With conference play officially underway, it’s time for the debut of the weekly Big Ten power rankings. Despite a less than stellar performance in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge, the league does have a lot of teams with the potential to go dancing, although it’s not nearly as strong at the top this season (with the exception of #1 below).
Keep in mind, these rankings are based on the current strength of the teams, not necessarily where I expect them to finish. So let’s get right to it…
1. Michigan State
Clearly the strongest team in the league and the only one with legitimate Final Four potential, in my opinion. The Spartans also have the conference’s best player in Miles Bridges. Their only loss was to #1 Duke and they have played significantly better since that game. This is a team that will be playing in late March and possibly April.
Upcoming: @ Rutgers / vs Southern Utah
The Golden Gophers were one of the league’s best surprises last season and continue to improve. They’re off to a solid start this year, with an impressive win at Providence, two neutral-court victories in the Barclays Center Classic, and a win in their Big Ten opener. But they struggled at home against Miami last week, which was their first shot to be taken seriously on a national level. Their starting five is loaded though.
Upcoming: @ Nebraska / @ Arkansas
Purdue has already picked up non-conference wins over Arizona and Louisville (which could bode well for them later on). They’ve also already earned a nice conference win at Maryland. The Boilermakers may have lost Caleb Swanigan last summer, but they still have a veteran group that has played together and knows how to share the ball and rebound. They stumbled a bit in the Bahamas, but have recovered nicely.
Upcoming: vs Valparaiso / vs IUPUI
At the moment, Maryland lands in the fourth spot by default, despite a week where they went 1-2. The win over Illinois was basically a microcosm of their season so far, a rollercoaster ride. The Terps have good pieces (Anthony Cowan, Kevin Huerter, Justin Jackson) but have been too inconsistent early on, and were very fortunate to pick up their first conference win last night.
Upcoming: vs Ohio / @ Gardner-Webb
Michigan has handled their business against lower-level competition and struggled against the Power 5. In terms of numbers, the Wolverines haven’t really done anything at an elite level, and they rely too much on Moritz Wagner offensively. But right now, I’m slotting them in at #5, with a footnote that says we’ll learn a lot more about them over the next week.
Upcoming: @ Ohio State / vs UCLA
Northwestern earned their first trip to the NCAA Tournament last season and entered this year ranked in the Top 25. Unfortunately, they have not yet lived up to their potential, despite bringing back much of their talent. The Wildcats have already lost close games to Creighton, Georgia Tech and Purdue, and were completely dismantled by Texas Tech. They picked up a rivalry win against Illinois on Friday, but they clearly don’t have the same magic they had last season - at least not yet.
Upcoming: Off Until 12/11
7. Ohio State
I was about to say the Chris Holtmann era has gotten off to a rocky start, then his team went and blew out Wisconsin on Saturday. It was a nice start to conference play, but I still think this is going to be a transition year in Columbus, especially considering the losses of JaQuan Lyle and Trevor Thompson.
Upcoming: vs Michigan / vs William & Mary
It will be interesting to see where Wisconsin sits when March rolls around. On one hand, they lost four of their five starters from last year and are 0-5 against high-major competition. To add to that, they were just blown out in their Big Ten opener by Ohio State. However, the Badgers always seem to find a way to stay near the top and get better as the season progresses. Ethan Happ is an All-Big Ten player, but right now, his team is just mediocre.
Upcoming: @ Penn State / @ Temple / vs Marquette
9. Penn State
I’ve seen a lot of people overvaluing Penn State so far. They gave Texas A&M a good game, but also lost to an average NC State team, and still don’t have a quality win of their own. I’m in full wait and see mode with the Nittany Lions. They have to show me they can play well against better competition before they move much higher here.
Upcoming: vs Wisconsin / vs George Washington
The Illini are another team breaking in a new coach, with Brad Underwood now leading the charge. And they’re doing so with a very soft non-conference schedule (Where have I heard that before?). They failed their first test in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge, and then lost their first two Big Ten games. But I like how hard they’re playing for Underwood, and I have a crazy feeling that Illinois will put together a better-than-expected showing in conference play this year. For now though, they’re stuck in 10th.
Upcoming: vs Austin Peay / @ UNLV
Indiana has been very shaky to start this season, their first under Archie Miller. I was impressed with their showing against Duke last week, but as my Hoosier friend tells me, Assembly Hall is usually worth 5 points on its own. They have an interesting stretch coming up that will help set the expectations for their fan base, but all indications are that it will be a long year in Bloomington.
Upcoming: vs Iowa / @ Louisville
In terms of competitiveness, I’m amazed at how far the Scarlet Knights have come since Steve Pikiell took over less than two years ago. They once again played a light non-conference schedule (and started 6-0) and they once again lost their first true test of the season (FSU this year). They followed that with a loss at Minnesota in the Big Ten opener. But things are definitely moving in the right direction in Piscataway, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a few upsets at the RAC this season.
Upcoming: vs Michigan State / vs NJIT / vs FDU
The Hawkeyes have taken a big step back from last season after losing their top scorer, Peter Jok. They’ve already lost two non-conference games to teams outside KenPom’s Top 100 (South Dakota State, Louisiana Lafayette), as well as their first conference game (home to Penn State). Rivalry game with Iowa State coming up on Thursday.
Upcoming: @ Indiana / @ Iowa State / vs Southern
With Northwestern getting over the hump last year, Nebraska is now the only power conference team to have never won an NCAA Tournament game. I don’t think this will be the year, but on the positive side, they were one of the few Big Ten teams to show up for the Big Ten-ACC Challenge last week.
Upcoming: vs Minnesota / @ Creighton