- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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Last Friday's Big Ten Power Rankings feel like a long time ago, don't they? Lots to cover, so let's dig in.
1. Michigan. And after it all … the Wolverines are still the top team in the Big Ten.
This has a lot to do with Indiana's loss at Illinois Thursday night, but it also goes deeper than that. At Indiana Saturday, the Wolverines stared down one of the best crowds you'll ever see in college hoops, got very little from their understandably shaken freshmen (you could practically see Glenn Robinson III's arms shaking on a couple of those jumpers), were just getting key big Jordan Morgan back from injury, got one of Trey Burke's least-efficient performances of the year and, despite all that, still gave Indiana a real run on their home floor. Then Michigan held off Ohio State in what was pretty clearly the Buckeyes' best performance of the season Tuesday night.
There are nits to pick here. The defense still isn't elite, the Wolverines rely a great deal on jump shots, and so on. But neither of these "issues" are new, nor are they really issues -- Michigan's offense is so good it doesn't really matter.
2. Indiana. Oh, Hoosiers. Here we go again.
Indiana fans were riding high after that thrilling win over Michigan, and can you blame them? "College GameDay" was in town, Cody Zeller was dunking every rebound in sight, Victor Oladipo was doing things that had Dick Vitale comparing him (not totally crazily!) to a "mini-Michael Jordan" -- that inside-out cross and dunk on Tim Hardaway Jr. was insane, and Oladipo's nuttiest play was a one-handed alley-oop that didn't even go in. It was a crazy good game, IU came out on top, and after that 97-60 embarrassment of Purdue, all was once again well in Bloomington, Ind.
And then Thursday night happened.
It would be bad enough if IU lost at Illinois on that awful final play -- wherein the timeout-less Illini scored on a baseline inbounds with 0.9 seconds left on the clock because Zeller got more lost than that one terrible television show where the writers just eventually gave up and did the whole "they were in purgatory the whole time, surprise!" thing -- if it hadn't been preceded by another late-game IU meltdown. When it happened at home against Minnesota, the Hoosiers' lead was too insurmountable; when it happened at Northwestern, Northwestern was bad. But when it happened at Illinois, against a well-coached team with enough talent to take advantage, the Hoosiers got burned.
This is not a major loss in and of itself; IU is embarking on its roughest patch of Big Ten schedule, and you can expect the Hoosiers to take a few more losses -- quite possibly at Ohio State Sunday. But explanations aside, the late-game woes (turnovers, missed free throws, bad decisions, defensive breakdowns, uncharacteristic lack of savvy, etc.) are a cause for long-term concern. They just are.
3. Michigan State. On Thursday, fellow Bubble Watcher Andy Glockner asked why everyone is "… ignoring what's brewing in East Lansing?" We're not ignoring it! Anyone even remotely familiar with this here college hoops racket knows you can never count out Tom Izzo's team in any title discussion, be that regular season, conference tournament, or the big kahuna itself. (And not to pat myself on the back too hard, but I did pick Michigan State to win the league before the season started.) Bottom line: It's fun to get caught up in the Michigan/Indiana thing, and those are the league's two best and most entertaining teams, hands down. But Michigan State has great guard play, tons of size and an X factor athlete in Branden Dawson, and they are just as much a threat to win this league as anyone else.
4. Ohio State. The question is, can we say the same for Ohio State? After all, the Buckeyes are just a game behind the three-way tie at the top of the conference standings, and all of a sudden they're playing their best basketball of the season. I don't always agree with everything Mark Titus writes (namely that his are the most powerful power rankings; I'm going to need to see an advanced metric on that, sir) but who better to lend insight on the Buckeyes? This week, he wrote:
Take a deep breath, Ohio State fans, and think about it: If you would've known before the game that Michigan would hit 14 3-pointers, have five players score in double figures, and shoot 47 percent from the field, how much would you have guessed Ohio State would've lost by? Twenty? Fifty? A million? Heading into the game, I was certain the night would end in embarrassment for the Buckeyes. Sure, OSU matches up better with Michigan than any team in the country, but the Wolverines were coming off a loss and they were playing a revenge game at home against their rivals. Meanwhile, except for the November game at Duke, the Buckeyes haven't played particularly well on the road this season. All signs pointed to a Michigan blowout. But Ohio State rose to the occasion and provided us with the best game in college basketball this year.
There were issues down the stretch -- Deshaun Thomas not touching the ball, for one -- but Ohio State has defended so well this season that all it really needs to do to become "elite" is find some people not named Deshaun Thomas to score. If it does, look out.
5. Wisconsin. At this point breaking down the Badgers in great detail is sort of a waste of time, because you know the deal already. Wisconsin not only plays at its usually deliberate pace but guards really well within that pace, hence the very low scores. To wit: Its OT win over Iowa Wednesday night was 62-62 … going into the second overtime. It's almost never pretty, but the Badgers are just a brutally tough team to play.
6. Minnesota. Of course, it's not as though the rest of the Big Ten teams are a bunch of speed demons. Take Minnesota, for instance. Throughout the Gophers' recent so-called slide, concern has largely surrounded their offense. And when you're putting up 48 and 44 and 62 and 50 points, that is understandable. But Minnesota is actually a pretty slow team in its own right -- it's averaging 61.5 possessions per game in Big Ten play, good for 10th-fastest in a famously slow league -- and in fact its offense has been the league's third-most efficient to date. All those turnovers are a problem, but the real problem has been defense, where Minnesota is allowing 1.03 points per trip. If the Gophers can get that aspect cleaned up, and maybe stop turning the ball over more than once out of every five trips, they'll be just fine.
7. Illinois. If I told you my opinion of Illinois hadn't totally changed after its win over Indiana, what would you say? That I was being a hater? I hope not. It's actually a compliment.
Stay with me here.
During the Illini's 2-7 start to Big Ten play, tons of fuzzy theories for why this team had struggled made their way around Twitter -- a lack of heart, disintegrating chemistry, John Groce having "lost" his team, you name it. But if you actually just looked at how Illinois played, you saw a team that shot a lot of 3s but made far fewer of them -- less than 25 percent, the worst in the league -- than at any point in nonconference play. They were also allowing about 40 percent from long-range to opponents. At Michigan State, where they led by double digits and lost by only five, Illinois shot 36 percent from beyond the arc. On Thursday night, they shot 37.5 percent -- 9-of-24.
Of course, Illinois still had to execute down the stretch -- though on the final possession Indiana did basically just roll out the red carpet and say here, enjoy your upset win -- and Groce's guys deserve all the credit for that. But basketball's really a pretty simple game. If you shoot a lot of 3s and don't make even a quarter of them, you're going to lose. Illinois has started to warm back up, and as they get back to something like their "real" average from long distance they're bound to keep looking like a much improved team. You can try to impose a narrative on top of that if you want, but the simplest answer -- make shots -- is usually the right one.
8. Iowa. It's getting to the point where I'm starting to feel bad for Iowa. On Wednesday, I wrote a quick little update on the Hawkeyes' fading tournament hopes, explaining why their schedule, despite all its likely wins, wasn't exactly conducive to impressing the selection committee, that it would require the Hawks to win at least one big game on the road. Wisconsin could have been that game, but Iowa fell in double OT at the Kohl Center. Ouch. Throw that in with close losses to Indiana, Michigan State and at Minnesota, and, well, double ouch. Fran McCaffery's team is pretty good -- KenPom.com has them ranked No. 33 in the country -- and they play some of the fastest and most appealing hoops in the league. But these close losses are killers.
9. Northwestern. The Wildcats leapfrog Purdue this week after a 75-60 win over the struggling Boilermakers in Evanston, but the prospectus remains essentially unchanged. The next four games -- at Iowa and Ohio State, home against Illinois (payback?) and Wisconsin -- could be really rough.
10. Purdue: The Boilermakers are not having a lot of fun right now. There was the 97-60 home loss to hated rival Indiana last Wednesday, which would have been bad enough were it not followed up by a totally lackluster effort (and I mean that literally) at Northwestern. It has gotten so bad that my regular Purdue read, Hammer and Rails' BoilerTMill, had to write a long and thoughtful post about why the segments of the fan base clamoring for Matt Painter's firing were complete and utter idiots. I wouldn't have thought this necessary, but apparently it was.
Painter is an excellent coach, one who rebuilt the Boilermakers into a real (if brutally unlucky) national title contender in less than two years. He also so deeply cares about the long-term health of his own alma mater that two summers ago he had everyone in Missouri thinking he was going to decamp for Columbia, Mo. (ha) just so he could use that leverage to get his stingy university to pony up for some locker rooms that don't look like the mountainside Soviet facility from the first level of "GoldenEye." Sheesh. Chill.
11. Nebraska: It remains to be seen whether Nebraska can beat anyone in the Big Ten besides Penn State and Northwestern, which is why hosting Penn State Saturday should be a welcome change of pace from the usual.
12. Penn State: After Tuesday's home loss to Purdue, Penn State is 0-10 in conference play. According to KenPom.com's win probabilities (subscription required), the best chance Penn State has of winning a game the rest of the season is 26 percent. That game is this weekend at Nebraska. It's getting to the point where I'm actively rooting for the Nittany Lions. It's not unprofessional. It's called having a heart.