I can’t think of any other conference in the nation that has so much parity from top to bottom. That can be viewed as both a positive and a negative, I guess, but it already seems like there will be very few freebies in Big Ten conference play this season.
The upcoming week shifts back to the non-conference portion of the schedule and features a lighter workload overall, with 10 of the 14 teams playing only one game.
Remember, these rankings are based on the current strength of the teams, not necessarily where I expect them to finish. Here we go…
1. Michigan State
The Spartans got a scare last Tuesday at Rutgers, but managed to grind out a win thanks to a strong first half from Miles Bridges and some timely plays down the stretch from Cassius Winston and Jaren Jackson, Jr. It was far from an ideal performance for Tom Izzo’s squad, but they followed it up with a dominating win against Southern Utah on Saturday. They’ve now won 8 in a row and sit at 2-0 in conference play.
Upcoming: @ Oakland
On Sunday, Matt Painter picked up his 300th career victory as Purdue routed IUPUI for their sixth straight win. During the streak, the Boilermakers have averaged 79 points per game and allowed only 63. It’s hard to find a lot of flaws with this team right now. Offensively, they move the ball and can score both inside and outside. Defensively, they hold opponents to 38% from the field. There’s a lot to like here.
Upcoming: @ Butler
What a difference a week makes. Last Monday, the Golden Gophers were sitting at #2 on this list, looking like one of the few teams that could challenge Michigan State at the top. Then they met Glynn Watson, Jr., who tore through the Minnesota defense for 29 points and 9 assists as Nebraska knocked them off. The Gophers followed that with another sloppy performance in a loss to Arkansas to finish the week 0-2.
Upcoming: vs Drake
4. Ohio State
The Buckeyes seem to get better every time they play, which is a true testament to Chris Holtmann’s coaching. Keita Bates-Diop has returned from last year’s stress fracture and been everything they needed this season. He looks like an All-Big Ten player right now, averaging 18 and 10. The comeback win over Michigan was a statement. Let’s see if they can keep the train rolling.
Upcoming: vs Appalachian State
Is Maryland any good? I’ve found myself asking that question a lot so far this season. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much to learn from their schedule this week. The Terrapins took care of their business against Ohio and Gardner-Webb, winning by a combined 47 points. But the upcoming stretch is even softer, meaning Maryland won’t have another chance to make a positive statement until Big Ten play resumes in January.
Upcoming: vs Catholic
It would have been a very strong week for the Wolverines, if they had just closed the deal against Ohio State on Monday. After racing out to a 20-point first half lead in that game, they were outscored 41-19 in the second half as the Buckeyes stormed back to win. But Michigan turned the tables on UCLA, coming back a 15-point deficit to win in overtime. They were 5th on this list last week, and they’ll take a small step back after the Big Ten loss.
Upcoming: @ Texas / vs Detroit
We learned absolutely nothing about Northwestern as they took some time off for an early holiday celebration last week, so their place on this list is a reflection of what happened around them. I’ll say this though, the Wildcats have struggled to live up to expectations so far, but I think they turn things around this week. Anything less than 3-0 is a major cause for concern.
Upcoming: vs Chicago State / vs Valparaiso / @ DePaul
8. Penn State
With a 1-1 week, Penn State remained right in the mix to be called ‘the best average team in the Big Ten.’ The loss to Wisconsin stings, as the Badgers appear to be free falling (see below). The win against George Washington doesn’t really move the needle, but I have been impressed by the Nittany Lions defense, which has cut opponent scoring by 6 points from a season ago.
Upcoming: @ George Mason
Just when you think the Hoosiers are starting to really get things moving in the right direction, they come out flat in the second half against Louisville and let one slip away. Archie Miller’s squad was great against Iowa early in the week, and moves up 2 spots on this list, but I would love to see them close out a game against a quality opponent. A rivalry game against Notre Dame this week (in Indianapolis) will give them a chance to bounce back in a big way.
Upcoming: vs Notre Dame
The entire state of Illinois is anxiously awaiting the news on Leron Black, who left the loss to UNLV with a sling on his arm. Black was leading the team in scoring, so if he’s out for an extended period of time, it’s a huge blow. Brad Underwood will have to figure things out in a hurry though. After hosting bottom-feeder Longwood on Wednesday, the Illini will face a solid New Mexico State team. And a rivalry matchup with Missouri is right around the corner as well.
Upcoming: vs Longwood / vs New Mexico State
The Badgers went 1-2 last week but it could have easily been 0-3, considering that they barely hung on to beat Penn State. This team is clearly missing the experience and continuity that they had last year. To make matters worse, they celebrated the 100-year anniversary of their rivalry with Marquette on Saturday, and were run out of the gym. I still think they will improve as the season goes on, but right now, there are not a lot of positives in Madison.
Upcoming: vs Western Kentucky
The Cornhuskers pulled up one of the biggest upsets of the season so far with their lights out win over Minnesota on Tuesday. After a performance like that, they’re moving up this list, despite the follow-up loss at Creighton. The schedule doesn’t ease up for Nebraska this week, as Kansas comes to town on a 2-game losing streak.
Upcoming: vs Kansas
All in all, it was a good week for the Scarlet Knights, even though they drop a position here. They ended it at 2-1 with a hard-fought loss to Michigan State, who may be the best team in the country right now. Corey Sanders struggled in that game, going 2-15 and finishing with only 6 points in 34 minutes, but he came back strong, putting up a combined 37 points in the next two wins. The Garden State Hardwood Classic rivalry with Seton Hall resumes on Saturday.
Upcoming: vs Fordham / vs Seton Hall
It’s officially a rebuilding year for the Hawkeyes, who finished last week 1-2. Need proof? They’re sitting at 5-6 right now, but 4 of their 5 wins have come against teams who are outside KenPom’s Top 300. They also have serious defensive issues, giving up 74 or more points in 8 straight games before yesterday’s win over Southern.
Upcoming: vs Drake