The Big Ten Conference basketball season has opened with a bang, with five teams ranked among the Top 25 in the country and three teams in the Top 10.
The Big Ten basketball title chase should be a wild, uncertain ride as there are several teams capable of winning it all—and for that matter those teams have legitimate shots of being final four teams in March.
Selecting the top team in the conference on a weekly basis is likely a fool’s errand, given the tight competition, but what fun would life be without the occasional challenge?
Accordingly, this is how I would rank the teams in the Big Ten going into the Thanksgiving weekend.
11. Iowa: The Hawkeyes are the only team in the Big Ten with a losing record, currently at 2-3. Iowa is one of the smaller teams in the Big Ten with no player on their roster taller than 6’9". Iowa will have difficulty throughout the season in defending the post and winning the rebounding battle night in and night.
In addition, Iowa is a very young team. First year head coach Fran McCaffery appears to understand that turning around the program will not occur overnight, after Iowa lost its last game in the Paradise Jam tournament. “What I’m looking at is I want to get better,” said McCaffery. “We learned a lot. We had a lot of freshmen playing like freshmen today.”
Next up: 11/26 SIU Edwardsville, 11/30 @ Wake Forest
10. Michigan: Perennial All-Big Ten players Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims are gone. However, no one is in panic mode as the Wolverines have started well, going 3-0 to begin the season. The Wolverines are a young squad; their top five scorers are all underclassmen. The Wolverines will get their first real test of the season this week, and we will see if the underclassmen are really ready for the rigors of Big Ten play.
Next up: 11/26 No. 10 Syracuse, 11/30 @ Clemson
9. Northwestern: The Wildcats have raced out to a 3-0 start in an effort to secure the school’s first NCAA tournament bid in history. The recent revelation this week: senior Kevin Coble’s “retirement” from basketball was brought about by pressure from Coach Bill Carmody to play in Italy this summer, which was ahead of the timetable set by Coble’s surgeon. This likely has put more pressure on Coach Carmody to have a good season and do well with his recruits.
Next up: 11/28 Creighton, 11/30 Georgia Tech
8. Indiana: The Hoosiers could be the surprise team in the Big Ten as Indiana is now 5-0. Maurice Creek has returned from his knee cap injury from last season and appears to be completely healed and ready for the year. The trio of Creek, Christian Watford, Verdell Jones III, coupled with the leadership of Jeremiah Rivers will make Indiana a tough team to beat this season. “I think this is the year we’re going to take a big step forward,” Creek said. “We’re coming together as a family more, our chemistry is better. We just feel better as a group, and I really think that’s a big part of how successful you ultimately will be.”
Next up: 11/26 Northwestern State, 12/1 @ Boston College
7. Penn State: Is it a mirage, or has there been a fundamental change in the approach of the Nittany Lions? Last year, Talor Battle averaged 18 points a game, and no other Nittany Lion averaged 10 points a game. This year, Battle is still running the show, averaging 16 points, but he is not the leading scorer on the squad—that honor belongs to Jeff Brooks who is averaging 17 points. Balanced scoring for Penn State may translate to more victories for Penn State this season and a trip to the NCAA tournament.
Next up: 11/26 @Mississippi, 11/28 Furman, 12/1 Maryland
6. Wisconsin: The Badgers have one of the best dynamic duos in the Big Ten, with 6’10" forward Jon Leuer and 6’1" guard Jordan Taylor. Leuer and Taylor are a nice complement to each other, and make very few mistakes because of their experience and knowledge of the game. The Badgers won their first two games of the season by more than 30 points before dropping their last game to UNLV, 68-65.
Next up: 11/25 Manhattan, 12/1 North Carolina State
5. Illinois: The Illini have been busy before Thanksgiving, already posting a 5-1 record. The Illini dropped a close game to No. 22 Texas, 90-84 in overtime, and it appears to Coach Bruce Weber that the difference between winning and losing is the little things. The “little thing” for Coach Weber was ensuring that his team properly boxed out on free throw attempts. “They just went at us hard in New York, and we didn’t do a very good job,” Weber said. Of course, sometimes you overcorrect like the Illini did against Yale in their 73-47 win. Weber noted, “Now I get our kids trying to pinch down and go in hard and we get two violations.” Look on the bright side coach: They are listening to you.
Next up: 11/27 @ Western Michigan, 11/30 North Carolina
4. Minnesota: Coach Tubby Smith indefinitely suspended starting guard Devoe Joseph to begin the season, and the Gopher faithful worry if the team will stumble during the beginning of the season without him. The Gophers have exceeded expectations and have stormed out to a 6-0 record on their way to winning the Puerto Rico Tip-Off Tournament, with victories over then No. 8 North Carolina and West Virginia. Joseph may have a hard time finding minutes upon his return to the team.
Next up: 11/29 Virginia
3. Purdue: Coach Matt Painter has the Boilermakers playing at a high level early in the season, despite the loss of Big Ten Player of the Year Candidate Robbie Hummel prior to the start of the season. Against their first four opponents, Purdue is 4-0 and is averaging more than 85 points a game. Of course, having perennial All-Big Ten players, JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore returning to lead the team does help.
Next up: 11/26 Southern Illinois, 12/1 @ Virginia Tech
2. Michigan State: The Spartans were upset this week by unranked UConn, 70-67, in the EA Maui Sports Invitational. However, they finished the tournament on a high note with a 76-71 victory over No. 11 Washington. The loss to UConn shouldn’t tarnish Michigan State’s resume, as UConn subsequently blew out Kentucky in the championship game and will soon be ranked among the top teams in the country.
Next up: 11/28 Tennessee Tech, 12/1 @Duke
1. Ohio State: Rarely does a team lose the College Basketball Player of the Year and become a better team the next year. The general rule is that the program takes a step back before going forward again. The Buckeyes, however, just might be the exception to the rule because after losing Evan Turner last year as the No. 2 overall player in the NBA draft, the Buckeyes find themselves ranked as the No. 3 team in the country after spanking then ranked No. 10 Florida 93-75.
Next up: 11/26 Miami of Ohio, 11/30 Florida State