If you were to look at the Big Ten standings right now, you might think you had transported to some alternate universe. At the top, you see programs like Minnesota and Nebraska, teams virtually everyone expected to finish in the bottom three of the conference. Meanwhile, you see recognizable names like Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio State among the basement dwellers.
So what is going on in the Big Ten?
Minnesota And Nebraska Are Greatly Exceeding Expectations
Last season, these two programs combined for a 24-41 record while going 8-28 in Big Ten play. Minnesota already has more Big Ten wins this season than it had all of last year. The Gophers currently sit at 15-3, are ranked sixth in RPI, and have just cracked the top 25 for the first time since 2013, although two early conference losses to Michigan State might temper expectations slightly. They aren’t lighting the world on fire statistically, but they rebound the ball well at better than 40 per game and are balanced offensively. Minnesota currently has six players averaging better than eight points per game. Leading scorer and assist man Nate Mason sets the tone with his diverse offensive game. Freshman Amir Coffey and sophomore Jordan Murphy have made a big impact as well.
Nebraska looks particularly curious atop the Big Ten standings with their 9-7 overall record. But closer examination will show the Cornhuskers have played one of the most difficult schedules in the country. They have already faced Dayton, UCLA, Virginia Tech, Clemson, Creighton and Kansas. That brutal schedule has done some damage to the record but has also prepared them for conference play. Nebraska sits at 3-1 in the conference, with wins over Indiana and Maryland. Senior guard Tai Webster has been stellar, averaging 17.7 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game. (Unfortunately, the team did just receive some bad news as third-leading scorer Ed Morrow will be out indefinitely with a foot injury.)
There is a lot of basketball yet to be played, but the hot starts of Minnesota and Nebraska in Big Ten games are major storylines in early conference play. It will be interesting to see if they can continue their impressive starts and keep disrupting the Big Ten standings.
Indiana Has Some Major Issues
The Hoosiers entered the season ranked 11th in the nation. An 11-6 start and 1-3 run to begin conference play has sent them tumbling straight out of the top-25 rankings. Indiana has some excellent wins to its credit, including victories over Kansas and North Carolina. Only the shocking loss to Ft. Wayne would be considered a bad defeat. The Hoosiers are scoring 85.1 points per game and are sixth in the country in rebounding. So after an 8-1 start with two top-10 wins, what has gone wrong during this streak that has them lose four of five?
For one, the defensive effort has left something to be desired, which is strange because OG Anunoby is one of the best defenders in the college game. But the real concern is on offense. Despite the solid scoring number, the Hoosiers have a tendency to stagnate on the offensive end. When they get out of their sets, movement grinds to a halt. Three-point shooting was expected to be a strength for Indiana, but that hasn’t been the case. Even more concerning is the 15 turnovers per game. Good teams will punish that type of carelessness.
Indiana has demonstrated an ability to play with the elite teams in the country. But the Hoosiers have dug themselves an early hole and have plenty of corrections to make if they plan on restoring order to the Big Ten and living up to preseason expectations.
Michigan, Illinois And Ohio State Have Struggled
These three programs, typically mainstays in the top half of the Big Ten, are a combined 3-8 in the conference. They were expected to be part of a solid middle-of-the-pack grouping and to vie for fifth and sixth NCAA Tournament bids for the conference. Instead, they remain out of the cellar simply because Rutgers made the decision to join the Big Ten.
For Illinois, Malcolm Hill was expected to carry the load, and he has not disappointed. Unfortunately, a clear second option hasn’t emerged. As good as Hill is, a one-man show isn’t going to get it done for the Illini, especially in what remains a deep conference.
In Ann Arbor, mediocre offense and poor rebounding have done in the Wolverines. Michigan has also been hurt by a lack of depth.
Ohio State has been doomed by poor shooting. The Buckeyes are shooting just 33 percent from three and 67 percent from the free throw line. They also have a poor assist-to-turnover ratio and lack an offensive player gifted enough to overcome those meager numbers. There’s no light at the end of the tunnel for Ohio State, as they enter a brutal five-game stretch that includes games at Wisconsin and Nebraska and home dates with Michigan State, Northwestern and Minnesota.
No One Knows What To Expect From Michigan State
Injuries and a brutal non-conference schedule derailed the Spartans’ season before they could ever get going. Big men Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter have yet to play this season and a return for either player is becoming increasingly unlikely. To make matters worse, standout freshman Miles Bridges, who leads the team in scoring and rebounding, also missed seven games. The injuries and tough games against Arizona, Kentucky, Baylor and Duke (all losses) caused the Spartans to stumble to a 4-4 start.
However, Bridges has returned, and Michigan State has won eight of ten. Last night’s victory over Minnesota has the Spartans with a conference-best 4-1 record. They now have two wins over the Gophers and appear poised to be the Michigan State team that we expected them to be at the beginning of the season.
It is still possible that injuries and youth could prove to be too much to overcome. But the rest of the Big Ten has taken note of the Spartans’ start to the conference schedule, and with Tom Izzo pacing the sidelines, Michigan State should never be counted out.
Maryland Looks To Crash The Party
The Terrapins entered the season on the fringes of the top-25, and that’s where they remain despite a 15-2 start. They have been hindered by a relatively weak schedule, with their best wins being Kansas State, Oklahoma State and a disappointing Indiana team. Games against Purdue, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Northwestern and two against Minnesota give Maryland ample opportunity to get some signature wins.
Below average three-point shooting and a propensity for turnovers are cause for concern. But Melo Trimble has been fantastic and is talented enough to carry the team when he needs to. There are enough pieces around Trimble to allow him to thrive. Much like Minnesota, Maryland doesn’t wow you in any one area, but it’s hard to argue with the results.
The Terps are 3-1 in the Big Ten and just a half game behind Michigan State. A favorable stretch in the next three games gives them a chance to build their record before those aforementioned tests. There are some red flags indicating that perhaps Maryland can’t keep up this pace, but 23-25 wins are not out of the question, and Maryland is in great position to make a run at the top of the league.
Purdue And Wisconsin Have Been The Only Teams Following The Script
Amidst all the Big Ten chaos, these are the only teams that seem to have gotten the preseason memo on how things are supposed to go. Purdue is 14-3 and Wisconsin is 13-3. Both are squarely in the hunt for the conference title.
Caleb Swanigan has been an absolute beast for the Boilermakers. He is averaging 18.4 points and 12.9 rebounds. He has four (yes, four) 20-20 games. Combined with Isaac Haas and Vince Edwards, Purdue has one of the most formidable front lines in the country. If they can get consistent guard play down the stretch, particularly from freshman Carsen Edwards, the Boilermakers could be a major problem.
The Badgers have stumbled in their three biggest tests of the season, but have been perfect otherwise. Wisconsin is loaded with experience and depth. With seniors Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig leading the way, this team is poised to make noise in the Big Ten. Sophomore Ethan Happ has been a contributor as well, nearly averaging a double-double. The fact that Wisconsin is looking to add signature wins makes for a scary prospect for the rest of the conference.
Northwestern Looks For Its First NCAA Tournament Bid
I’d be remiss to discuss the Big Ten and not mention Northwestern and its legitimate chance at the first invite to the Big Dance in program history. The Wildcats currently sit at 13-4 and 2-2 in conference. All four of their losses are respectable. They hold decent wins over Dayton, Wake Forest and Nebraska, as well as a win over Texas, which doesn’t look as good now as it did when it happened. An invite to the tournament is far from a lock at this point, but Northwestern controls its own destiny and will have every opportunity to play its way in.
How Does All This Play Out?
I picked Wisconsin to win the conference in the preseason, and I'm comfortable sticking with that pick. That being said, Purdue has been impressive, and anytime Michigan State is 4-1 in conference play it's difficult to count them out. Minnesota and Nebraska likely come down to earth a bit. Maryland is interesting. I can see the Terps getting to 25 wins, but I could also see them go through a struggle that leaves them on the tournament bubble. Indiana is too good to finish that poorly in conference, and I expect them to make a run. I think there is enough time left that by season's end the standings will look much more familiar. At the same time, the chaos could continue. It's been fun so far.
Josh Naso aka The Silver Fox has a love for all things sports that borders on disorder. Here, he aims to share his thoughts on and passion for those sports with you.