Friday, February 1, 2013
Conference Power Rankings: Big Ten
By Eamonn Brennan
Another week, another bunch of really great games in the Big Ten, another batch of minimally moved Big Ten Power Rankings. No preamble; let's jump in.
1. Michigan. 2. Indiana.
I've written thousands of words about both of these teams already this season, in this space and plenty of others. At this point, on the eve of the biggest game of the season, it seems a little silly to rehash everything you already know about the Wolverines' hyper-efficient Trey Burke-led offense and Indiana's multifaceted, balanced attack. Michigan has been No. 1 here for a while; Indiana may be the better team. We'll find out Saturday night. This is the analytical calm before the storm.
Man, I can't wait.
3. Michigan State. Things looked a little hairy for the Spartans in the first half against Illinois on Thursday night; Illinois finally regained some semblance of its perimeter attack, and Michigan State had to win the game not through defense or rebounding but good old-fashioned playmaking on the offensive end. (My particular favorite was Keith Appling's late-second-half alley-oop to Branden Dawson, which really couldn't have been any prettier.) The Spartans finished with 80 points on 65 possessions. Appling is doing his thing, the bigs are playing well and freshman guard Gary Harris is starting to find his stroke. After pushing Indiana to the brink in Bloomington on Sunday, don't count Michigan State out of the conference title chase, no matter what happens between the Hoosiers and Wolverines on Saturday night.
4. Ohio State. The Buckeyes move up to No. 4 after a grinding home win over the Badgers on Tuesday night, and credit where it's due: This team defends. The Buckeyes have allowed just .90 points per trip in conference play, best in the Big Ten, and as long as the Buckeyes defend like that, they can get by with that ever-disconcerting lack of a second offensive option able to take some of the scoring load off Deshaun Thomas. That's been the great quandary of the Buckeyes' season, the one factor limiting their ability to play with the elite, but maybe they're good enough on the other end that it doesn't really matter.
5. Wisconsin. It was no surprise to see the Badgers wage another defensive skirmish at Ohio State; the only team better on the defensive end this season than Wisconsin is the Buckeyes. And that's not a trick of Wisconsin's slow pace. This season, the Badgers are both slow-paced and great defensively. (In contrast to recent seasons, when they were slow and offensively efficient, only most people didn't realize it because Wisconsin plays 61 possessions a game.) That's how you get a 45-44 result over Minnesota and three straight games now in which the Badgers have scored fewer than 50 points.
6. Minnesota. I put Minnesota at No. 6 after it lost at Northwestern, and I see no reason to downgrade the Golden Gophers for losing that aforementioned 45-44 crawler in Madison on Saturday. There's been a decent amount of talk about what's "wrong" with the Gophers, and how they can fix it; there's been just as much bandwagon-hopping. But Minnesota's flaws aren't really new. The Gophers have turned the ball over on 21.6 percent of their conference possessions thus far, more than any other team in the Big Ten. But those turnovers (and the easy transition points they allow) have been magnified by some hot 3-point shooting from Minnesota's opponents, too. That Northwestern loss was ugly, sure, but other than that I'm not too concerned.
7. Iowa. This spot is right where the Hawkeyes belong. They do not belong among that top-half group, but they are not so bad as to warrant submergence below Northwestern or Purdue or even Illinois. What they are is a bubble team, as bubbly as they get, and their path to the NCAA tournament looks arduous at best. On Sunday, Fran McCaffery's team travels to Minnesota. Next up is an away game at Wisconsin. The remaining résumé-type games essentially boil down to a Feb. 17 return date against Minnesota and a March 2 road game at Indiana. The two games against the Gophers look like the best possible opportunities. A home win over Illinois March 5 couldn't hurt. You do not want your NCAA tournament bid to rest on whether you could beat Indiana in its own building. Analysis, kids. That's why they pay me the medium bucks.
8. Illinois. How did the Illini lose two games and move up two spots? Because Northwestern lost by 15 at Nebraska and Purdue got beat 97-60 on its own floor by blood rival Indiana? Those are among the reasons, but they're not the whole story. Indeed, the Illini aren't the 10th-best team in this league. They are probably the eighth-best team in this league, which is not exactly reaching for the stars, but it's worth acknowledging all the same. Illinois finally found its outside shooting in a really impressive first half at Michigan State, and although the Spartans pulled it out in the end, that was as good a performance as John Groce's team has had since December. Illinois' opponents will stop making so many 3s, and Illinois -- which was averaging a league-low 23 percent before Thursday night -- will start making a few more, and Brandon Paul & Co. won't seem like such a story of collapse when all is said and done.
9. Purdue. Speaking of random rankings bumps: How does a team get embarrassed on its own floor in front of its own deflated fans by 37 points ... and move up in the rankings? Because Purdue's not that bad! Indiana was just magnificent Wednesday night, as good as it could be, but that is not the Boilermakers team you will see most often, at least in its own building. There is a lot of rebuilding to do, but forward A.J. Hammons seems to improve on a nightly basis at this point. Don't be surprised if Matt Painter's team knocks a big boy or two off at home before the season is out.
(Having written this complimentary paragraph despite a 97-60 loss at home, I trust this will stop Purdue fans from tweeting and angrily commenting that their beloved Boilermakers are being overlooked, that they're the seventh-best team in the Big Ten, and yada yada. Actually ... nahhh. Probably not.)
10. Northwestern. Considering everything Northwestern has had to deal with this season, particularly the loss of senior guard Drew Crawford, it was impressive to see the Wildcats beat Illinois on the road, hold Indiana to a single-digit victory in Evanston and upset Minnesota all in a matter of six days last week. And then, something like reality set in. Northwestern scored 49 points in 64 possessions at Nebraska on Saturday and followed it up with a basically hopeless road trip to Michigan on Wednesday night. With Crawford's injury and all this youth, the Wildcats are not as bad as they probably have the right to be. But they're not even their usual mediocre selves this season, either.
11. Nebraska. Nice win over Northwestern this week, and while "nice win" and "over Northwestern" are not phrases you'll hear in conjunction often this season, when you're rebuilding at a traditional basketball doormat in a loaded conference, you take what you can get. Also, Tim Miles didn't write any scathing halftime tweets this week; that makes two steps in the right direction.
12. Penn State. Oh, and if you didn't think a win over Northwestern is worth mentioning, just ask Penn State. The Nittany Lions are still fighting for their first conference win of the season and, after a merciful weekend off, they have a couple of chances next week. The first is Tuesday at home against Purdue; the second is Saturday at Nebraska. If the Nittany Lions, who shoot the 11th-worst 3-point field goal percentage (27.8) in all of college basketball, can just knock down a few shots, they can break this 0-9 start.
The alternative is that Penn State keeps losing, and I start doing a sarcastic "Winless Watch" or something and we all start ironically cheering for the Nittany Lions, and I really don't think any of us want it to come to that.