn good team right now and they can even play a little defense. They are probably going to go undefeated at home and if you mention “Tom Crean”, “Fort Wayne”, or “Easy schedule” you look pretty foolish. The fact is this team has won two of the last four Big Ten titles outright, they won last season by two clear games, and if they are on offensively they are tough for ANYONE to beat. The Fort Wayne game only proves that an off night can happen (plus they don’t play as well from behind), but opponents had better take advantage.
2. Wisconsin (6-2) – The Badgers aren’t quite as good as many expected to start the year, but the 17 point win over Syracuse in Madison at least gives them a solid victory. They still have double-digit losses in their other two big games against North Carolina and Creighton. Because they went to Maui they do have one of the tougher non-conference schedules in the conference. This will be a team that kind of hangs around all season.
3. Purdue (5-2) – I admit, I am concerned about Purdue. Are we a good team? No question. Are we a team that will win the Big Ten and get to the second weekend, (something that, quite frankly, needs to be the goal every year)? I don’t think so yet. Purdue looked really good in Cancun, but how good are Auburn and Utah State? Then there are Villanova and Louisville. Purdue has lost to a pair of top 15 teams by 10 points total, and looked awful for about 35 minutes against Louisville only to be within 4 with more than a minute left. Both of those teams are really, really good, and Purdue did its usual “we’re close, but not quite there” against each. Many are talking about the “moral victory” implications of each, but when our bitter rivals have played two similar teams and actually won, while Purdue has, well, Purdue’d in their two games, it is of little solace. Personally, I have had enough of moral victories. We have had decades of them. I want to actually win these types of games regularly, dammit. that’s the difference between Indiana and Purdue right now (and yes, Indiana is almost ALWAYS our measuring stick). Right now, the Hoosiers expect to win against a top 5 team, especially at home. Purdue merely hopes to win.
Purdue can still have an excellent season… if it grows from the Villanova and Louisville losses. The fact is Purdue was terrible last night. It played some of its worst basketball in a long time, but it was still in the game late. Eventually, Purdue is going to have to win those types of games though. The only time it has done so in the last three seasons was last year against Michigan State in West Lafayette. When the stakes were higher in the Big Ten title game it was again close, but fell short.
Right now Purdue looks like a team that will be just fine as long as it doesn’t play a higher ranked or seeded team. The Boilers are perfectly capable of earning a top 3 seed and having an “easier” path (and that was no guarantee in 2011), but it needs to get Vince Edwards going. It can’t have an awful game from Isaac Haas against a big time opponent like last night. It has to dominate in the paint, rebound, stay out of foul trouble, have its guards play well (and so far they have), and it has to have about 10 fewer turnovers per game.
Like Indiana, when Purdue is on it is very tough to beat, but turnovers have been a major issue and it is harder for Purdue to reach that basketball happy place. Purdue’s next real test is December 17 against Notre Dame and that is shaping up to be a must-win if Purdue is ever going to jump from “pretty good” to “contender”.
4. Maryland (7-1) – The Terrapins have a wealth of close wins over Georgetown, American, Towson, Richmond, and Kansas State. That’s far from a murderer’s row, but they are at least learning how to finish games. I would have had them higher if not for an inexplicable 14 point home loss to Pittsburgh on Tuesday. Melo Trimble is still really, really good though.
5. Ohio State (6-1) – The Buckeyes are the surprise of the conference so far, and they nearly pulled off a major upset last night at Virginia. Their best win is only over Providence, but playing Virginia to a two point game and having a chance to win on the final possession was pretty impressive. We’ll know more about Ohio State after they play UConn and UCLA late this month.
6. Northwestern (5-2) – Is this the year? The Wildcats got a non-conference win over a ranked opponent for the first time since approximately 732 AD when they beat Texas and they nearly got two more huge wins over Notre Dame and Butler. They also held their own in the Challenge with a win over Wake Forest. Sure, it turns out Texas isn’t that good, but if Northwestern can get past Dayton on December 17 and 11-2 non-conference season is very probable. From there, 9-10 conference wins might just be enough to end their long suffering.
7. Michigan (5-2) – Michigan was in line to be much higher here before collapsing last night against Virginia Tech. Now they just look like a lot of Beilein teams: They are going to shoot a ton of threes and hope they get hot. It is at least working for Derrick Walton Jr.
8. Michigan State (4-4) – The record is not great, but when you lose to Arizona, Kentucky, Baylor, and Duke in the span of three weeks (playing none of them at home) you at least get some points for trying. Michigan State is basically Purdue right now in that they don’t have a bad loss, but they don’t really have a good win. Also like Purdue, the pieces are there for a great Big Ten season if they can put them all together.
9. Minnesota (6-1) – Little Pitino has the Gophers off to a good start after a terrible season last year. They even have a nice little win over Arkansas by 14. Arkansas opened with a win over… Fort Wayne. They struggled at Florida State in the second half, but Minnesota is at least demonstrably better than last season.
10. Rutgers (6-1) – Speaking of demonstrably better, look at Rutgers! Last season they only had seven wins all year, with the last coming against a Minnesota team that was almost down to waterboys playing due to suspensions. They even did not totally embarrass themselves last night at Miami. Their remaining non-conference is a lot of nothing until they go to Seton Hall two days before Christmas, but this is a team that could be at double-digit victories before Christmas. If they grab a few Big Ten wins that might even mean an NIT bid!
11. Illinois (5-3) – The Illini salvaged some pride with a Challenge win over NC State, but they have still lost at home to Winthrop and they got absolutely panted by West Virginia. Saturday they go down to Miami to play VCU in a game that could get very interesting.
12. Iowa (3-4) – The Hawkeyes have lost three in a row to Virginia, Memphis, and Notre Dame. They also have given up over 90 points in three of their four losses, and the Virginia loss was by 33 points. That makes their December 8 game against Iowa State almost a must-win.
13. Penn State (5-3) – You try and figure out Penn State. They started the season with a home loss to Albany. , but later played Duke to a 10-point game. They at least won their Challenge game over Georgia Tech, but so far it looks like another typical season in Happy Valley. They’ll still beat someone they shouldn’t when the opponent falls into a coma in the Bryce Jordan Mausoleum.
14. Nebraska (4-3) – The good news is that they beat Dayton by two, which is usually a pretty good win. The bad news is they have lost three straight to UCLA, Virginia Tech, and now Clemson. Nebrasketball is Nebrasketballing again.