The Big Ten season is finally at the doorstep, and everyone is chomping at the bit to get things underway. There are 126 games before the conference tournament starts, and every team technically has a shot at the regular season title—even Rutgers. The Badgers are the favorite to take the crown, but there are several teams that stand in their way. They'll play each team before the season is through, and a few stand a good shot at beating them.
All signs point to a remarkable year for the Boilermakers and Caleb Swanigan. They are ranked just a hair behind Wisconsin in the AP poll at No. 15 and have proven they can play with anybody. Purdue already nearly took down No. 1 Villanova at home and came back from a 17-point deficit to defeat No. 24 Notre Dame on a neutral court.
Swanigan was a strong contender for Big Ten Freshman of the Year last season, and has taken a massive step forward in his second year in West Lafayette. The 6-foot-9 forward ranks No. 4 in the country in defensive rebounding percentage and has become one of the smartest rebounders in the nation.
But what has thrown Swanigan’s game into the stratosphere this season is newfound range on his jumpshot. “Biggie,” as he is affectionately known, made just over 29 percent of his 3-pointers last year, but is shooting at a 52.4 percent clip in 2016, the highest percentage on the team. The sample size, 21 shots, is small, but enough to believe that something has changed. Swanigan may very well be the best player in the Big Ten.
The secret weapon for the Boilermakers is 7-foot-2 center Isaac Haas. With the graduation of Big Ten staple center A.J. Hammons, Haas has next-to-no competition for the center spot at Purdue. His per game averages have increased across the board, and he presents a day-in, day-out nightmare matchup for opposing big men.
It’s not always clear that Haas is aware that he’s 7-foot-2, 297 pounds, though, and he sometimes fades away from contact in postup situations. Perhaps sometime during the Big Ten season Haas will remember how gigantic he is and starting imposing himself on the block on consecutive possessions. When that happens, this is a Final Four-caliber team.
It won’t take a long time for the No. 14 Wisconsin Badgers to face one of the Big Ten’s best teams. UW travels to Bloomington Jan. 3 to face the No. 16 Indiana Hoosiers, who look not just like one of the top teams in the conference, but have shown potential to be one of the top teams in the country.
Through non-conference play, the Hoosiers have arguably two of the best wins in the nation. They opened their season by knocking off then-No. 2 Kansas in a neutral-site game before running by then-No. 3 North Carolina at home to close out the month of November.
While Thomas Bryant is one of the best centers in the country, the Hoosiers’ offense is predicated on three-point shooting. In their season-opening victory over the Jayhawks, for instance, IU shot 48 percent from 3-point range. And while they haven’t kept such a high mark as their season has progressed, the Hoosiers enter conference play shooting 41 percent, No. 21 in the country.
It is no surprise, then, that when IU struggled from deep, they are vulnerable. In Indiana’s shocking overtime loss to Fort Wayne, the Hoosiers shot a dreadful 29 percent from three. Weeks later, when they fell to in-state rival Butler, IU was a lackluster 28.6 percent from behind the arc.
Guards Josh Newkirk, OG Anunoby and James Blackmon have, at times, looked prolific on the offensive end, but go through slumps far too often. The Hoosiers rely on Anunoby’s versatility as a perimeter defender to stifle opposing teams’ shooting, and need Bryant’s rim-protection to turn away opposing players at the rim.
Indiana has the talent and experience to knock off the Badgers, and if the shots fall for the Hoosiers, then Indiana will likely be the top team in the Big Ten come March.
The Buckeyes are without a doubt the most confusing team in the Big Ten. Along with Rutgers, this is one of the teams in the country that has yet to be figured out by anyone. Though they had middling expectations entering the season, they were astonishingly ranked No. 13 in Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency rankings.
OSU opened the season quietly with semi-close wins over Navy and NC Central, which are a combined 12-12 on the year. Folks started to take notice when they beat Providence, which has been relatively impressive thus far.
After a few blowout wins over hapless visitors, the Buckeyes very nearly knocked off then-No. 6 Virginia on the road. They led by five with just over five minutes to play, but ultimately collapsed in the closing minutes. They lost, but eyes were opened.
They pushed No. 2 UCLA late into the second half before they succumbed to the Bruins’ offensive firepower. Strangely, however, sandwiched between these two tight losses against top-tier opponents, the Buckeyes dropped a home game to Florida Atlantic, which has just one other DI victory on the season.
No one knows where OSU will be in the national landscape a month from now, but one thing is certain: The Buckeyes will push the Big Ten contenders to the brink at home or on the road, and they’ll be a fascinating team to watch.
While Michigan has the look of a good team on paper, the team has yet to truly prove itself, with many of its wins coming against weak opponents such as Howard, Central Arkansas and Maryland-Eastern Shore. A win against Marquette was a respectable victory, but the losses to No. 22 South Carolina, No. 2 UCLA and Virginia Tech show the Wolverines for what they really are: an average team that will struggle to win games in the Big Ten this year.
The Wolverines kick off their conference schedule Jan. 1 at Iowa, commencing a transition in their schedule from fluffy non-conference matchups to hard-nosed Big Ten opponents. Ranked foes Wisconsin, Indiana and Purdue will all provide stern tests, as will Maryland and Minnesota, which are both 11-1 on the year.
Five Michigan players are currently shooting at least 40 percent from 3-point range, including senior guard Zak Irvin, the team’s leading scorer with 13.9 points per contest.The Wolverines can also score inside, as Moritz Wagner and D.J. Wilson (both upwards of 6-foot-10, 240 pounds) will look to bully the Badgers in the paint on Jan. 17.
Michigan haven’t proven much yet, but that doesn’t mean they can’t, or won’t, turn some heads when they face the Badgers at the Kohl Center.
Denzel Valentine, Draymond Green and Gary Harris aren’t walking through the doors in East Lansing anytime soon to wake up Tom Izzo’s current Michigan State team. After major roster turnover, the 8-5 Spartans look less like the perennial National Title contenders of old and more like an elite high school team.
Only two of Michigan State’s top eight rotation players are upperclassmen, and senior forward Eron Harris and junior guard Tum Tum Nairn have struggled producing at the same level that many of their elite veteran teammates once did.
Freshman forward Miles Bridges looks like one of the top draft prospects come June, but he has struggled to reproduce the production that Michigan State lost as a result of Valentine’s departure to the NBA last season.
Four of Michigan State’s five losses are to teams that will certainly make the NCAA tournament, and their fifth loss, a recent 81-73 defeat, came against a Northeastern team that has already defeated quality opponents in Boston University, UConn and Oakland.
Having already traveled to Cameron Indoor Stadium to face Duke and matched up against Arizona and Kentucky, the Spartans won’t be overwhelmed by any particular Big Ten foe, but questions remain if they have the talent and consistency to be one of the Big Ten’s best teams.
The Northwestern Wildcats got off to a promising start in the 2015-’16 season. They started the season 12-1 before going 8-10 in Big Ten play, finishing the year 20-12 and missing the NCAA Tournament. This year, the Wildcats look to build on last season by improving their conference record and potentially making their first NCAA Tournament appearance in school history.
This year’s squad finished the non-conference schedule 11-2 after ending on an eight game winning streak, including an impressive 67-64 win over Atlantic-10 powerhouse Dayton. This team’s early season success coincides with their 37th ranked defense and their extremely selfless offense. The Wildcats average 18.2 assists per game, which ranks 18th in the country.
The Wildcats are led by junior guards Scottie Lindsey and Bryant McIntosh, who average 14.9 and 12.2 points respectively. They also receive a huge contribution from sophomore forward Vic Law who averages 13.7 points per game along with 5.2 rebounds. They will need to continue their strong play if Northwestern plans on having their name called during Selection Sunday.
Due to their strong defense and experienced guards, Northwestern should continue to play well throughout Big Ten play and should be able to exorcise their NCAA tournament demons.
As Minnesota begins Big Ten play, the Golden Gopher lineup will feature six new faces. With only eight conference wins last season, Minnesota was plagued by poor shooting and off-the-court issues. The Gophers hope to avoid more distractions in 2017 and utilize arguably the most talented group head coach Richard Pitino has seen.
There is a lot of potential for this team; Junior guard Nate Mason and sophomore forward Jordan Murphy are building off strong performances from last year. Sophomore guard Dupree McBrayer is contributing early and has been a wild card after returning from his late-season suspension last year, while graduate transfer Akeem Springs can either be red hot or ice cold from behind the arc.
With the addition of three scholarship recruits and three transfer students, there is a lot of potential for this team. In particular, Eric Curry and Michael Hurt should help improve defense and shooting from 3-point range. It will be up to Pitino and his squad’s veteran leadership to ensure this team produces.
Maryland basketball fans may look to May 25 as the biggest point of their season this year. That was the day guard Melo Trimble withdrew his name from the NBA draft process to return for his junior year at school. Trimble was the Terrapins’ leading scorer last year with 14.8 points and 4.8 assists per game.
Trimble has picked up where he left off season, leading Maryland to a 12-1 start and averaging 17.9 PPG. While he has clearly been the star, the Terrapins might have another budding star in freshman forward Justin Jackson. The 6-foot-7 forward from Ontario, Canada has been the team’s leading rebounder so far, and Jackson has demonstrated a clutch shooting ability, hitting 46 percent from the 3-point line this season.
Head Coach Mark Turgeon’s biggest challenge will be leading the young Terrapins through a gauntlet of a Big Ten schedule. His only returning starter is Trimble, and three of his five starters are freshman. Luckily for the Terps, some of their biggest tests are home games. Maryland will face Indiana and Purdue at the Xfinity Center, while their biggest road game is against the Badgers on Feb. 19.
Malcolm Hill is back for his senior season, but even his offensive firepower isn’t enough to carry Illinois out of mediocrity. The Fighting Illini have a handful of good wins over NC State, VCU and BYU, but won’t cause much trouble to anyone in the top half of the Big Ten standings.
While Hill might occasionally throw down a 30-point game––he’s No. 4 in the nation among Power 5 players with six such games since the 2015-’16 season––it’ll be rare to see Illinois top 75 points against anyone in the Big Ten, even Iowa. Hill does have a shot at the NBA, though, and will almost certainly find a home somewhere as an undrafted free agent.
It’s hard to envision the Fighting Illini finishing any higher than No. 8 in the Big Ten, and there may be some blowouts headed toward Champaign. But Hill won’t let this team go a full season without providing a vast array of highlights. He alone is a reason to watch this team.
Iowa’s non-conference season thus far is likely indicative of how it will fare the rest of the season. Although head coach Fran McCaffery and the Hawkeyes have defeated their last five opponents with ease, their only notable win was a 78-64 victory over rival Iowa State Dec. 8. Most of their losses have come at the hands of teams that are ranked or receiving votes, with the one exception of an embarrassing 9-point loss to Omaha in Iowa City.
Heading into conference play, McCaffery will have to rely more on the talents of senior guard Peter Jok, a freak of nature who is currently averaging 22.6 points a game, and a pair of true freshmen in Jordan Bohannon and Cordell Pemsl, who, although inconsistent, have put up imposing numbers in big games.
The three are clearly the pieces McCaffery is building the team around, but three strong players may not be enough during an always-tough Big Ten season. Look for a team like Wisconsin, who plays the Hawkeyes March 2, to win handily if they can shut down Jok, regardless of what happens elsewhere on the court.
If the Nittany Lions aren’t careful, they might finish as the caboose of the Big Ten. They have a very evenly-distributed offense—all five starters average between 10 and 15 points—but that offense is downright bad.
Penn State will be a favorite in just two Big Ten games this year, home games with Illinois and Rutgers, and might even find itself struggling in those contests. Miraculously, the Nittany Lions lost by just 10 points to No. 5 Duke, but any positives from that game were cancelled out by a whitewashing at the hands of George Mason at University Park.
There is no true star for Penn State, but freshman forward Mike Watkins is a strong post defender and ranks No. 8 in the country in block percentage. Any success the Nittany Lions find in conference play will come from a stellar performance from him.
Head coach Tim Miles put his team through the ringer to open the season. Nebraska had easily the toughest non-conference schedule in the Big Ten, and while there weren’t many wins, there were certainly many positives to take away.
With Shavon Shields’ graduation and the transfer of Andrew White to Syracuse, the Cornhuskers’ outlook is rather bleak. But they did play well against UCLA, Clemson and No. 10 Creighton, and might give the top Big Ten teams more problems than they’d be comfortable with.
Tai Webster has emerged as the go-to guy in his senior season and is a capable leader for a team devoid of starpower. There is a dearth of 3-point shooters in Lincoln, though, and in today’s landscape, that’s a death sentence.
Arguably the most fun aspect of this team is Miles, who can brighten anyone’s day with his high-energy interviews and halftime locker room tweets (though he is currently on a self-described Twitter hiatus). He is the kind of person that would make any player proud to call coach.
After Rutgers’ abysmal 7-25 season last year, the Scarlet Knights handed the reigns of the program over to a new head coach in Steve Pikiell. Under Pikiell, the team has churned out an 11-2 record that puts them in a four-way tie for second among Big Ten schools.
The offense has been lacking for Rutgers, which ranks No. 12 in the conference in points per game; they do have four starters averaging double-digit points, but the output drops off significantly down the bench.
One way the Scarlet Knights have combated this offensive ineptitude has been creating second chance opportunities, gathering just short of 15 offensive rebounds a game. Rutgers has also been able to create offensive problems for the opposition to lessen their offensive load, only allowing 61.8 points per game, third-fewest in the conference.
While they’re off to their best start since joining the Big Ten, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that the Scarlet Knights might again be the worst team in the conference. Only time will tell.
-Isaiah De los Santos