By Blake Dowson and Adam Hensley
The Big Ten has always had a couple front-runners, a couple teams that could legitimately cut down the nets at the end of the season. That’s not the case in 2017, but the conference is wide open at the top. There will be quite a battle for single and double-byes in the conference tournament.
The Badgers may not be “show time,” but they get the job done.
Winning 12 of its last 13 games, Wisconsin is arguably one of the hottest teams in the country, thanks to its suffocating defense (holding opponents to a conference-best 60.2 points per game). The Badgers are also the only Big Ten team undefeated at home this season.
The Terrapins seem to lose a lot of talent each year, but as long as Melo Trimble is on campus, they will compete at a high level. The team is playing excellent defense this year, only allowing 65 points per game.
Purdue has arguably the conference’s most improved player in Caleb Swanigan. He’s scoring 8 points more per game (18), almost doubled his 3-point shooting percentage (29 percent to 47), and now averages just more than 12 rebounds a game. Swanigan’s hot hand has fueled the Boilermakers in countless victories, and that should continue.
The Hoosiers don’t have trouble scoring the ball — they lead the conference at almost 85 points per contest. It helps to have James Blackmon Jr. healthy, finally; he averages 17 points per game. Losing OG Anunoby is a big loss.
The dark horse of the conference. Never really known as a top basketball school, Northwestern is quietly making a run at one of the best seasons in the program’s recent history. Chris Collins is an excellent coach — last season, he powered the Wildcats to a school-record 20 regular-season wins. Expect more than that this season.
6. Michigan State
Typically, any team would be happy to sit in the top half of the Big Ten power rankings. Sixth seems like a disappointment for the Spartans, however. A 12-8 record is a long way from the No. 12 preseason ranking.
The Gophers have played about as close of a schedule as you can this season — all but one of their loses was fewer than 8 points.
Minnesota has struggled in Big Ten play, however, losing twice to under-performing Michigan State. What the Gophers have going for them is excellent shot defense — they rank third in the country in blocks.
A couple of senior guards, Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin, hold the Wolverines together. If it weren’t for those two, Michigan wouldn’t have double digit wins at this point.
Inconsistency plagues the team. Nebraska toppled two Big Ten powers (Indiana and Maryland) in its first two games of conference play, then outscored Iowa in a double-overtime thriller. The Cornhuskers then lost back-to-back games, dropping them in the standings.
This publication reports on the Hawkeyes every day and still can’t figure them out. We’ll chalk it up to inexperience, as four freshmen start for Fran McCaffery. No two-game stretch encapsulates the Hawkeyes’ season much better than their 83-78 win over No. 17 Purdue and their 89-54 debacle against Northwestern three days later.
11. Penn State
Penn State has picked things up recently, beating Michigan State and Minnesota. The team doesn’t have any big names; a balanced scoring effort works in its favor. Five players average 10 or more points a game.
It’s the Malcolm Hill show in Champaign — he scores 18 points per game. Nobody else on the roster jumps off the page.
13. Ohio State
Talk about a let-down. Ohio State flashed major promise earlier this season, hanging with Virginia and UCLA, then proceeded to lose its first four Big Ten games. The Buckeyes won’t finish last in the conference, but it won’t be smooth sailing, either.
The Scarlet Knights continue to sleepwalk through the Big Ten. They were 3-33 in their first two years in the league and have only won one conference game this season.