It was a really good week for Big Ten basketball. Incredibly, with a schedule that was filled with local rivalries, the league went a combined 17-2 in the last seven days. Some teams were able to shake off some rust against lesser competition, but there were also a few upsets that went in the Big Ten’s favor (including one that was extra special in Jersey).
The league might not be the strongest in terms of elite teams at the top, but I think it’s fair to say it has been much deeper than expected. Several Big Ten teams in the bottom half of this list have already proven that they can compete against ranked opponents. But finishing the job is never easy, as Nebraska found out on Saturday.
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
For the third consecutive week, the Spartans stay at the top. On Saturday, they picked up their 9th straight win, this one a hard-fought victory over Oakland. It wasn’t a dominating performance by any means, but it was a win over a decent mid-major on a neutral floor, something that will serve them well when March rolls around.
Upcoming: vs Houston Baptist / vs Long Beach State
The Boilermakers played an exceptional game for about 35 minutes against Butler on Saturday, and then took the foot of the gas and coasted to a 15-point win. Since losing on Thanksgiving Day, Purdue has rattled off seven consecutive wins. That streak is impressive, especially when you consider that they’ve beaten Arizona, Louisville, Maryland, Northwestern and Butler during that time. It always helps to be battle-tested come tournament time, and this team has Elite Eight potential.
Upcoming: vs Tennessee State
3. Ohio State
A 1-0 week for the Buckeyes, who continue to exceed my expectations. They’ve now won four in a row to climb to 8-3 on the year. I don’t know if they’ll remain at this level by the time the regular season concludes, but it’s hard to argue how well they’ve played since the calendar turned to December. I mentioned Keita Bates-Diop last week, but Jae’Sean Tate has been just as important, averaging 13 points and 6 rebounds. Big test with UNC coming up on Saturday.
Upcoming: vs Citadel / at UNC
The Wolverines are currently on a 3-game winning streak and look to be hitting their stride. They picked up a very solid non-conference road win against Texas last week, then followed it up by demolishing Detroit without their best player (Moe Wagner) in the lineup. More importantly, Michigan is playing at a high level on both ends of the floor, ranking in the KenPom Top 50 for both Adjusted Offensive Efficiency and Adjusted Defensive Efficiency.
Upcoming: vs Alabama A&M
I’m still trying to figure out the Golden Gophers. On the one hand, they picked up a win over Drake to get back on the right track. But it marked their third consecutive below-average performance, and the game was much closer than it needed to be down the stretch. Jordan Murphy is a double-double machine, but their lack of depth is becoming a problem. For now, I’m dropping them to 5th, though I fully expect them to move back into the Top 3 soon enough.
Upcoming: vs Oral Roberts / vs Florida Atlantic
I said it last week and I stand by it – we won’t find out anything about Maryland until the new year. They beat Division III Catholic (by only 17) on Tuesday…that’s what we know. They’re 10-3 but their current resume leaves a lot to be desired in terms of quality wins. This week, the Terps continue their gauntlet, with FDU and UMBC coming to College Park. That means they’re facing a lose-lose situation until Big Ten play resumes.
Upcoming: vs FDU / vs UMBC
I thought the Wildcats would take care of business last week, and they did just that, going 3-0 and steadying the ship after a bumpy start. I actually thought Northwestern would be tested against Valpo. Instead, they won by 34. Then on Saturday, they struggled for long stretches against DePaul, but found a way to pull out a road win, even after Vic Law left with an injury. It looks like Chris Collins finally has them moving in the right direction, but Oklahoma will provide another challenge this week.
Upcoming: vs Lewis / @ Oklahoma
Ask and you shall receive. I wanted to see Indiana beat a good team and they did just that, outlasting Notre Dame in overtime. Junior Forward Juwan Morgan carried his team to victory with 34 points and 11 rebounds in that one. He’s turning into a star, averaging nearly 21 points per game in their last 5 games. The Hoosiers have dug themselves a hole with 5 losses already, but they’ve also shown the ability to compete with anybody when things are clicking.
Upcoming: vs Fort Wayne / vs Tennessee Tech
9. Penn State
Penn State picked up a non-conference road win against George Mason last week without Tony Carr, who was suspended for a violation of team rules. Once again, their defense led the way. The Lions rank in the Top 15 nationally in both steals and blocks, and 30th in Turnovers Forced. Offensively, they have 5 guys averaging in double digits scoring. One major concern is their lack of depth, which may become an issue once the Big Ten grind kicks in.
Upcoming: vs Binghamton / vs Rider
I’ll be honest – I thought Wisconsin would be a lot better, and that’s after watching them grind out a much-needed win against Western Kentucky. In last week’s column, I said I think they’ll improve moving forward, but I’m really starting to wonder. And while we’re here, I’d like to add an important point – there is no cheaper play in basketball then the old “take a charge while the opponent is defending the inbounds pass.” Basketball purists might disagree, but I don’t know how you can draw that up in a huddle with a straight face. It worked out for the Badgers and basically won them a game, but it feels to me like bunting to break up a no-hitter.
Upcoming: vs Green Bay
The comeback win over Seton Hall on Saturday was the signature moment in Steve Pikiell era up to this point. The RAC was electric and provided a true home-court advantage. The team never gave up and finished the game on a 17-2 run. With that win, Rutgers moved to 21-3 in non-conference games under Pikiell. Pretty amazing considering the state of the program before he arrived.
Upcoming: vs Stony Brook
I’ll be the first to admit that Nebraska is a lot better than expected. First, they get a conference win over a ranked Minnesota team last week, then they give #13 Kansas all they could handle in a game the Huskers probably should have won. They got a steal in Georgetown transfer Isaac Copeland, who has started all 11 games and averaged 13 and 7 so far. I’m interested to see where this team stands a month from now.
Upcoming: vs UTSA / vs Delaware State
Good news, bad news for Illinois last week. On the positive side, they got a good report on leading-scorer Leron Black’s injury and he’s back in the lineup. On the negative side, they lost to New Mexico State at the United Center. According to KenPom, the Illini are now the lowest-ranked Big Ten team. I’m not ready to go there yet, but they are certainly trending in the wrong direction and they have a rivalry game with Missouri coming up on Saturday.
Upcoming: vs Missouri
I have to give Iowa credit for dominating a Drake team that nearly beat Minnesota earlier in the week. That being said, the Hawkeyes are 6-6 and their best win has come against UAB, so I’m not ready to move them up the list just yet.
Upcoming: vs Southern Utah / vs Colorado