Friday, December 28, 2012
Conference Power Rankings: Big Ten
By Eamonn Brennan
This is the final time I will construct a Big Ten power rankings post out of nothing more than nonconference games; Big Ten play begins Monday.
That is good news for power rankings purposes, sure -- it is easier to rank teams when you have some head-to-head results to look at, obviously. But that's not why I'm excited. I'm excited because, you guys, how good is this league? How much fun is it going to be on a nightly basis? I vote "really good" and "a lot." Let's see where we stand before the voice actor from "Mortal Kombat" yells "FIGHT!"
1. Michigan. The Wolverines have been dormant since before last week's rankings, so there's nothing new to report here. If I had to pick between the two, I'd say Indiana is still the best team in this league and best in the country other than (maybe) Duke. But Michigan is right there offensively, not far behind on defense, and has the talent to beat anyone, anywhere, anytime. Keep an eye out on Mitch McGary. He's been good so far, but he's already flashing signs of great.
2. Indiana. I showed Illinois some love last week, and I couldn't bring myself to punish Ohio State for losing at Duke by five, but now that both have suffered losses I don't feel quite as bad about putting the Hoosiers back near the top of the conference. Here's the thing: The Hoosiers aren't perfect. They aren't going to go undefeated. They have holes on the defensive end, they could turn the ball over less, and Christian Watford's propensity for no-shows is troubling. On the road, in the rigors of this loaded league, IU will lose games -- maybe four or five by the time Big Ten play is through. But this offense is so good -- and the defense so improved -- that you can't bet against this team any night, in any gym. Butler troubles or not, IU is very much for real.
3. Illinois. This is the problem when 43.2 percent of your field goal attempts are 3-pointers: When you miss, you lose. That's what happened Saturday in the Braggin' Rights game in St. Louis, when Illinois suffered its first loss of the season, 82-73 to Missouri. The Tigers were able to win despite Phil Pressey's 3-of-19 (!) night because Illinois shot just 8-of-32 from beyond the arc, well below its season average of 37.1 percent. That's the biggest question about Illinois: Is this laudable hot start sustainable? We'll find out soon enough.
4. Minnesota. The Gophers beat Lafayette at home on Saturday, which wouldn't be enough to make them leapfrog a team under normal circumstances, but (a) I have some concerns with Ohio State, (q.v. below) and (b) I want to give Minnesota some love. It is deserved love! Minnesota is rebounding 48.9 percent of its misses -- if my calculations are correct, that's nearly half -- which is the best rate in the country by about 3 percent. Not too shabby for a team with Duke, Memphis, Stanford, Florida State, USC (a good defensive-rebounding team, despite it all) and South Dakota State on its docket. This is Tubby Smith's best team at Minnesota.
5. Ohio State. It's tough to ride a team too hard for losing to Kansas, even at home, because Kansas is Kansas and Ben McLemore is really good. That said ... Ohio State has a few minor problems. Chiefly, the Buckeyes' defense isn't where it was in recent seasons; it doesn't rebound as well or create turnovers without fouling the same way, even with Aaron Craft doing his thing. The second, it seems, is a lack of identity beyond Craft and Deshaun Thomas; as of yet, none of the Buckeyes' promising young forwards has stepped up and demanded a role the way Thad Matta surely would have hoped. Until that happens, the Buckeyes are going to be good, but well shy of great.
6. Michigan State. Were this nearly any other program, this team's turnover woes would be major cause for concern. But this is Michigan State, where turnover woes are quite frequently -- and quite bafflingly -- often the cost of doing business. Even so, this year's Spartans team is turning it over on 23 percent of their trips down the floor, which is the second-highest mark under Izzo since 2003 (though it could obviously come down before the season ends). MSU defends well, shoots it OK, and rebounds, so even if some of these games are ugly, I'm not worried. Yet.
7. Iowa. Last week I officially reclaimed my set aboard the Iowa Hawkeyes Big Ten sleeper bandwagon, and nothing has changed this week. The Hawkeyes are playing some surprisingly good defense, considering the way they started the season at Virginia Tech (which we now know is just plain good on offense); plus Iowa plays fast, which can skew their defensive numbers. Meanwhile, forward Melsahn Basabe is rebounding the ball like he did as a freshman, when he was one of the Big Ten's most impressive newcomers. Look out for the Hawks.
8. Wisconsin. For all the talk of how much Wisconsin misses former point guard Jordan Taylor and injured point guard Josh Gasser, the fact of the matter is that Wisconsin turns the ball over at the lowest rate of any team in the country. Clearly, ballhandling is not the issue. So what is? The Badgers are shooting fewer 3s and have reoriented their offense into the paint, but probably not enough. The 3s they do shoot are not nearly as likely to go in as in recent seasons past. There may be intangible, leadership-based reasons this team hasn't found its stride yet this year, but it's just as much about making shots, and how.
9. Northwestern. Is there anything worse in college basketball than being a Northwestern fan? Anything?! The past few seasons have been one long series of groin kicks, from near-constant bubble worries to failed home wins to surprisingly good teams and a renewal of hope to suspensions (Jershon Cobb) to sudden season-ending injuries (Drew Crawford). So of course the Wildcats lost by two at home to a good Stanford team last Friday. Of course they did.
10. Purdue. At 5-6, Purdue has the worst record in the Big Ten to date. It is a long season, sure, but the chances this young, rebuilding, inconsistent group gets to the NCAA tournament are slim; it's hard to go 5-6 in November and December and get a tourney bid. And with that said, if you think any coach in the league is looking forward to traveling to West Lafayette to face those Purdue fans and their raucous Mackey Arena echoes, not to mention that grindingly good defense, you, my friend, are wrong.
11. Nebraska. Nebraska does exactly one thing well: It prevents offensive rebounds. Other than that, it is taking its lumps any time it plays a good team (and sometimes when it plays not-so-good teams), which was to be expected in Tim Miles' first season. The latest was a 68-52 defeat at UTEP. So, you know: lumps.
12. Penn State. Are wins over Army, Delaware State (in overtime) and New Hampshire exciting? No. Are they wins? They are! With the prospect of playing against the above league for the next two months, you take a three-game winning streak any way you can.