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Around the B1G: A Review of the 2015 Big Ten Basketball Non-Conference Slate

It hasn't been a banner basketball season so far for the Big Ten, but with conference play ready to tip-off, let's review where the league stands.

Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

We haven't written much this year about Big Ten basketball and how the rest of the league has fared in the non-conference season, but now seems like a perfect time to start. With conference play tipping off tonight, here's some numbers and words on how each team performed in the non-con and where their expectations lie heading into Big Ten play. Teams are subjectively ranked by yours truly and are grouped by current post-season expectations.

Shoutout to and for the numbers.

Championship Contenders

#1 Michigan State Spartans (13-0)
  • KenPom Efficiency Rankings - 8th Offense, 11th Defense, 5th Overall
  • Expected NC SOS - 40
  • Notable Wins - vs Kansas (79-73), Louisville (71-67), vs Providence (77-64)
  • Big Ten Two-Plays - Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio St, Penn St, Rutgers

Michigan State's really good again. They've held down the #1 position in the AP poll the last four weeks and are the lone Big Ten squad to finish the non-con unscathed. Denzel Valentine has made an early impact in the National Player of the Year race with two triple-double performances already. However, the do-everything wing recently underwent knee surgery to remove some cartilage and is out the next 2 weeks.

That setback shouldn't slow down the Spartans too much, as they have a manageable opening conference slate outside of a roadtrip to Carver-Hawkeye Arena tonight. But Valentine missing extended time would certainly put this team's title chances at risk. Fortunately, they will benefit from an easier Big Ten schedule overall than the other two contenders.

#2 Purdue Boilermakers (12-1)
  • KenPom Efficiency Rankings - 32nd Offense, 1st Defense, 4th Overall
  • Expected NC SOS - 36
  • Notable Wins - vs Florida (85-70), at Pittsburgh (72-59), Vanderbilt (68-55)
  • Loss - vs Butler (68-74)
  • Big Ten Two-Plays - Maryland, Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin, Nebraska

What a 2-year turnaround for Matt Painter's program. The last time Tim Frazier was in a PSU uniform, the Boilermakers finished dead last in the Big Ten, and the heat was rising on Painter's perch in West Lafayette. But thanks to some quality recruiting in the 2014 and 2015 classes, and the maturation of AJ Hammons, the Boilermakers are poised to take a direct shot at another Big Ten title.

This mammoth of a team has returned Purdue to the defensive prominence their program was built on by the Baby Boilers a few years ago. They rank #1 in defensive efficiency by a wide margin, partly because they regularly employ lineups with four players 6'6" or taller. The twin towers in Hammons and Isaac Hass anchor a defensive unit that's limiting opponents to 27.6% on 3's and just 38.7% on 2's! That kind of defense can win championships.

#3 Maryland Terrapins (11-1)
  • KenPom Efficiency Rankings - 14th Offense, 41st Defense, 15th Overall
  • Expected NC SOS - 124
  • Notable Win - vs UConn (76-66)
  • Loss - at North Carolina (81-89)
  • Big Ten Two-Plays - Purdue, Michigan, Northwestern, Wisconsin, Ohio St

Maryland entered the year as the favorite on paper after a number of high-profile additions last spring. They certainly haven't been a disappointment, but they haven't been overly impressive yet either. At least, not as much as the two teams previewed ahead of them. The Terps got off to a sluggish start in November with unconvincing wins against a middling Georgetown team and a bad Rider squad.

Turgeon's team lost their anticipated match-up with North Carolina in the ACC challenge, but over the last three weeks, they've looked like they're finding a rhythm. Diamond Stone has been playing better and better, while Melo Trimble continues to dominate. They remain the most talented team in the league, so you can expect the Terps to have a say in who takes the Big Ten crown.

NCAA Contenders

#4 Iowa Hawkeyes (9-3)
  • KenPom Efficiency Rankings - 17th Offense, 35th Defense, 17th Overall
  • Expected NC SOS - 72
  • Notable Wins - at Marquette (89-61), Florida State (78-75 OT), Wichita State (84-61)
  • Losses - vs Dayton (77-82), vs Notre Dame (62-68), at Iowa St (82-83)
  • Big Ten Two-Plays - Michigan St, Purdue, Michigan, Indiana, Penn St

This ranking illustrates how unimpressive the Big Ten has been so far. That's not meant as a criticism of Fran McCaffery's team. They've certainly been better than 9th or 10th in the Big Ten where many prognostications picked them. But they also showed they still can't be trusted in late letdowns versus Dayton and Iowa St. For this program to take the next step forward, they need to start winning those close games more frequently. They'll have their chance to prove it in the Big Ten with the league's most challenging conference schedule.

Jarrod Uthoff is playing like a first-team All-Big Ten player, and the Hawkeyes have an edge in experience over most of the conference. They're the fourth-best defensive team per the efficiency numbers, while they've always been a tough team to defend against. The Hawkeyes should return to the NCAA tournament, but they can't be taken seriously as contenders until they stop choking up quality wins.

#5 Indiana Hoosiers (10-3)
  • KenPom Efficiency Rankings - 6th Offense, 124th Defense, 24th Overall
  • Expected NC SOS - 215
  • Notable Win - vs Notre Dame (80-73)
  • Losses- vs Wake Forest (78-82), vs UNLV (69-72), at Duke (74-94)
  • Big Ten Two-Plays - Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Nebraska, Minnesota

If you've been living under a rock, the seat's become really warm in Bloomington for Tom Crean. The Hoosiers have managed to assemble an incredible offensive team that just simply can't defend. Indiana had a disappointing showing at the Maui Invitational after dropping close games to pedestrian Wake Forest and UNLV. In the ACC Challenge, the Hoosiers were embarrassed by a good-not-yet-great Duke team that torched them for 1.52 PPP.

This offense can score against anybody, but they can't be considered a Big Ten contender until they prove they can get stops. They're relying heavily on true freshman Thomas Bryant to be their rim protector in the paint, but he needs help. Not sure where he's gonna get it. We'll see what comes of Tom Crean in the spring, if he's unable to turnaround this team's defense and lead Indiana on a run in March Madness.

#6 Michigan Wolverines (10-3)
  • KenPom Efficiency Rankings - 18th Offense, 100th Defense, 34th Overall
  • Expected NC SOS - 200
  • Notable Wins - vs Texas (78-72), at NC State (66-59)
  • Losses - Xavier (70-86), vs UConn (60-74), at SMU (58-82)
  • Big Ten Two-Plays - Purdue, Maryland, Iowa, Penn St, Minnesota

John Beilein's team was a trendy pick in the preseason. They were decimated by injuries last year, but nearly everyone was set to return. With Caris LeVert, Derrick Walton, and Zak Irvin back and healthy, the hope was for Michigan to return to the top-25 and contend for the Big Ten title. They haven't quite looked the part just yet.

Not that they've been bad either. It's just they don't possess any eye-opening scalps, while they lost in convincing fashion to the three best opponents they played. Michigan's offense has returned to its typical perimeter form thanks to the remarkable shooting of division-3 transfer Duncan Robinson (60.3% from 3! 83.3% eFG%!!). But this team has its issues defensively, particularly on the interior. Sophomores Ricky Doyle and Mark Donnal haven't improved as much as some may have hoped, so it's hard to see this team succeeding against the frontlines of Maryland and Purdue.

NCAA Pretenders

#7 Wisconsin Badgers (8-5)
  • KenPom Efficiency Rankings - 62nd Offense, 68th Defense, 56th Overall
  • Expected NC SOS - 90
  • Notable Wins - vs VCU (74-73), at Syracuse (66-58 OT)
  • Notable Losses - Western Illinois (67-69), UW-Milwaukee (67-68), at Oklahoma (48-65)
  • Big Ten Two-Plays - Michigan St, Purdue, Maryland, Indiana, Illinois

So after all of the summer announcements regarding Bo Ryan's retirement, he abruptly called it quits a few weeks ago to give his long-time assistant Greg Gard a shot at the job. Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez has been hesitant to award the post to Gard, as many think he wants to take a run at UVA's Tony Bennett. Therefore Bo decided to offer Gard a 3-month audition to be his replacement, although Gard will have to earn it with Bo's worst team ever at Wisconsin.

Due to the losses from last year's runners-up, the Badgers have had some uncharacteristic stumbles in non-conference play. They did seriously lose to Western Illinois and UW-Milwaukee at the Kohl Center to put things in perspective. Nigel Hayes has lost his jumpshot as he's tried to carry a larger load, while Bronson Koenig hasn't fared too much better. The rest of the rotation is short on depth and experience, although freshman big man Ethan Happ is legit. However, this is the year their 4th-place finish streak will end and their NCAA Tournament streak looks to be in serious jeopardy, as well.

#8 Ohio State Buckeyes (8-5)
  • KenPom Efficiency Rankings - 107th Offense, 28th Defense, 52nd Overall
  • Expected NC SOS - 37
  • Notable Wins - vs Kentucky (74-67)
  • Notable Losses - Louisiana Tech (74-82), UT-Arlington (68-73), at UConn (55-75)
  • Big Ten Two-Plays - Michigan St, Maryland, Northwestern, Illinois, Rutgers

If there's any team in this league that can hide behind the "youth" excuse, it's the Buckeyes. After losing Shannon Scott and D'Angelo Russell, Thad Matta has turned to true freshman JaQuan Lyle to lead the show. It has not gone particularly well yet, but in fairness to Lyle, it's a difficult task replacing the NBA's #2 overall pick.

The Bucks have a turnover problem that has plagued their offense and ruined their non-conference season. But if there's any team in this group that can become the Big Ten's 7th NCAA tourney team, I'd bet on these guys. Thad's working with only 10 scholarships players that has no seniors and 9 underclassmen, but if they eliminate the careless miscues, they should find enough offense against most of the league to salvage a run at the Dance. Opening with Minnesota and Illinois at home should get the Bucks off to a good start.

#9 Northwestern Wildcats (12-1)
  • KenPom Efficiency Rankings - 38th Offense, 90th Defense, 49th Overall
  • Expected NC SOS - 324
  • Notable Wins - at Virginia Tech (81-79 OT), at DePaul (78-70 OT)
  • Loss - vs North Carolina (69-80)
  • Big Ten Two-Plays - Maryland, Ohio St, Nebraska, Penn St, Minnesota

There was a reasonable hope that this team could break the program's NCAA curse this year, but then we saw what a wretched non-conference schedule Chris Collins concocted. The third-year coach must not have paid attention to the Bubble when he was living easy at Duke every year. His scheduling incompetence has allowed Northwestern to succeed against an embarrassingly weak slate littered with 275+ RPI dogs, so no one really knows how good this team is right now.

Some may think it's absurd to rank them below Wisconsin and Ohio State, but they really haven't played anybody outside of their loss to North Carolina. The 'notable wins' were listed above to show how close the margin of victories were. The Wildcats have a budding star in sophomore Bryant McIntosh, but Alex Olah's recent injury has left many concerned. With a Big Ten slate light on the top dogs, this team definitely needs to go at least 10-8 to have a shot at an at-large bid. Without Olah for an extended period of time, that may prove unattainable for this improving program.

NIT Pretenders

#10 Illinois Fighting Illini (8-5)
  • KenPom Efficiency Rankings - 86th Offense, 171st Defense, 112th Overall
  • Expected NC SOS - 102
  • Best Win - Yale (69-65)
  • Notable Losses - UT-Chattanooga (77-81), North Florida (81-93), at Providence (59-60)
  • Big Ten Two-Plays - Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio St, Rutgers

Let's see if I got this straight. It all started at the end of July. Promising freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands would miss the Illini's preseason foreign tour with a stress fracture. Four days later, 5th-year point guard Tracy Abrams tore his achilles which has put his Illinois career in jeopardy. Three weeks later, Darius Paul was suspended and then dismissed after an arrest in France during said foreign tour. Then in October, rising sophomore Leron Black had to undergo surgery for a meniscus tear and missed 4-6 weeks. Shortly thereafter, Kendrick Nunn had to have thumb surgery and was sidelined for 8 weeks (including the first 5 games of the year). As if preseason injuries weren't enough, graduate-transfer center Mike Thorne was off to a great start to his lone season in Illinois until he tore his meniscus and is now out for the season.

So as you can imagine, the Illini have struggled. This was supposed to be a promising fourth year under John Groce that would accompany the newly renovated State Farm Center, but it hasn't exactly gone as planned. That said, they still feature a dynamic duo in Malcolm Hill and a healthy Nunn, while redshirt freshman Michael Finke is one of the best freshmen big men that nobody's talking about. There's enough talent here to stay ahead of the rest of the league.

#11 Nebraska Cornhuskers (8-5)
  • KenPom Efficiency Rankings - 192nd Offense, 78th Defense, 135th Overall
  • Expected NC SOS - 251
  • Best Wins - vs Tennessee (82-71), Rhode Island (70-67)
  • Notable Losses - Samford (58-69), Creighton (67-83), at Villanova (63-87)
  • Big Ten Two-Plays - Purdue, Indiana, Northwestern, Penn St, Rutgers

The similarities between Nebraska and Penn State are creepy. Both teams have a mix of veterans and youth, while Miles and Chambers have successfully upped each program's recruiting profile. They also both struggle to score on offense while maximizing their defensive capabilities. But I'm giving the nod to Tim Miles' team here because I think they have slightly more talent than PSU at the moment, and their freshman point guard Glynn Watson is only going to get better with more experience.

#12 Penn State Nittany Lions (9-4)
  • KenPom Efficiency Rankings - 183rd Offense, 80th Defense, 131st Overall
  • Expected NC SOS - 167
  • Best Win - vs Kent St (75-69)
  • Notable Losses - at Duquesne (52-78), Radford (74-86), vs Colorado (70-71)
  • Big Ten Two-Plays - Michigan St, Iowa, Michigan, Northwestern, Nebraska

Despite another deceptive non-conference schedule (by the RPI computers, anyway), Penn State's non-conference season was pretty meh. This team had huge concerns coming into the season, so a 9-4 record isn't without merit, but there isn't an impressive win out of the bunch. They beat two awful high major programs in DePaul and Boston College, but they lost badly to Duquesne and Radford, while beating no one else of consequence. There's no evidence this team is poised to surprise people in the coming month or two.

#13 Minnesota Golden Gophers (6-6)
  • KenPom Efficiency Rankings - 106th Offense, 214th Defense, 150th Overall
  • Expected NC SOS - 226
  • Best Win - Clemson (89-83)
  • Notable Losses - South Dakota (81-85 2OT), vs Temple (70-75), UW-Milwaukee (65-74)
  • Big Ten Two-Plays - Indiana, Michigan, Northwestern, Illinois, Rutgers

Yikes. I don't think anyone foresaw Minnesota being this bad in Rich Pitino's third year at the helm. The Gophers did lose a productive senior class from last year's team, but their 2014 NIT championship seems so long ago. This roster isn't without hope, but the Gophers are too young in the backcourt with little talent in the frontcourt. Senior stretch-4 Joey King has been remarkably efficient, but he's still limited in many other areas on defense and on the boards.

They do have one of the league's surprise freshman in Jordan Murphy (an athletic freak that dominates the glass), while sophomore Nate Mason is comparable to Shep Garner. But the bigs are non-existent and the freshmen guards have struggled in their first sesaon. They should improve as the year goes on, but there's not much of a ceiling for this team.

#14 Rutgers Scarlet Knights (6-7)
  • KenPom Efficiency Rankings - 300th Offense, 165th Defense, 250th Overall
  • Expected NC SOS - 257
  • Best Win - Howard (82-70)
  • Notable Losses - at St. John's (59-61), vs Clemson (58-76), at George Washington (49-83)
  • Big Ten Two-Plays - Michigan St, Ohio St, Illinois, Nebraska, Minnesota

If Northwestern is 2009 Penn State, then Rutgers is 2005 Penn State. This program has so many issues behind-the-scenes, it doesn't much matter what they do on it. Eddie Jordan seemingly is a dead-man walking, but we'll see what direction Rutgers goes under new athletic director, Pat Hobbs. It certainly is not all Jordan's fault, but this roster is woefully inadequate for a Big Ten program. Corey Sanders is a promising freshman, but they have little-to-nothing else. They also have four scholarships available in their empty 2016 recruiting class and have suffered negative press in local regions for dubious recruiting efforts. This program is 2-3 years away, at least.