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Big Ten Men’s Basketball February Power Rankings

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Rutgers Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Before I get to the power rankings, here are just a few rapid fire thoughts on Rutgers basketball:

  • Except for when playing Northwestern and Nebraska, has there been a single Big Ten matchup this season where Rutgers has had the best player on the floor? (I mean this as a true – not backhanded – compliment toward Rutgers basketball.) Think about it; most Big Ten opponents have 4s and 5s who can shoot from outside, scoring point guards, multiple three-point specialists, etc. But Rutgers keeps winning, especially at home. Rutgers is better than the sum of its parts, and is starting to get the credit the team deserves for this fact.
  • Speaking of the “RAC effect,” much has been made about whether this team will win a Big Ten conference game on the road (non-Nebraska division) this regular season. I argue Rutgers will, partially based on math (looking at KenPom projections, there’s a 71% chance Rutgers wins at least one of its next three road games – I’ll put the math in the comments). But partially based on, as Aaron mentioned in his post-game article for Illinois Round 2, this team is evolving and growing positively as the season proceeds. At this point, it’s mental for Rutgers, and I suspect the streak will be broken between now and March 8.
  • That said, according to ESPN’s BPI (a rating system I generally dislike, but this particular nugget is fine to take), Rutgers has the toughest remaining strength of schedule in the country. Two wins in the next five games would be awesome; three would be incredible. I guess I don’t even care if those two wins come at home. Wins are a zero-sum game and should always be celebrated.

On to the Power Rankings…

Here’s what’s on my mind as I create these power rankings:

  1. Rankings are created using a combination of past results (weighted for strength of schedule), mostly using the eye test but with some input from NET rankings and KenPom. (As a reminder, NET rankings are part of the selection committee’s rubric for each team, while KenPom is an outside source which typically does a very good job of determining which teams make the Dance.)
  2. Rankings are mostly representative of a point in time, though for college basketball, because I trust the statistical projections more than I would for college football, I am also taking into account how I think each team will finish the rest of the way.
  3. You can assume a team would beat every team beneath them at a neutral site. So #8 would beat #9-14 at a neutral site, #9 would beat #10-14, etc.

Not a Chance Division

14. Nebraska Cornhuskers (7-18, 2-12); Postseason projections: N/A

Obvious rebuilding year for the Cornhuskers, whom I’m pretty sure start a 17-year-old kid at center. Every team in the Big Ten fights hard each game, and Nebrasketball’s been losing games at a closer clip than you might think. Their two wins in conference play are against Iowa and Purdue, and they only lost by three at the RAC (in case you’ve forgotten). Nebraska is going to be a tough out once they fill up the roster.

13. Northwestern Wildcats (6-18, 1-13); Postseason projections: N/A

What a weird season for Northwestern, who – again, like every other team – plays tough and has lost something like four conference games this season after playing a dominant first half. They have stronger individual players than Nebraska – Boo Buie immediately comes to mind, it’ll be interesting to watch him develop in the Big Ten.

Outside Looking In Division

12. Indiana Hoosiers (16-9, 6-8); Postseason projections: NET 63, KenPom 49, Best guess is NIT

If Rutgers is greater than the sum of its parts, the Indiana Hoosiers are far less than the sum of theirs. They just play disorganized basketball, from where I’m sitting. If you ever meet a friendly Hoosier fan (they do exist), ask them what they think about Archie Miller (but pop some popcorn first). They have six conference wins (but three of them vs. Nebraska and Northwestern), but looking at their remaining conference schedule, they may lose out in the regular season.

11. Minnesota Golden Gophers (12-12, 6-8); Postseason projections: NET 44, KenPom 31, Best guess is NIT/Bubble Team

Richard Pitino always seems to build a team around 3-4 really good players, but the problem with this strategy is it’s easier for opposing teams to lock down on these specific players (and when they get in foul trouble, of course all bets are off). I put Minnesota ahead of Indiana because their remaining schedule is by far the easiest in the Big Ten – they get to feast on teams beneath them in these power rankings in four of their final six games. Oddly, Minnesota may end the regular season with 9 conference wins and still perhaps end up playing in the first day of the conference tournament as the 11 seed. Weird year in the Big Ten.

Looking Good Division

10. Purdue Boilermakers (14-12, 7-8); Postseason projections: NET 33, KenPom 26, Best guess is Bubble Team/11 seed

This season’s Purdue team is going to be an interesting test for the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee, because they’re going to likely be a 13- or 14-loss team with a very strong strength of schedule in a very strong conference, and a plausible argument could be made for a more exciting mid-major team to be selected over what may be the tenth-best team in a very strong conference. There’s no real answer to this, just personal opinion, but I’m guessing Purdue gets in. The Big Ten is a grind this season and my suspicion is the Selection Committee rewards this by giving Big Ten teams with moderate topline numbers the benefit of the doubt.

9. Wisconsin Badgers (15-10, 8-6); Postseason projections: NET 31, KenPom 28, Best guess is 9 seed

With wins over Maryland, Penn State, Michigan State, and Ohio State (twice), plus a solid Marquette team in the non-con, Wisconsin may be an odd choice for position #9 in these Power Rankings. I reserve the right to move them up depending on how they do in their next six games, but it does seem like Wisconsin has a tendency to lose to tougher defensive teams (e.g., Purdue, Rutgers, Illinois). Let’s wait and see on Wisco (and the #9 ranking in this conference this year is a very good thing!). There are just elements of this team (dependency on three-point shooting, an offense that doesn’t get to the foul line a ton, lack of offensive rebounding ability) which gives me doubts about them once they are in the tournament.

8. Illinois Fighting Illini (16-9, 8-6); Postseason projections: NET 38, KenPom 33, Best guess is 9 seed

I’m a big fan of Illinois this season; they play a tough and physical style, and I was super impressed to see Rutgers beat them by 15 over the weekend. They are justly being dinged by the metrics (and will be dinged in the next round of brackets) for this loss, but how they perform the rest of the way depends on how quickly they get Ayo Dosunmu back and productive – he fills the stat line for Illinois and they are a different team when he’s on the court. Count me among the Rutgers faithful who wants to see these two teams play again, ideally deep in the Big Ten conference tournament.

7. Rutgers Scarlet Knights (18-8, 9-6); Postseason projections: NET 30, KenPom 29, Best guess is 8 seed

I struggled the most with where to place Rutgers, out of all the teams in this ranking. Some of you may think this is home cooking; others may feel I’m being too harsh. Rutgers played great against Illinois over the weekend, but it was the first full performance in their last, maybe, seven games (Purdue was a good game but I’d argue not a full performance). If it weren’t for the remaining schedule being such a gauntlet, I suppose I’d put Rutgers in the next group of teams below. If Rutgers beats Michigan on Wednesday night, they are 100% in the next group of teams below.

Definitely Dancing Division

6. Ohio State Buckeyes (17-8, 7-7); Postseason projections: NET 18, KenPom 9, Best guess is 7/8 seed

Fun fact: though Ohio State is only 7-7 in conference play as of today, they are projected to finish 11-9 (same as Rutgers). I always grade college basketball seasons on a curve, and Ohio State’s shown me a lot since late January. They run a balanced offense, all of their starters can shoot from outside, and they are one of the strongest (if not the strongest) defense team in the Big Ten. I’m putting them at #6 in the rankings because I suspect they will lose their next game to…

5. Iowa Hawkeyes (18-8, 9-6); Postseason projections: NET 28, KenPom 21, Best guess is 6/7 seed

…Iowa, who, if they remember to play defense in a given game, can hang with anyone in the conference. Iowa has some ugly losses on their schedule (e.g., home vs. DePaul, at Nebraska, at Indiana) and earlier this month they were absolutely destroyed at Purdue. I wish Iowa played at the RAC this season because I think this would be a very fun game as a Rutgers fan, but alas, the schedule gods did not do Rutgers fans this particular favor. Anyway, Iowa is an elite offensive team and as a potential 6 seed in the NCAA’s, I’d nonetheless be terrified to move them into the round of 32.

4. Michigan Wolverines (16-9, 7-7); Postseason projections: NET 26, KenPom 14, Best guess is 6/7 seed

Another team, like Ohio State, I’m grading on a curve. With Isaiah Livers, the 44th most efficient player in the nation (!), out of their lineup, Michigan is beatable. But with Livers, who is a true NBA-level talent, on the court, they are a tough out. In addition to playing top-25 level defense, Michigan runs an offense predicated on either creating a back-cut to the hoop or uncontested three-point shots along the wings or baselines. This approach worked against Rutgers at MSG, and I’m really excited to see how Rutgers’ defense evolves in Round 2 of this battle. For now, Michigan is solidly in place as the fourth best team in the B1G.

3. Michigan State Spartans (17-9, 9-6); Postseason projections: NET 12, KenPom 10, Best guess is 4/5 seed

Weird flex for me putting a team that’s lost four of their last five ahead of Michigan, but I do see the Spartans as a 12- or 13-conference win team easy at this point. I find Michigan State’s strong ability to play quality basketball boring, because they seem to do nothing really poorly. They also do their best work in March, historically speaking.

2. Penn State Nittany Lions (20-5, 10-4); Postseason projections: NET 17, KenPom 11, Best guess is 4 seed

Another fun fact: Penn State center/forward Mike Watkins was born in 1995, and is 24 years old. If he were an MLB prospect, he’d be rapidly approaching the age where he’d no longer have prospect status. I bring this up not only as a strange fact, but also because Penn State this season is just tough to play. I am personally not a big fan of Pat Chambers as an in-game coach and I think smarter coaches can outfox him over the course of 40 minutes, but to give credit where credit’s due, he’s assembled a team of grown men who play a bruising style of basketball. Last time Penn State played Rutgers, it was a true varsity matchup. (I will be traveling to Bryce Jordan Center for the rematch on February 26th, by the way, and just letting other Rutgers fans know there are plenty of tickets available for those willing to make the road trip to root for the visiting team. Check out your favorite ticket buying site.)

1. Maryland Terrapins (21-4, 11-3); Postseason projections: NET 7, KenPom 8, Best guess is 2/3 seed

One more fun fact: if you ever want to watch chaos in action, check out a Maryland Terrapins game thread on Reddit. I’ve never seen a college basketball team be so objectively good, have demonstrated such strong results, and yet have a fan base so against their head coach. To be fair, it’s not like Maryland typically starts games playing well, but they do make in-game adjustments most of the time, and their top of the conference ranking here is ultimately deserved. If I were a betting man, I’d place the Terps as my odds-on favorite to win the conference tournament.