We still have a handful of non-conference games yet to play, but I think we’ve reached the point where we can assess where teams are heading into league competition. 6 games tonight and then a few on the couple of days after Christmas and that’s it…few look to be ones where Big Ten teams are vulnerable (even Illinois tonight in the Braggin’ Rights game against Missouri…because Missouri is awful this year)…maybe Milwaukee at Minnesota, that type of thing, but by and large we know what we’ve got. So, as good a time as any to revise the Big Ten projection.
ALL CONFERENCE TEAM (based on performance to date)
Denzel Valentine MSU (POY)
AJ Hammons Purdue
Melo Trimble Maryland
Jarrod Uthoff Iowa
Caris Levert Michigan
Bryant McIntosh Northwestern
Yogi Ferrell IU
Andrew White Nebraska
Malcolm Hill Illinois
Nigel Hayes Wisconsin
Shep Garner PSU
Bryn Forbes MSU
Caleb Swanigan Purdue
Robert Carter Maryland
Marc Loving OSU
1. Michigan State – MSU had a scheduling advantage over the other contenders IMO and that impression has not changed. What has changed is that MSU is better than I think most (including myself) expected. Not massively so, because I thought this would be a very good team, but I didn’t have 13-0 on my list of expectations right now. The next couple of weeks are going to be important for MSU’s title chances…they’ve got to win these games without Denzel but the good news is A. a loss at Iowa is not devastating to title hopes, if it were to happen and B. I think the team MSU played last night is better than the rest of the squads MSU will face over these first few games. With a healthy Denzel, this is still the best team in the conference IMO.
2. Maryland – I’ve got them up a spot, mostly because IU’s scheduling advantage doesn’t appear to offset the fact that Maryland is simply a much better team. The Terps only get MSU once and it’s at Breslin. They have to play Purdue twice. They only play IU once but it’s in Bloomington. I don’t think this team has yet come close to its ceiling, so they’ve got some extra gears they could hit if they completely settle into roles and figure out how to maximize their thing by playing together but it remains to be seen if that happens.
3. Purdue – I have the Boilers up as well. The loss to Butler put a minor dent in what otherwise has been an impressive non conference for Purdue, but only minor…that’s a good team they lost to, so no big deal. I think there are still fair questions to ask about their backcourt but the frontline is as good as advertised and they’re back to playing Purdue quality defense this season. They only get MSU once and it’s at Mackey, so that’s a help for them. I think the overall talent level is a shade below MSU and Maryland but certainly good enough to be a contender all year and if those two teams slip, it wouldn’t be a shocker to see Purdue claim the crown.
4. Michigan – Big, big gap between those three teams and this group. I could have listed 3 or 4 other teams in this spot and felt just as confident, but assuming continued health, I think Michigan is probably, marginally the best out of this middle class. They’re terrible defensively and while they’re good offensively, they’re not great and that’s what they’d need to be in order to get into that first group.
5. Indiana – Almost the same situation as Michigan, except even more extreme. They’re 5th offensively in KenPom but 123rd on defense. They’ve got enough offensive horsepower to just outscore some people and I suspect they’ll do that, especially in Bloomington. However, that defense is so bad that it’s going to cost them. If I had a gun to my head, I’d say this is still an NCAA calilber team but far from a lock.
6. Northwestern – No, they haven’t played anyone except for UNC, who beat them. Still, I think this has been coming for two years and Ithink the league is weak enough to allow this Cat team to make a real run at a top half finish and maybe even squeeze out a Tourney berth, though their strength of schedule will make that challenging. They’ve got two good guards and Olah on his day is a very good post option. Better depth than they’ve typically had as well.
7. Iowa – Not a bad team and if you told me they’d end up 4th, I wouldn’t be shocked. I just don’t love ’em. Surprised that Fran hasn’t been able to extend his bench the way I thought he would with his young guys. The overall numbers haven’t looked bad but in their big games, he’s been riding his starters heavily. Uthoff is having a great season but I’m not a total believer in the rest of that lineup in terms of support.
8. Wisconsin – Not nearly what I thought they’d be. I have Nigel Hayes on my second team based on his overall raw numbers but I could be persuaded to have him lower than that…he’s struggled much more than I’d anticipated and it shows in his shooting percentage. Overall, Wisconsin has not been able to spread the floor the way they have in recent seasons and it’sresulted in a clogged up offense much of thetime. The defense hasn’t been good enough to overcome it, either. They’re even this high not as much due to what they are as to how bad therest of the conference is.
9. Ohio State – I thought they’d struggle some with a very young roster that, while laden with some talent, doesn’t have the kind of superstar player who’s gotten them through in similar type seasons (no Russell/Sullinger/Oden/Conley/Turner type player among these guys). They’ve been terrible at the point, which has hindered them on offense greatly. Yet, the win over Kentucky showed that there is some ability here. They are the one team in this middle pack which does have room to grow substantially and if they somehow get their act together with Lyle and Harris at PG, could be much better in March than they are now. For the moment at least, though, I can’t put them any higher than this, because one nice day doesn’t override the weeks of generally poor play we’ve seen.
10. Illinois – No idea what they could have been but for good health, but things are what they are. Hill has had a strong year individually, as has Nunn, at least on offense. Here’s the thing, though…for as much heat as IU and Michigan take on defense, they look like the Bad Boy Pistons next to what Illinois is doing. The Illini are 177th in adjusted defense in KenPom. That is shamefully bad for a Big Ten team.
11. Nebraska – White and Shields have been a decent 1-2 scoring punch but this is a team still a year or two away from having enough overall talent to finish any higher than this. Lack of size also limits what they can do.
12. Penn State – Here by default. Some growing pains with younger players and the vets other than Garner aren’t good enough to pick up the slack.
13. Minnesota – Worst Gopher team since the early Haskins regime, when they were dealing with fallout from the end of Jim Dutcher’s era. There’s some individual talent here…some good athletes and some guys who appear to have potential…but it’s been a miserable non conference for Little Ricky and Co. They *could* finish as high as 9th if everything broke right, but in handicapping things right now, I’ve got them here.
14. Rutgers – Might be the worst Power 5 team in America.