As the calendar turns to February this week, that means we are roughly halfway through conference play. The Big Ten standings are starting to shape up at the top, but on a given night any team is susceptible to an upset. Here is a look at each team thus far in a tiered power rankings.
Tier 1: The Elite
Big Ten Record: 9-1
Game to watch: Vs. Michigan State
The Wolverines were one of the last two undefeated teams in the country prior to losing at Wisconsin two weekends ago. They have had some close calls to mediocre teams (two point wins over both Minnesota and Northwestern) but other than that they have looked very dominant.
Defense has been the calling card thus far. They allow 56.2 points per game, which ranks third in the nation and first in the Big Ten. While they don’t have a superstar, they are the most balanced team in the Big Ten. Freshman Ignas Brazdeikis is their leading scorer, but Charles Matthews and Jordan Poole are also very capable scorers. Forward Isaiah Livers is the lead candidate for Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year.
The schedule gets tougher for Michigan down the stretch. They’ll have to play Michigan State and Maryland four times, while they also have to travel to Iowa. Right now ESPN has Michigan projected as a two seed in the NCAA tournament. If they can win the conference, a one seed is certainly not out of the question but I could see them slip to a three seed as well.
2. Michigan State
Big Ten Record: 9-1
Game to watch: @Michigan
Tom Izzo’s Spartans elevated themselves to one of the elite teams in the country after starting off 9-0 in Big Ten play. They dropped one at Purdue on Sunday, but that was without their third leading scorer Josh Langford. However, it was announced this week that Langford would miss the rest of the season with a foot injury. We’ll see if this is actually true. Remember, Michael Porter Jr. was also supposed to miss the entire season last year but he returned for the NCAA tournament.
Their team is run by Cassius Winston, who is gaining steam for first team All-American. Winston averages an impressive 18.7 points and 7.3 assists per game. Matt McQuaid has been a more than capable floor spacer and they dominate the glass inside with Nick Ward and Kenny Goins. To maintain their standing, they will need Nick Ward to produce offensively after a recent drought.
Michigan State is a lock to make the tournament, but now it is a matter of seeding. If they win the Big Ten, they should lock up a one seed. They also need to prove they can play with the top teams in the country if they want to win a national championship.
Tier 2: The Pleasant Surprises
Big Ten Record: 8-2
Game to watch: @ Indiana
The Boilermakers started slow due to a strong non-conference schedule, but the tough games early on really helped them grow as a team. Purdue has rattled off five straight wins including an impressive victory over Michigan State.
They are led by one of the most dynamic scorers in all of college basketball, Carsen Edwards, who leads the conference in scoring at 24.9 points per game. Edwards seemed to be the entire offense early on, but recently some other players have stepped up. Ryan Cline has been lights out from three, while Nojel Eastern has been a menace on the defensive end. Keep an eye on freshman Trevion Williams, who was recently inserted into the starting lineup. His finishing around the rim gives Purdue even more weapons offensively.
Purdue might have the easiest remaining schedule of all Big Ten teams. They have no more games against Michigan, Michigan State, Iowa or Wisconsin. They now have the inside track to finishing third in the Big Ten, and maybe second if MSU falters. Purdue will definitely make the tournament and a seed as high as three is plausible.
Big Ten Record: 8-3
Game to watch: vs. Purdue
Maryland had won seven straight before dropping two in a row to Michigan State and Illinois. There were some major red flags for Maryland after losing to Illinois at Madison Square Garden, but they rebounded nicely on Tuesday night against Northwestern. The Terps have had plenty of quality wins including wins over Nebraska, Indiana and Wisconsin.
The Terps success has been dependent on Anthony Cowan and Bruno Fernando thus far. Cowan leads the team in scoring at 17 points and Bruno has been a walking double-double, averaging 14.9 points and 10.3 rebounds. While Cowan and Fernando have been consistent, the Terrapins need some of their younger players to step up. Jalen Smith has been inconsistent thus far, but when he plays well this team is hard to beat. Also, keep an eye on freshman guard Aaron Wiggins. He has heated up as of late and his shooting can add a different dimension for this Terps team.
Maryland should feel secure about a bid in the NCAA tournament, but now they need to secure a higher seed. They are a projected six seed right now and I think they range anywhere from a five to an eight. Without a great non-conference win, Maryland needs to finish the season on a high note.
Big Ten Record: 5-5
Game to watch: @ Wisconsin
Iowa has been pretty steady thus far. They take care of the teams they should beat, but haven’t quite pulled off a big conference win yet.
Their calling so far has been a balanced attack on offense. Tyler Cook is the team’s most dynamic scorer but they have three other players averaging double digits. They are the second highest scoring offense in the Big Ten. However, they often struggle to get stops. The Hawkeyes allow the second most points per game in the conference. Iowa will obviously need to get better defensively if they want to compete for a Big Ten title. Watch out for freshman Joe Wieskamp. The Iowa native, who quite frankly just looks like he was born to play for Iowa, averages 11.4 points per game and has turned in some quality performances as of late.
The Hawkeyes picked up some nice non-conference wins over Iowa State and Oregon, so they should feel secure about their bid in the tournament. With winnable games like Rutgers (twice), Northwestern and Indiana (twice) remaining on the schedule, Iowa can get to ten or more conference wins.
Tier 3: The One Man Shows
Big Ten Record: 7-3
Game to watch: @ Nebraska
Wisconsin has been up and down in Big Ten play. They started off 2-0 before dropping four of five, but they have now won four straight,
The Badgers run through Ethan Happ. He is the best big man in the conference and maybe the best in the country. He can get the Badgers 20 points and 10 rebounds a game at ease, but he is also a very capable passer. His 4.8 assists per game rank third in the Big Ten. D’mitrik Trice has stepped up as a knockdown shooter playing off of Happ. To go from good to great, Wisconsin will need role players like Nathan Reuvers and Brad Davison to have big second halves offensively.
Due to some strong non-conference wins, Wisconsin should be pretty comfortable come Selection Sunday. But their place in the Big Ten standings and seed in the tournament is up for grabs. Their upcoming four game stretch (Vs. Maryland, @ Minnesota, @Michigan, vs. Michigan State) should tell us a lot about this team. Buckle up Badger fans.
Big Ten Record: 3-7
Game to watch: @ Iowa
Nebraska is another team that started the year off on fire, winning 13 of their first 15 contests. But recently, the Cornhuskers have struggled, dropping four straight. To add insult to injury, it was recently announced that their second leading scorer Isaac Copeland Jr. will miss the rest of the season with a knee injury.
Nebraska has been led all season long by James Palmer Jr., who was first team All-Big Ten last season. Palmer is a wing that has shown he can flat out score the basketball. His 19.4 points per game are second in the Big Ten. After the loss of Copeland, the Cornhuskers are going to need even more out of Palmer but he is capable of producing. Glynn Watson and Isaiah Roby are also going to need to score more effectively.
The latest ESPN bracketology had Nebraska as one of the last four teams in so Nebraska will need to pick up some wins before conference play ends. Fortunately, they play some good teams at home in Lincoln. Home games against Maryland, Minnesota, Iowa, and Purdue will be huge if head coach Tim Miles’ squad can get Nebraska their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2014.
Tier 4: Bubble Watch
8. Ohio State
Big Ten record: 3-6
Game to watch: @ Indiana
Ohio State got off to a blazing 12-1 start before dropping five straight in conference. They had their best win of the season last saturday at Nebraska that they are hoping to use as momentum going forward.
The Buckeyes biggest issue has been their lack of a go-to scorer. Kaleb Wesson was fantastic early in the season, but has struggled recently against the post players in the Big Ten. Ohio State has several role players to make shots and defend but they lack an elite scoring guard. Freshman Luther Muhammad has been trying to fill that role recently and he might be the x-factor that makes or breaks their tournament chances.
The schedule moving forward is somewhat daunting with road games at Michigan State, Maryland, Purdue, and Indiana. So if Chris Holtman’s squad wants to grab a bid, they must protect home court.
Big Ten record: 6-4
Game to watch: @ Maryland
Expectations were fairly low for the Golden Gophers heading into the season, so the fact they sit at sixth place in the conference standings is impressive. Minnesota has been a dominant home team but is an abysmal 1-4 on the road. They have some impressive showings like beating Iowa at home and losing at Michigan on a buzzer beater. But they have looked really bad at times. They lost to Illinois but 27 just two weeks ago.
Minnesota’s biggest advantage has been their size. Jordan Murphy has been the Big Ten’s leading rebounder at 12 per game, and he’s been a solid scoring option as well. Amir Coffey is currently their go to scorer. The 6-foot-8 point forward uses his size to barrel his way to the rim and convert inside. To go from good to great, Minnesota needs to become a better shooting team. They are dead last in the Big Ten in three pointers made per game.
ESPN currently has Minnesota as a nine seed, but with some tough opponents coming up, they must beat the lesser opponents on the road if they want to get a tournament bid.
Big Ten Record: 3-7
Game to watch: vs. Purdue
Indiana looked like one of the conference’s elite teams early on in the season. That turned rather quickly. The Hoosiers have lost seven straight while dealing with suspensions and injuries within the team. Meanwhile, their rivals Purdue couldn’t be hotter and former Hoosier Victor Oladipo suffered a season ending injury. My point being it is a bad time to be a Hoosier fan.
Indiana actually has one of the best duo’s in the Big Ten in Juwan Morgan and Romeo Langford. But their role players 3-8 are atrocious at this point. And honestly, Langford looks a bit checked out in recent games. To salvage this season, they will need freshman point guard Robert Phinisee to step into the role as a third scorer.
I listed Purdue as the game to watch but at this point all Indiana games could be tight ones. Indiana has been a dumpster fire as of late and if that is the kind of thing you enjoy, then all their games are must watch.
Tier 5: Capable of an upset
Big Ten Record 3-7
Game to watch:@ Illinois
Northwestern has been consistently average. They beat mediocre teams and play good teams close but don’t have a signature win yet. They are not a team to be taken lightly though.
The Wildcats lack a true star, but have multiple veterans that can score. Derek Pardon has been a prominent interior threat while Vic Law has shown the ability to make tough shots. Their biggest issue thus far has been scoring droughts. If Pardon sits or gets in foul trouble, the Wildcats get stagnant on offense. Forward A.J Turner, who is playing his first year for Northwestern after transferring from Boston College, is a potential spark for this team, but he needs to make shots.
While a tournament appearance is highly unlikely, Northwestern can play spoiler to any Big Ten team. They almost knocked off Michigan in December.
Big Ten Record: 4-6
Game to watch: vs. Minnesota
Rutgers has been the worst team in the conference since joining the Big Ten in 2014. However, this looks like the year they will not finish last thanks to a current three game winning streak.
Offensively, they are led by Eugene Omoruyi and Geo Baker. Montez Mathis, a freshman forward, has also stepped up recently. When Baker and Mathis are hitting shots, Rutgers becomes so much harder to stop. The Scarlet Knights are another team that is hard to beat at home. They already have home upset wins over Nebraska and Ohio State and they played Michigan State tightly.
Rutgers has four home games remaining on their schedule and except for Michigan, they are all pretty winnable.
Big Ten record: 2-8
Game to watch: vs. Rutgers
The cliche saying “they are better than their record” definitely applies to Illinois. They have shown they can play with teams for large chunks of the game but have had trouble closing. They played their best game of the season when they took down Maryland at Madison Square Garden Saturday.
The emphasis for Illinois going forward should be to focus on their freshmen. Freshman guard Ayo Dosunmu has been playing at a high level recently. In addition to Dosunmu, Tevian Jones has started to break out as well. The forward, who was suspended for eight games, had a monster performance against Maryland.
Things have been bleak for the Illini this season, but they have a lot of young players returning along with a solid recruiting class. Next year will not be as bad.
Tier 6: Penn State
14. Penn State
Big Ten Record: 0-10
Game to watch: vs. Illinois
When you are the only team to not win a conference game, you get your own tier. So congrats Penn State. There are not a ton of good things to say about the Nittany Lions. They weren’t terrible in non-conference play, they even picked up a win against a highly ranked Virginia Tech squad. But in conference play they have been atrocious, going 0-10 so far.
The lone bright spot for them offensively has been the play of Lamar Stevens. The junior forward is averaging just under 18 points and 8 rebounds per game. A key for the Nittany Lions for the future is if freshman guard Myles Dread continues to get better. The Detroit native leads the team in three pointers made, but his percentage has dipped since the start of conference play.
Penn State has no shot at a tournament bid, so now they focus on not going winless in conference play. They’ll get two shots at Illinois get a chance to travel to Rutgers but if they can’t win one of those games, then I can’t see them winning any at all.
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