Big Ten Basketball Power Rankings

By Jacob Lipnik on January 5, 2014

With Big Ten Basketball Conference getting underway, it’s time to look at where each team stands. In the coming weeks and months, these rankings could—and most likely will—swing dramatically. But for now, factoring in non-conference performance and expectations for how each team will grow as the season progresses, here are my power rankings of the Big Ten’s best basketball teams.

1. Wisconsin (13-0):

This ranking may come as a shock to a casual fan; Wisconsin is always good, but never great. Until now. Wisconsin is undefeated, ranked number four by the associated press, and had arguably the most impressive non-conference season of any team in the country, keyed by a big win over, then number 11, Florida. All of that leaves them first in ESPN’s BPI (Basketball Power Index). Wisconsin—a team often considered defensive-minded, yet offensively-challenged—has won every way imaginable this season, scoring as few as 48 points or as many as 103. Despite losing a few key seniors, they haven’t missed a beat, as Sam Dekker (14.3 points per game), Frank Kaminsky (14 points per game), and Traevon Jackson (4.6 assists per game) have all stepped up their play. With possibly the easiest schedule in the Big Ten (no games at Michigan State or Ohio State), Wisconsin probably won’t be slowing down any time soon. Expect to see them at or near the top of these rankings all season.

Sam Dekker is a big reason Wisconsin is off to its best start in program history

 2. Ohio State (13-0):

Ohio State is less number two in these rankings than 1b. They have looked like the best team in the Big Ten often in the season’s early goings, winning every game they’ve played except one by double digits. Led by point guard Aaron Craft, they play the best defense of arguably any team in the country—they’ve given up more than 64 points just once this year. And despite the loss of last season’s top scorer Deshaun Thomas to the NBA, prompting offseason question marks on offense, they have looked capable so far on that side of the ball. So why are the Buckeyes 1b, not 1a? Strength of schedule.

Ohio State has looked great, but against whom? Their best win was at then number 17 Marquette, but that team is now unranked, a mere 7-5; their second best win was impressive, coming back eight points in the final minutes to beat Notre Dame, but should they have been down eight points to an 8-4 team that lost to North Dakota State two games earlier? Ohio State deserves to be in the discussion for the top spot in the Big Ten power rankings, but until they play better competition, how good they really are will remain unclear.

3. Michigan State (11-1):

A few weeks ago, Michigan State would’ve been at the top of this list. Starting the season as the number two ranked team in the whole country, they were—and still are—a popular pick to win the Big Ten. Except for Derrick Nix, they brought back their whole starting line up from an already great team last season. And early on they lived up to their high billing, beating then number one Kentucky to become the top team in the country. Their loss at home against a good, but not great, North Carolina squad set them back, but this team isn’t going anywhere in the race for the Big Ten—or national—championship. Keith Appling and Branden Dawson are looking like the type of glue guys that can help a team be great. Gary Harris has struggled to match early expectations as preseason Big Ten player of the year, but that can be attributed to nagging injuries; he’s still averaging 18 points per game, and when healthy, he’s one of the best players in the country. Finally, Adreian Payne has looked every bit the potential lottery pick he is, averaging 18 points and 8 rebounds per game. On the road at Texas, he looked absolutely dominant. With Payne playing his best and injuries at a minimum, it’ll be tough for anyone to beat this team.

4. Iowa (11-2):

The Hawkeyes are proving everyone who thought they were underrated at season’s start right so far. That Iowa is only fourth on this list is not a knock on Iowa, but a testament to how good the Big Ten is at the top; in almost any other conference they would be in the top three or higher. Their wins over Xavier and Notre Dame are solid, but what’s even more impressive are their two losses: in overtime to a very good Villanova team and a close loss at undefeated rival number 14 Iowa State in a game they led until the very end. Iowa not only passes the eye test but also looks equally good on paper: they’re top five in the country in points, rebounds, and assists per game. Led by senior Devyn Marble and junior Aaron White, this team is deep and experienced. Those two things will help them be a contender in the Big Ten all season long.

5. Michigan (8-4):

Michigan received extremely disappointing news this past week. Electing to undergo back surgery, preseason All-American center Mitch McGary will be out indefinitely, unlikely to return this season. That’s a huge blow to the Wolverines’ hopes to compete for the Big Ten or a return trip to the Final Four; while Jon Horford and Jordan Morgan are capable big men, with McGary out, Michigan’s hopes will shift to simply making the tournament and staying competitive against the Big Ten’s best. So why is Michigan still ranked this high? Despite losing Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr. to the NBA, and now McGary to injury, the Wolverines are still one of the most talented teams in the conference. Glenn Robinson III has looked like the lottery pick many expect him to be the past few games, Nik Stauskas and Caris LeVert have improved on their strength and playmaking ability to become go-to scorers, and while their youth was evident in the non-conference, Derrick Walton, Jr. and Zak Irvin are both highly touted freshman that should continue to improve and contribute more over the course of the season. All of these guys are going to need to raise their level of play to keep Michigan on track to make the tournament and have a chance at the Big Ten championship. It will be tough for the Wolverines moving forward without their star player, but their talent is undeniable, and if things somehow start to click without McGary—as they did at times against Stanford and Holy Cross—this team will be able to compete with the Big Ten’s best.

Losing Mitch McGary will be a big blow to Michigan this season

6. Illinois (10-2):

Illinois has been a nice surprise so far this season for the Big Ten, adding some depth to a top-heavy conference. Very few players returned from a mediocre Illinois team last year, but everyone has stepped up their play, especially transfer Rayvonte Rice, who is averaging over 17 points per game. Both of Illinois’ losses this season have come on the road, by three to Georgia Tech in their first true road contest and by just seven to an undefeated Oregon. They can also include a solid win over then 23rd ranked Missouri on their résumé. It’s unlikely Illinois can contend with the teams atop this list, but if Rice keeps up his hot hand, Illinois could be in the hunt for an NCAA tournament berth.

7. Minnesota (11-2):

Under new head coach Richard Pitino, Minnesota has been impressive—yet a bit confusing—so far this season. A 14-point less to a decent Arkansas club is nothing to smile about, but a win over Florida State and a close, hard-fought game against number-two Syracuse certainly are. So is being 34th in the country—right behind Michigan and Illinois—in BPI. The return of Austin and Andre Hollins (no relation) is a big part of that, as they lead the team in scoring. Teams should beware of Minnesota this season; they probably won’t ascend too far up these rankings, but they can certainly cause some trouble for the teams at the top.

8. Indiana (10-3):

Unfortunately for Indiana fans, the Hoosiers will almost certainly not regain the top spot in the conference that it held most of last season. With four starters gone, only Yogi Ferrell is back from the starting line up that won the Big Ten in 2013. Ferrell has improved significantly in his role as the go-to guy this season, hitting 43 percent of his three point attempts and averaging over 17 points and four assists per game, and true freshman Noah Vonleh has also impressed early on, averaging close to a double-double on the season and helping Indiana to be fourth in the country in rebounds per game. But Vonleh is still inexperienced and often struggles on the offensive side of the ball, and Ferrell won’t be able to get wins by himself. Indiana lacks depth and—more importantly—experience. The latter of those two should improve naturally over the season, and it will need to for Indiana to have a shot at the NCAA tournament.

9. Purdue (10-3):

The bad news for Purdue? Their two best wins came against a 4-8 Boston College team and on the road against a 7-5 West Virginia team. The good news? They were a few minutes away from pulling an upset over then number five Oklahoma State. Brothers Ronnie and Terone Johnson lead the team in scoring, and they’ll need to bring their best every night to keep Purdue in games. More importantly to Purdue’s success, though, is center A.J. Hammons. At times last year, he looked like a future All-Big Ten center, but so far this season he’s averaging only eight points and nearly seven rebounds per game. If Purdue continues looking like the team that lost by 15 to Washington State, they’re going to get trampled in Big Ten play. If they can somehow channel the team that almost beat Oklahoma State, they have a chance to make some noise.

10. Penn State (9-4):

Penn State’s record is deceiving: 9-4 looks okay on paper, but when two of those losses came against Princeton and Bucknell, 9-4 is a lot worse. There are two reasons the Nittany Lions aren’t even lower on this list: their backcourt and John Johnson. D.J. Newbill and Tim Frazier make up one of the best backcourts in the conference, averaging about 36 points and ten assists per game combined. John Johnson, a Pittsburgh transfer who has only played in one game this season, scored 20 points in just 22 minutes in that game. Penn State won’t come close to winning the Big Ten—it probably won’t even come close to making the NCAA tournament—but if Johnson put up big numbers all season, in tandem with the talent of Newbill and Frazier, this team could cause some issues for the conferences top teams, especially those without great guard play.

11. Nebraska (8-4):

Nebraska has never been known as a basketball school, and this season won’t change that. While the Cornhuskers didn’t have any embarrassing losses in the non-conference—UAB, UMass, Creighton, and Cincinnati are all respectable—they can’t boast any awe-inspiring wins either. This team should be able to steal some wins from the other bottom dwellers of the conference, and maybe even keep it close against a few contenders, but it’s unlikely they make much noise in the long run. And in the short run, they start the season at Iowa, at Ohio Sate, versus Michigan, at Purdue, and versus Ohio State; after that slate, Nebraska will likely be hanging out in this spot—or even lower—for a while.

12. Northwestern (7-6):

Finally, we arrive at Northwestern, boasting the worst non-conference record of any Big Ten team and the only team in the conference to fall outside of the top 100 in the nation in BPI. There isn’t much to say about this team, as they’ll probably be stuck in this twelfth spot for most, if not all, of the season. The bright side for Wildcat fans is that Chris Collins, a disciple of Coach K, should help lead this team in the right direction for the future. For now, all they can hope for is one or two big upsets.

Jake has been an avid Wolverine his entire life, and is now a sophomore English major at the University of Michigan. He is passionate about all things Michigan sports, especially football Saturdays in the fall and watching the basketball team in Crisler Arena in the winter. He hopes to follow his undergraduate education by attending law school and then pursuing a career in law.

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