The Big Ten was supposed to have a down year. With the heralded Class of 2011 moving on, many teams had big holes to fill in their rosters. I don't think anyone knew what to expect, but if the non-conference season has been any indication, the Big Ten will be at the forefront of college basketball as one of the top leagues once again. They dominated the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, rank first in KenPom's ratings and Conference RPI, and have as many as 9 teams poised to make a run at the tournament. Here's what our conference brethren have been up to the past two months (listed in my own baseless opinion):
1. Ohio State Buckeyes - (12-1)
KenPom Rank: 2
Best Win: Duke (85-63)
Worst Loss: at Kansas (67-78) - *without Jared Sullinger
One-Plays: Purdue, Penn State, at Minnesota, at Iowa
Ohio State came into the season as the overwhelming favorite in the conference. I don't think they've done anything to lose that status, but they certainly will have much tougher competition to earn it than we thought before. The biggest story to their season thus far has been the health of the slimmed-down Jared Sullinger. While Big Sully lost some weight over the offseason, he has been battling back spasms and bone bruises. He has missed two games (including their anticipated match up at Kansas) and played in just 56% of available minutes. His production hasn't dipped from last year at all when he's on the court, but if his nagging injuries continue to hamper him, OSU's chances of another championship diminish greatly. While Boston College transfer Evan Ravenel has been respectable in his absence, the Kansas game showed OSU is not the same team without their big man in the middle. However, with the emergence of DeShaun Thomas to go along with Sullinger, senior William Buford, and Aaron Craft, OSU has arguably four of the top 10 players in the league. They've already beaten two Top-15 squads (Duke and Florida) at Value City Arena.
2. Indiana Hoosiers - (12-0)
KenPom Rank: 6
Best Win: Kentucky (73-72)
Worst Loss: None
One-Plays: Illinois, Northwestern, at Wisconsin, at Nebraska
Many people expected Indiana to make a jump back to relevance this season, but no one out there thought they would be this good already. The Hoosiers have already matched last season's win total. There have been plenty of cupcake beatings, but in their big games, IU has proved themselves as contenders. They've won outside of Assembly Hall against Notre Dame and NC State, while defeating #1 Kentucky at home on one of the coolest buzzer-beaters ever. The arrival of 6-11 Cody Zeller was expected to give IU an inside presence they've been lacking in Tom Crean's rebuilding effort. He has been everything he was hyped up to be, posting an absurd 131.6 offensive rating with a 21.7% usage rate while averaging 15.1 PPG and 7.3 RPG. In addition to Zeller, the improvements of sophomores Victor Oladipo and Will Sheehey along with holdovers Christian Watford, Jordan Hulls, and Verdell Jones has given IU a balanced team with experience. The Hoosiers have been strong on both ends of the floor in all facets of the game. With a rejuvenated Assembly Hall, Indiana is poised to make a strong run at the Big Ten title. We won't have to wait long to find out, however, as the Hoosiers open on the road at the Breslin Center followed by Ohio State at home.
3. Wisconsin Badgers - (11-2)
KenPom Rank: 1
Best Win: UNLV (62-51)
Worst Loss: Marquette (54-61)
One-Plays: Indiana, Northwestern, at Michigan, at Purdue
Another new year, another dominant Bo Ryan ball club. The Badgers brought back one of the best point guards in the country with Jordan Taylor, but they had lost a few seniors including big men Jon Leuer and Keaton Nankivil. But only as Bo Ryan can, the Badgers just inserted a few inexperienced bench reserves who have since blossomed into solid ballplayers. 6-1 Ben Brust played in just 13 games last season as a true freshman but is now averaging 10 points a game off the bench (although he's playing 68% of the minutes). 6-6 Ryan Evans struggled last year off the bench, shooting just 32% from the field, but after stepping into a starting role, he's improved to 9.9 PPG at 45% shooting. A huge key to Wisconsin's continued success has been 6-10 Jared Berggren, who has been respectable in filling Leuer's shoes, leading the team in scoring at 12.5 PPG. As with all Bo Ryan bigs, Berggren can stroke up from deep, making 18-45 threes so far (40%). Wisconsin hasn't played the toughest schedule, but statistically they've been the best in the land per KenPom. They handled respectable teams in BYU and UNLV, but they did manage to lose at Kohl to in-state rival Marquette. I'm not completely sold on Wisconsin as KenPom's numbers are, but it's impressive to realize they've put them up while Jordan Taylor hasn't been playing his best basketball. Wisconsin will be in the race as they always are under Ryan.
4. Michigan State Spartans - (11-2)
KenPom Rank: 13
Best Win: at Gonzaga (74-67)
Worst Loss: vs Duke (69-74)
One-Plays: Iowa, Penn State, at Illinois, at Northwestern
The Kalin Lucas era ended in disappointment last season in East Lansing. Then Delvon Roe had to hang up the sneakers after too many knee injuries. The Spartans entered the year unranked in the preseason top 25, but Draymond Green has been a monster, leading Izzo's team in scoring (15.5 PPG), rebounding (9.8 RPG), assists (3.5 APG), steals (1.5 SPG), and blocks (1.2 BPG). MSU was also helped by the graduate transfer rule, which allowed Valparaiso senior guard Brandon Wood to transfer without sitting year. Wood averaged 17 PPG the last two years before arriving in East Lansing, where he's made a big impact in MSU's new backcourt (124.4 ORtg, 59% eFG%, and 13.2% TO%). Sophomore Keith Appling has successfully moved to point guard, averaging 11.2 PPG, 3.5 RPG, and 3.4 APG. The Spartans have also benefited from the progression of big men Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne and the contributions of true freshmen Branden Dawson and Travis Trice. Unfortunately, the young Spartans had the opportunity to become the first team to open their season against UNC and Duke. That didn't go so well, but they've won 11 straight since, beating Gonzaga on the road and Florida State at home. With Green leading the way and the weight of expectations lifted, Michigan State will be a big factor in the Big Ten race.
5. Michigan Wolverines - (10-2)
KenPom Rank: 50
Best Win: vs Memphis (73-61)
Worst Loss: at Virginia (58-70)
One-Plays: Illinois, Northwestern, at Iowa, at Nebraska
Michigan would've returned everyone from their surprising team last season, but Darius Morris left early for the NBA. The big story for John Beilein's team was how our old friend Trey Burke would be able to fill Morris' shoes. The early returns have been encouraging for Michigan fans as Burke has averaged 13 PPG and 5 APG. Another factor to UM's early season success has been the huge improvement from 6-9 Evan Smotrycz. Smotrycz has increased his efficiency (99.8 to 119.0 ORtg) due to some incredible shooting (70.2 eFG%, 5th in the country). Tim Hardaway Jr. has continued his progression towards an NBA career, scoring 15.4 PPG. The computers haven't liked Michigan thus far because their defensive efficiency has dropped off this season (93.0 to 95.9). If the Wolverines do not turn it up defensively to where they played last year, they'll likely stay in the middle of the pack as a bubble team. Michigan had a good performance in the Maui Invitational, taking home third place by beating Memphis and UCLA while losing to Duke. The only time UM had a true road game, they lost to a good Virginia team.
6. Purdue Boilermakers - (10-3)
KenPom Rank: 23
Best Win: vs Temple (85-77)
Worst Loss: vs Butler (65-67)
One-Plays: Wisconsin, Nebraska, at Ohio State, at Minnesota
The baby Boilers have moved on, but there's still one hanging around in West Lafayette. Robbie Hummel has successfully returned from his second ACL tear and has returned to his dominant form. He's taking plenty of shots (31.8%) to get his 17.5 PPG, so his shooting percentages have dipped, but he's still hitting 40% of his 3's. Senior point guard Lewis Jackson is having his best season as a Boiler, scoring 10.8 PPG with a 31.3% assist rate and a 63.5 free throw rate. Purdue's strong backcourt is also bolstered by the great shooting of Ryne Smith, who leads the Big Ten with 39 3PM while shooting at 67.5% eFG% (46% from 3). However, the Boilers have had a tough time replacing JaJuan Johnson. Sophomores Travis Carroll and Sandi Marcius have been splitting time at the 5, but it's been true freshman Jacob Lawson who's been the most effective (112.2 ORtg, 60.5% eFG%). Matt Painter needs one of the three to step up in conference play and take on a bigger role. It's tough to get a read on these Boilers, who have suffered two inexplicable losses to Xavier and Butler. In both games, Purdue held double-digit leads in the second half before blowing each game with scoring deficiencies at the end (just 1 point in the last 6:40 against Butler). Purdue seems like it will find themselves in another NCAA tournament, but they need to close out tough conference games if they want to contend for the Big Ten crown.
7. Illinois Fighting Illini - (11-2)
KenPom Rank: 53
Best Win: Gonzaga (82-75)
Worst Loss: vs UNLV (48-64)
One-Plays: Iowa, Michigan State, at Penn State, at Indiana
Illinois arguably lost as much as Penn State did from their team last year with Mike Tisdale, Mike Davis, and Demetri McCamey graduating, but Bruce Weber had more returning talent and a better recruiting class. Seven-footer Meyers Leonard was expected to come on as a sophomore, and he has in a big way for the Illini (13.4 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 2.4 BPG). Junior guard DJ Richardson has been excellent so far, as well, making 36 threes at a 41.1% clip with a 124.6 ORtg and just 8.2% TO%. Illinois also benefited from the graduate transfer exception by getting senior PG Sam Maniscalco from Bradley. Both Maniscalco and junior Brandon Paul are also averaging over 10 points a game, but neither has shot the ball well from behind the arc (27% for Paul, 31% for Maniscalco). Behind the starting 5, Illinois hasn't gotten much from its bench. They have had significant trouble scoring the basketball, needing late comebacks to beat Cornell and St. Bonaventure at home. If they can find some production from their younger bench players and shoot the ball better from the perimeter, Illinois could be tough to beat, but right now they seem destined for the bubble come March.
8. Minnesota Golden Gophers - (12-1)
KenPom Rank: 42
Best Win: Virginia Tech (58-55)
Worst Loss: vs Dayton (86-70)
One-Plays: Ohio State, Purdue, at Penn State, at Michigan
Tubby Smith tried to take advantage of the opportunity over the offseason to revamp his depleted backcourt to compliment Trevor Mbakwe this season. But Mbakwe unfortunately ended his career prematurely at the Old Spice Classic championship game against Dayton when he tore his ACL. Many thought the Gophers would go into the tank without Mbakwe, but they have responded with 6 straight wins. It's tough to read the Gophers without Mbakwe, because all of their numbers are skewed since he played half the season. Junior F Rodney Williams has begun to really tap at his potential, scoring 12.2 PPG with 7.2 RPG and 2.3 BPG since Mbakwe's injury. Juco transfer guard Julian Welch has picked it as well, averaging 13 PPG in his last 9 games in his first season with the Gophers. Senior Ralph Sampson III has been effective when he's been on the court, but he's had ankle problems that have limited him to just 39.8% min%. The Gophers have a much deeper, but inconsistent backcourt led by Andre and Austin Hollins, who are unrelated. Tubby Smith put together a brilliant non-conference schedule that faced many mid-majors who will do well in their respective conferences. They are ranked 18th in the RPI despite not playing anyone in the top 40. If the Gophers can grind out 8 or 9 Big Ten wins, they'll find themselves squarely in the hunt for an at-large bid.
9. Northwestern Wildcats - (10-2)
KenPom Rank: 59
Best Win: vs Seton Hall (80-73)
Worst Loss: Baylor (41-69)
One-Plays: Michigan State, Nebraska, at Indiana, at Wisconsin
Bill Carmody has taken Northwestern out of the basement, but they've been stuck in NIT-land the last three years. The question continues to dominate every NW season - will this be the year they make their first NCAA tournament? With John Shurna and Drew Crawford back, Northwestern got off to a solid start by winning the Charlestown Classic against a surprisingly good Seton Hall team. They continued to beat who they were suppose to, including a road win at Georgia Tech. But in their biggest chance to put an impressive mark on their tournament resume, Northwestern was blown out in their own gym against a very good Baylor team. They also weren't able to get a key road win against Creighton. The Wildcats will need to make their mark in conference play, but they continue to have one of the league's worst defensive efficiencies (98.7). Drew Crawford has busted out this year averaging 18.1 PPG to give the Wildcats the two top scorers in the league with Shurna averaging 19.4. A big question entering the year was how will they replace Michael Thompson, who was a 4-year starter at point guard. True freshmen Dave Sobolewski has been highly efficient in his role of getting the ball to Crawford and Shurna. He's also been a capable three-point shooter and averages 7.8 PPG and 4 APG. But as usual with Northwestern, can they defend well enough to win the number of conference games necessary to make the tournament?
10. Nebraska Cornhuskers - (8-3)
KenPom Rank: 110
Best Win: at USC (64-61 2OT)
Worst Loss: Wake Forest (53-55)
One-Plays: Iowa, Penn State, at Illinois, at Northwestern
Nebraska brought a very experienced team into their first year in the Big Ten. Some thought they would be a surprise, but they haven't left good impressions in the non-conference season. That home loss to a rebuilding Wake Forest was terrible and prompted 6th year coach Doc Sadler to proclaim his team as the most selfish bunch he'd ever coached. They also lost to Creighton and Oregon and barely beat Central Michigan and Florida Gulf Coast. LSU transfer guard Bo Spencer has been the Cornhuskers leading scorer at 16 PPG on 48.5% eFG%. Big man Jorge Brian Diaz is an excellent shot-blocker (2.6 BPG) and scores 10.9 PPG, but he's missed their last two games with foot pain. They also have had great production from highly-touted Juco transfer Dylan Talley off the bench, but he's been battling a deep thigh bruise that's held him out of their last two games. Nebraska should have enough experience to keep them out of last place, but it's unlikely they'll find themselves in the postseason.
11. Iowa Hawkeyes - (8-5)
KenPom Rank: 127
Best Wins: Boise State (81-72)
Worst Loss: Campbell (61-77)
One-Plays: Michigan, Ohio State, at Illinois, at Michigan State
Fran McCafferty's second year in rebuilding the Hawkeyes' program hasn't gone to plan. Iowa hasn't beaten anyone good, while getting blown out to Northern Iowa, Creighton, and Clemson. Sophomore Melsahn Besabe was expected to make a case as one of the Big Ten's best players in his second year, but he got off to a really slow start. He's turned it around in December, averaging 13 PPG and 8.5 RPG. Iowa will desperately need his production in conference play. Senior Matt Gatens is giving it his best shot in his last campaign (14.0 PPG, 3.5 RPG), which is more than Bryce Cartwright can say. After averaging 11 point and 6 assists a game last year, the senior is shooting just 28% from the field for 6 points and 4 assists a game. Roy Devyn Marble has improved from his freshmen year to average 10.9 PPG while protecting the ball (9.8% TO%) and getting to the foul line (50.9 FTR). McCafferty also has two true freshmen off the bench who are averaging a combined 17 PPG in Josh Oglesby and Aaron White. However, Iowa has struggled tremendously guarding anyone, giving up 70.2 points per game (or a 100 defensive efficiency). They can force turnovers and have done a good job rebounding, but they have let their opponents connect on 37.7% of their 3PA.