Breaking news, rankings, predictions and analysis all in one place.

Big Ten Power Rankings 2016-2017: Edition 1

Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin
1. Wisconsin Badgers (15-3 overall, 4-1 conference)
Big Ten basketball as a whole appears to be down this season, and there is no clear-cut frontrunner as we continue into conference play. However, Wisconsin looks like the conference's best team at this point, even though they have some flaws. The Badgers are headed by sturdy veterans Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig, who hurt defenses in a variety of ways. Hayes has had a rocky season at times, but the versatile forward presents major mismatches. Forward Ethan Happ brings stability on the defensive side of the ball as well and can form a dangerous 1-2 tandem. Even with quality experience and talent, Wisconsin still appears to be a rather confusing team. They lack any real marquee wins in the non-conference, and lost to Creighton and North Carolina. In Big Ten play, they beat Indiana comfortably but looked flat against Purdue in an 11-point loss. They enter a stretch of games that will really show how good they are. A slate of Minnesota, Penn State and Rutgers over their next three isn't a huge challenge on paper, but any of those can surprise folks. If the Badgers get through that stretch flawlessly, a 7-1 conference mark will be hard to overlook.
2. Purdue Boilermakers (15-4 overall, 4-2 conference)
A popular preseason pick in the Big Ten, Purdue has undergone some growing pains in the early stretches of conference play, but still appears to be a team to beat. Superb sophomore Caleb Swanigan has not disappointed as the big man has become one of the conference's premier players, with 18.2 points per game on 56% shooting. When joined by gigantic Isaac Haas and underrated Vince Edwards down low, Purdue has the best frontcourt in the conference. However, weak guard play doomed them in their tournament loss last season, and it has still been an issue early on this year. The Boilermakers still are very confusing though; they beat Wisconsin handily and beat Iowa by 22 once. Yet, they let up 91 points to Minnesota in a loss, and then were beat by Iowa on the road. While the defense will have to figure some things out, this team still has the talent and depth to contend for the Big Ten title.
3. Maryland Terrapins (16-2 overall, 4-1 conference)
They haven't gotten the attention they deserve, but Maryland has seemingly improved in '16-'17, despite losing a number of key contributors to the NBA this past offseason. The Terps are 16-2 overall and since a two-point loss to Nebraska, have won three straight conference games, with two of them being road victories. Junior guard Melo Trimble has guided the efficient Maryland offense, while the defense has been terrific, allowing just 65.1 points per game. But, there are some major negatives when discussing Maryland being a top-tier Big Ten squad. They aren't a very deep team by any means, and lack a premier go-to post player after Diamond Stone and Robert Carter both departed for the NBA. Also hurting them is the lack of a real signature win; a one-point victory over Kansas State at home is probably the team's best non-conference win. While their hot start puts them in pretty good position right now (technically at the top of the conference) the Terps may have to beat a few more quality opponents before they can really overtake some of the powers of the conference.
4. Michigan State Spartans (12-7 overall, 4-2 conference)
A 12-7 overall record does not usually indicate a good basketball team, but this looks like a typical Michigan State squad. They may struggle in the non-conference through a brutal schedule, but turn it on when conference play really gets going. The Spartans have a superstar in forward Miles Bridges, as the highly touted freshman has looked wonderful this season, although turnovers have been an issue. Also helping out MSU is the play of underrated guard Cassius Winston and burly big man Nick Ward, who has played a ton of minutes with a plethora of injuries in the frontcourt. Two quality victories against Minnesota and one against Northwestern seem to show Michigan State is moving in the right direction following some early-season struggles. However, a five-point loss to struggling Ohio State the other day also proved this team still has plenty of work to do.
5. Northwestern Wildcats (15-4 overall, 4-2 conference)
Could this be the year in Evanston? Northwestern is the only major-conference team to never go to the NCAA Tournament, but that crazy fact could soon be ancient history. Coach Chris Collins has built the Wildcats into a very respectable program, and they appear ready to finish off what has been a very impressive start. The Wildcats cruised in the non-conference, but early losses to Michigan State and Minnesota threatened to derail their season. Since then, the Wildcats have won three straight, including manhandling Iowa by 35 the other night. The key has been a number of weapons stepping up to surround versatile guard Bryant McIntosh, namely Scottie Lindsey, who is leading the team in points. The Wildcats get a tough stretch of games upcoming but if they can keep the momentum going, they very well could take some huge leaps in '17.
6. Minnesota Gophers (15-4 overall, 3-3 conference)
Now pretty deep into conference play, there is no team as confusing in the Big Ten as Minnesota. The Gophers struggled mightily in 2015-2016 but a strong start in the non-conference seemed to indicate the team was ready to turn the corner. That continued in the Big Ten, as the Gophers won three straight (over Purdue, Northwestern and Ohio State) to rise to No. 24 in the polls. Since then, they have responded by two straight losses, to Michigan State and Penn State. The offense has seemingly disappeared, dropping just 47 and 50 in their last two. In order to get back on track, Minnesota needs electric freshman Amir Coffey to reenergize the group, or risk falling into the conference's bottom division.
7. Indiana Hoosiers (12-6, 2-3 conference)
Talking about teams going in the wrong direction, we have to touch on Indiana. The Hoosiers lost to IPFW in the non-conference, but also beat North Carolina and Kansas and seemed to have extreme upside. So far in conference play, they haven't really met that upside, going 2-3 with some bad losses. They have dropped four of six, and have looked very flat against Louisville, Wisconsin and Nebraska. Despite these struggles, it isn't time to completely give up on Tom Crean and the Hoosiers. A resounding victory over winless Rutgers wasn't exactly a cause for celebration but it may be what this team needs to get back on track. With dominant center Thomas Bryant down low and plenty of weapons on the perimeter, this team is still immensely talented and could turn it on as conference play continues.
8. Iowa Hawkeyes (11-8 overall, 3-3 conference)
As I mentioned earlier, Iowa is coming off a very poor showing against Northwestern, in which they lost by 35. While that may show that Iowa has plenty of work to do, this team still appears to be trending upwards as conference play pushes on. The Hawkeyes lost five of six in their non-conference slate, but have beat Iowa State and Purdue over the past few weeks. Much of their inconsistency can be blamed on their extreme youth, as they breaking in a number of new weapons following the graduation of many of their stars. Guard Peter Jok will have to lead the team the rest of the way if they have any chance of playing in the postseason.
9. Michigan Wolverines (12-7 overall, 2-4 conference)
Injuries have really derailed Michigan's dreams the last few seasons, but they have managed to stay pretty healthy in 2016-2017. The issue now is defense, where the Wolverines lack a great post defender and don't move very well side-to-side. Last night, the group did play their best defensive showing of the year against Wisconsin and came up short because the offense disappeared. The rest of the way, Michigan will need their veterans to step up, namely guard Derrick Walton and swingman Zak Irvin. Both have had their moments, but the pair has also been prone to disappearing late in games. The Wolverines have a tough stretch of upcoming games, some they realistically need to win if they want any hopes of an NCAA Tournament.
10. Illinois Fighting Illini (12-7 overall, 2-4 conference)
Prior to the season, there was no coach on a hotter seat in the conference than John Groce at Illinois. After his tenure in Champaign started off promising, things have quickly gone downhill, and the Illini have missed the last three NCAA Tournaments. While this season hasn't been a complete turnaround, Groce once more has Illinois back on the right track, and hovering near an NCAA bid. The play of veteran guard Malcolm Hill has been key. Without a whole lot of offensive weapons around him, Hill has taken over the reigns of the offense, averaging 17.8 points per game and nearly six rebounds as well. With that being said, Illinois still has plenty of work to do. Their offense has struggled mightily in their last two losses, and they are coming off a beatdown at the hands of Purdue. If somebody can step up beyond Hill, the Illini are a sound-enough team to make some noise in the deep conference. If not, Groce could be looking for a new gig come spring.
11. Penn State Nittany Lions (11-7 overall, 3-2 conference)
Despite the fact they are 11th in these power rankings, Penn State should not feel bad at all about the way they have played this season. Patrick Chambers' team continues to make progress, with three Big Ten wins to their name, including ones over both Michigan State and Minnesota. The big thing holding them back is the lack of a go-to scorer and much diversity in their offense. The group is one of the lowest-scoring offenses in the conference and while they fight hard every night, that isn't going to be very successful. Even so, the Nittany Lions are a sneaky team at this point in the season. Their next three games (Indiana, @ Purdue, @ Wisconsin)  are going to be the toughest stretch of games they face all season. If they can come out of there with even one win, this team could be able to rise above a loaded middle-of-the-pack in the Big Ten.
12. Nebraska Cornhuskers (9-8 overall, 3-2 conference)
Despite a poor showing in the non-conference schedule, Nebraska seemed to be turning the corner as they entered Big Ten play. They won their first three conference games, beating both Indiana and Maryland, and looked ready to cause some chaos in the conference. Since then, they have suffered two deflating losses (to Northwestern and Michigan) and seem to have fallen back to Earth somewhat. The offense is still very, very good, headlined by do-it-all guard Tai Webster (leads team in scoring and assists) but the defense has struggled as of late and depth is a major concern. The 'Huskers get their easiest two-game stretch of the conference season against Ohio State and Rutgers. If they don't come away with victories in both of those games, any hopes of a postseason appearance will likely go out the window.
13. Ohio State Buckeyes (11-7 overall, 1-4 conference)
Remember just a few years ago, when Ohio State was one of the Big Ten's most consistent programs, with stars like Jared Sullinger, Evan Turner and D'Angelo Russell passing through their ranks? The Buckeyes have fallen off quickly, but there is still hope they can turn the season around. Ohio State opened up conference play 0-4, but three of those games were against some top-tier teams. A resounding victory in front of the home folks over Michigan State appeared to show the Buckeyes were not going to pushovers. Versatile wings JaQuan Lyle and Jae'Sean Tate are studs, but the Buckeyes are thin in the post and don't shoot the ball very well. That has forced OSU to lean on their transition offense, which has actually been very good. If they can recover from post-scoring, this team has enough talent they could still make some noise in the crowded conference.
14. Rutgers Scarlet Knights (11-8 overall, 0-6 conference)
New head coach Steve Pikiell knew taking Rutgers to the top of the Big Ten was going to be a challenge, and he is learning that first-hand in 2017. An 11-2 non-conference record had some Rutgers faithful hopeful the team was perhaps ready to make some progress, but the Scarlet Knights have opened up conference play with six consecutive losses. The problems that have plagued Rutgers for years continue; they are really bad offensively and don't move the ball very well. Things won't get much easier for Rutgers unless their offense can suddenly gain some bite. A winless Big Ten season could be a real possibility.

No comments:

Theme images by LUGO. Powered by Blogger.