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Friday, January 4, 2013
Conference Power Rankings: Big Ten

By Eamonn Brennan

Come on feel the Big Ten Power Rankings. Girls, rock your Big Ten Power Rankings. We get ranked, ranked, ranked … ranked, ranked, ranked.

Happy Friday Big Ten Conference Power Rankings to ya.

1. Michigan. Last night, Northwestern hosted Michigan. Michigan completely destroyed Northwestern. Most college basketball fans probably stopped watching this game after the first five minutes. All college basketball fans immediately forgot about it because Arizona and Colorado played after that and all Hades broke loose. But man, was Michigan impressive. I know the Wildcats are bad, and nowhere near full strength anyway, and blah blah blah -- I know what I saw, man. And what I saw was a really, really good offensive basketball team.

2. Indiana. On Monday, Indiana had to grit out a tough Big Ten opener at Iowa, against a solid Hawkeyes team that refused to go away down the stretch. At first glance, it was not the most inspiring IU performance; the Hoosiers scored just 69 points on the day, and just .92 points per possession, obviously well below their season average of 1.22. (It didn't help that typically brilliant shooter Jordan Hulls went 0-for-10.) But it was actually all good news for Indiana, when you think about it. Last season, if the Hoosiers scored .92 points per trip in a road game, you could probably go ahead and assume that game was a loss. That's because IU didn't guard anywhere near as well as it does this year. The Hoosiers have raised their adjusted defensive efficiency KenPom rank from the mid-60s at the end of last season to No. 9 as of this writing. That massive jump is how IU will be able to get away with scoring .92 PPP on the road from time to time.

3. Minnesota. Coach Tubby Smith brought senior forward Trevor Mbakwe back from his rocky offseason slowly but surely, not awarding the longtime star a starting position until last week. Whether that was about optics or just making sure Mbakwe got the message, it seems to have worked: Mbakwe is grabbing 18 percent of his team's available misses on the offensive end, the seventh-highest rate in the country, and he is the Gophers' lone reliable rebounder on the defensive end. Meanwhile, Minnesota's opening win over Michigan State was not only a well-played early Big Ten game in general but a really nice showcase for this Minnesota team, which is deeper, more versatile and more athletic than any in Smith's tenure and for some time before.

4. Ohio State. Really interesting game for Ohio State on Saturday. Should it win at Illinois? Yes. Is it a given? Hardly. And that's a tricky place for this team to be in because I am of two minds on the Buckeyes right now. The first is that, duh, of course Ohio State is good: It scores 1.16 points per trip and allows just .848, the ninth- and 11th-best marks in the country, respectively. That's really good! And, look, you lose to Kansas at home and Duke on the road -- so what? Those are forgivable crimes. They're not even crimes, really. But the other mind is tempting because it is guttural, and it says that all it takes is a quick glance at Ohio State's record to date to know the Buckeyes haven't beaten anyone good, and when you watch them play, they don't look all that impressive, either. A loss at Illinois this weekend would add fuel to that probably incorrect notion, even if it shouldn't? See? Weird analytical spot. Interesting game.

5. Michigan State. Derrick Nix is probably my favorite player in the country to watch. He is big; he is slow; he plays basketball with absolutely zero fluidity; he is effective; and he is predictable -- he always goes back to his natural left hand.

I went to the Synergy tape and watched each of the 67 post possessions Nix has performed in this season. What did I find? That Nix almost never uses his right hand to score. And by almost never, I mean that he only really used it once all season -- in a four-foot hook shot in Michigan State's loss at Minnesota earlier this week. In fairness, Nix went to his right hand once against Miami, but he sort of adjusted on the way up and had it blocked anyway.

This is nothing new, of course -- I would imagine every opponent Nix plays the rest of the season will have defenders watching plenty of footage -- but I had to know for myself. And now I do. Meanwhile, the rest of the plays were just awesome. Seriously, some of those up-and-unders? The way the big fella bowls to his left hand whether a defender (or two) is there or not? It's sort of funny -- I laughed a few times when a defender would tie Nix up and they'd both just sort of stop and be like, "I guess that's a foul?" -- but also really endearing, especially knowing how hard that dude has worked to resurrect his basketball career. And hey, if it ain't broke, right?

6. Illinois. For the last couple of weeks, I put Illinois in the top three, doing so for two reasons: One, Illinois had played really well to start the season, and its position was commensurate with the general consensus on its performance to date. Two, I wanted to show the Illini some "love" before the levy broke. I realize neither of those is the most rigorous way to rank a team, and I made sure to enclose the standard disclaimers about Illinois' attack being so 3-point-oriented and how that could be unsustainable if the shooting improvement was the product of small sample size -- and it appears that might be the case. Or maybe winning at Purdue really is just that tough. But the Illini have now shot worse than 30 percent from beyond the arc in five of their past seven games, and a 10-for-26 performance wasn't enough to pull them out of a loss at Mackey. It's all ominous stuff, which is why I'm glad I wasn't that guy raining on the parade too early.

7. Iowa. Last season, in the frenzy of Iowa's late wins over Wisconsin and Indiana (and the excellent Matt Gatens farewells they offered), my buddy Tom was constant in his demand for updates on Iowa's NCAA tournament bubble status. I would laugh and he'd ask why and then I'd try to calmly explain (something about an RPI in the 100s, if I remember correctly) and that was that. This season, though. Tom's enthusiasm is perfectly warranted. Iowa's best scorer went 1-for-14 against Indiana (playing against Victor Oladipo will do that), yet the Hawks still nearly took down IU in Carver-Hawkeye Arena, which was encouragingly populated again. Iowa is on a tournament trajectory in the years to come; the question is whether this team is good enough to do it ahead of schedule. Right now, I say yes.

8. Wisconsin. Much as with Ohio State, Wisconsin's tempo-free numbers say the team is about as good as usual, which is much better than this position in the power rankings. Much like Illinois' previous spot at No. 3, I have been hedging this rank repeatedly for the past few weeks, saying how strongly I think Wisconsin will eventually climb the ladder back to its typically high perch. But it is going to take more than this insane Jared Berggren dunk against Penn State to convince me. (But seriously, I see you, Jared. That second dunk is just pure evil.)

9. Purdue. Is Purdue going to put up some stinkers this year? Yes. The Boilermakers have already, and they will again. But they're defending like a top-40 team already, which is impressive when you consider how young this team is, and scary when you consider that Mackey is a tough place to play, and even tougher when your offense leaves you and you have to grind out a 65-possession game against the Boilers. They're eminently beatable, but still: No thanks.

10. Northwestern. As if missing Drew Crawford and JerShon Cobb for the rest of the season weren't already bad enough, the Wildcats lost Reggie Hearn for their past two games, the latter of which was an absolute home dump-trucking at the hands of the overwhelming Michigan Wolverines. Hearn's eventual return will help, and I really like freshman center Alex Olah; he moves well without the ball and is already a better interior scorer over both shoulders than I think anyone realized. But it looks as if Northwestern is going to free its fans from the constant brinksmanship and disappointment of recent seasons by being downright bad. Maybe that will come as a relief?

11. Penn State. If you clicked that Jared Berggren link above, you might be convinced that all Penn State did Thursday was get dunked on. That would be incorrect. In fact, Penn State put in a pretty decent road effort at Wisconsin. It wasn't quite that close -- when you play 59 possessions, nine points is a lot -- but still, holding Wisconsin to a little more than a point per trip at the Kohl Center is something to be proud of. No irony needed.

12. Nebraska. Although bleak and lacking the same sense of possibility at the heart of some of his more popular work, "Nebraska" -- a spare, pioneering lo-fi album recorded by Bruce Springsteen in his home with a four-track cassette recorder -- is widely regarded as The Boss' greatest. "Nebraska," "Atlantic City," "Highway Patrolman" -- these scrawled tone-poems ring out with the voices of lost souls, confused criminals and the rest of us, just doing our best to go along. The sound -- oh, wait. You were talking about Nebraska basketball? Oh, sorry. Nebraska lost 70-44 at Ohio State on Wednesday.