2015-16 Big Ten NCAA Basketball Primer, Power Rankings Heading into League Play

Brian Pedersen@realBJPFeatured ColumnistDecember 28, 2015

2015-16 Big Ten NCAA Basketball Primer, Power Rankings Heading into League Play

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    The Big Ten Conference has one of the nation's five remaining unbeaten teams, has three schools ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 and has six clubs with at least 10 victories. But all of that gets thrown out the door now, as nonconference play has come to an end and league play begins this week.

    All 14 teams will be in action on Tuesday or Wednesday, the start of an 18-game conference schedule between now and early March, followed by the Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis.

    Follow along as we recap what's happened with the Big Ten to this point as well as preview what's on tap in conference play.

Power Rankings

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    1. Michigan State (13-0)—The top-ranked Spartans are off to their best start in school history, with key wins over Kansas, Louisville and Providence already secured. Senior guard Denzel Valentine has had a monster season, though he underwent minor knee surgery on Dec. 21 and will miss at least the first two Big Ten games.

    2. Maryland (11-1)—Sophomore guard Melo Trimble and Duke transfer Rasheed Sulaimon have formed a dynamic backcourt duo for the Terrapins, whose only loss came by eight at North Carolina in early December. The third-best shooting team in the country has five players averaging double figures in scoring.

    3. Purdue (12-1)—The Boilermakers won their first 11 games before falling to Butler in the Crossroads Classic, their only matchup with a ranked opponent so far. With a three-headed frontcourt that features two 7-footers and physical freshman Caleb Swanigan, Purdue leads the nation in field-goal defense at 33.9 percent.

    4. Northwestern (12-1)—The Wildcats are off to their best start in school history, their only loss coming to North Carolina during the CBE Classic. But a foot injury to 7'0" senior center Alex Olah will keep him out several weeks, which could impact Northwestern's push for its first-ever NCAA tournament bid.

    5. Indiana (10-3)—The Hoosiers can shoot and score with the best of them, but they've yet to translate that into a notable victory. Losses to Wake Forest and UNLV at the Maui Invitational and a 20-point blowout at Duke haven't done anything to ease the heat on coach Tom Crean's seat.

    6. Michigan (10-3)—The return of a healthy Caris LeVert has meant a lot to the Wolverines, as the senior guard leads the team in scoring, rebounding and assists. But to compete in the Big Ten, Michigan needs someone else to step forward and complement LeVert's performance.

    7. Iowa (9-3)—The Hawkeyes' game at rival Iowa State in early December typified this team's potential and shortcomings. They led by 20 points in the second half and got 32 points from Jarrod Uthoff, but only two of those were after halftime as they lost 83-82.

    8. Ohio State (8-5)—The Buckeyes have endured a four-game losing streak that included two home losses to unranked opponents, but they take a four-game win streak into league play. That run was highlighted by a win over Kentucky in the CBS Sports Classic.

    9. Wisconsin (8-5)—The Badgers made the NCAA title game last April, but the loss of three starters and five of their top seven players has been noticeable. The rough start was accentuated when head coach Bo Ryan retired immediately after a Dec. 15 win over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, leaving the program to longtime assistant Greg Gard.

    10. Penn State (9-4)—The graduation of high-scoring guard D.J. Newbill has led to a more balanced attack for the Nittany Lions, but they're still one of the more plodding teams in the nation. Penn State hasn't finished better than 10th in any of coach Pat Chambers' four seasons.

    11. Illinois (8-5)—Injuries have ravaged the Fighting Illini, with only five players able to compete in all 13 games during the preseason. This contributed to a 3-5 start, but Illinois has won five in a row and junior guard Malcolm Hill is leading the Big Ten in scoring at 18.7 points per game.

    12. Nebraska (8-5)—The Cornhuskers' losses include three to ranked teams and another against rival Creighton, but they haven't countered that with any strong wins. Kansas transfer Andrew White has been Nebraska's only bright spot, averaging 17.1 points per game.

    13. Minnesota (6-6)—The Golden Gophers head into Big Ten play having lost four of five, three of which were at home to mid-major schools. Coach Richard Pitino reached the NIT finals in his first season in 2013-14, but it's been all downhill since.

    14. Rutgers (5-7)—Even if the Scarlet Knights win Monday at home against Massachusetts-Lowell, they'll still finish nonconference play with a losing record for the second time in three seasons. At 261st in KenPom.com's rankings, Rutgers is the lowest-rated power-conference team in the country.

Biggest Lessons Learned from Nonconference Play

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    Indiana still can't defend

    Though the 70 points per game and 43.4 percent field-goal defense isn't too bad from an overall standpoint, Indiana's defensive numbers have been helped by several weak opponents. But in the bigger games—losses to Wake Forest, UNLV and Duke and a victory over Notre Dame—the Hoosiers allowed 80.3 points per game on 49.4 percent shooting.

    Because the Hoosiers can shoot the lights out and have plenty of capable scorers, they'll be able to win most games that get into shootouts. But if their shots don't fall, they have a chance of getting run out of the building on cold nights.

    Michigan State is more than just Denzel Valentine

    Valentine's arthroscopically repaired knee should have him back in a week or two, though we won't know if that surgery will impact his overall game until he plays again. We do know, however, that MSU can win without its senior leader, having rallied to beat Oakland on the road in overtime just before Christmas.

    Without Valentine there to provide his scoring, rebounding and assists, the Spartans had to turn to his supporting players to fill the void. Senior Bryn Forbes and junior Eron Harris, the West Virginia transfer who had been having a quiet season, combined for 59 of the Spartans' 99 points.

    "With our best player, we are amazing. Without our best player, we’re still great," Harris told Mike Wilson of 247Sports. "That says a lot about the other players on our team."

    Purdue's front line is formidable

    Much was made last season of the amount of size Kentucky had in its frontcourt, a rotation of big men that rivaled many NBA teams. That could be how Purdue's forwards and centers are described this year, and it's been the secret to its success so far.

    Senior A.J. Hammons, sophomore Isaac Haas and freshman Caleb Swanigan have combined for 36.8 points, 22.8 rebounds and 4.6 blocks per game, helping the Boilermakers rank No. 1 in the nation in field-goal defense (33.9 percent).

Top Storylines to Watch

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    Defending the home court

    Six Big Ten teams head into league play without a loss at home this season, but that number is apt to drop quickly. Over the last few years, the league has earned a reputation for having numerous road teams manage to pull out victories, with only Maryland and Wisconsin managing to escape unscathed at home in 2014-15.

    Michigan State, which went on to reach the Final Four last season, dropped three Big Ten home games along the way.

    Will Ohio State and Wisconsin be able to rally?

    Now-retired Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan had the distinction of never finishing worse than fourth place in the Big Ten in his 14 full seasons, something CBS Sports' Matt Norlander said was "the stat that will stick to Ryan's legacy more than any other." But with five losses during the preseason, it's going to be difficult for interim coach Greg Gard to be able to keep that streak alive, along with the Badgers' run of 17 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances.

    It's also an uphill battle for Ohio State, which sits 51st in the KenPom.com rankings after an up-and-down preseason. The Buckeyes have made the NCAA tourney seven straight times.

    Can Northwestern finally make the Big Dance?

    There are only five schools that have been playing basketball since 1948, when Division I was formed, who have never appeared in the NCAA tournament. Northwestern is part of that fateful five, and each season the Wildcats go in wondering if this will be the year, only to have reality set in somewhere during the course of the Big Ten slate.

    Northwestern's 2003-04 team was the last one to finish with a .500 record in league play, but a school-record 12-1 start has brought about great hope once again.

    A lot will depend on how the Wildcats respond to the sudden loss of senior center Alex Olah, who has been ruled out indefinitely with a foot injury. He was averaging 12.8 points and a team-high 6.5 rebounds.

Rivalry Games and Can't-Miss Matchups

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    Maryland at Michigan State, Jan. 23

    Maryland finished second in the Big Ten last season, its first since moving over from the ACC, and along the way it swept Michigan State. This is the only scheduled meeting in 2015-16 between the Terrapins and Spartans, and if each can make it to this one without a loss, it could end up being a battle of No. 1 vs. No. 2 in the country.

    Michigan at Ohio State, Feb. 16

    Even though neither team is expected to contend for the conference title, the matchups between these bitter rivals always take on the appearance of a heavyweight title bout. Each team protected its home court in a pair of meetings last season, giving Ohio State a 99-77 edge in the all-time series.

    Purdue at Indiana, Feb. 20

    The in-state rivals are polar opposites of each other in terms of roster makeup and style of play: Indiana loves to push the tempo and launch it regularly from the perimeter, but the Hoosiers aren't very strong on the defensive end. That contrasts to Purdue, which leads the nation in field-goal defense thanks to its sizable frontcourt.

Freshmen to Watch

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    Thomas Bryant, Indiana

    The 6'10" center is still figuring out how to be a force on the defensive end, but he's making the most of his opportunities with the ball in his hands. Bryant leads the Big Ten in shooting at 72 percent, and his 76.3 percent two-point field goal rate is fourth-best in the country.

    Deyonta Davis, Michigan State

    The 6'10" forward is only playing 17.5 minutes per game, but in that time he's been Michigan State's top interior defender with 26 blocks while contributing 8.4 points and 5.5 rebounds per game. Davis also shoots 64.1 percent thanks to a team-best 33 offensive rebounds.

    Caleb Swanigan, Purdue

    The 6'9", 260-pound forward leads the conference in rebounding at 9.2 per game, and his play has enabled Purdue to bring 7-foot senior A.J. Hammons off the bench this season.

Top Big Ten Player of the Year Candidates

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    Melo Trimble, Maryland

    Trimble has picked up right where he left off as a freshman, adding the role of team leader to all of his other duties. The 6'3" sophomore guard is scoring a little less this season at 14.8 points per game, but he's shooting 52.4 percent from the field and adds 5.8 assists.

    Jarrod Uthoff, Iowa

    If Iowa is going to make waves in the Big Ten, it will be due to Uthoff's all-around play. The 6'9" senior forward is third in the conference in scoring at 18.3 points per game, and his 35 blocks are most of any player in the league.

    Denzel Valentine, Michigan State

    The Spartans were able to get by without Valentine against mid-major Oakland, but the senior guard's real value will be evident in how his team handles the start of Big Ten play in his absence. The 6'5" Valentine, who is MSU's leader in scoring (18.5), rebounding (8.3) and assists (7.1), is third in the country in win shares per game at .321.

Predicting the 2015-16 Big Ten Awards

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    Player of the Year: Denzel Valentine, Michigan State

    One of the top contenders for national Player of the Year honors, per Bleacher Report's C.J. Moore, Valentine is the best bet for the Big Ten award assuming he's able to make a successful return from minor knee surgery. If Michigan State doesn't skip a beat during his absence, that could open the door for other candidates.

    Freshman of the Year: Caleb Swanigan, Purdue

    How much has Swanigan mattered to the Boilermakers? Senior A.J. Hammons, who had started 74 games in the previous three seasons, has become a reserve because of the way the 6'9", 260-pound newcomer has performed along 7'2" sophomore Isaac Haas.

    Coach of the Year: Chris Collins, Northwestern

    Whether or not Northwestern finally reaches the NCAA tournament, Collins has this program headed in the right direction. An injury to promising sophomore wing Vic Law knocked him out for the season before it ever started, then senior center Alex Olah has gone down just before Big Ten play begins. If the Wildcats can hang around despite those losses, Collins would be more than deserving of the award.

Big Ten Favorites and Dark Horse

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    The Favorite: Michigan State

    Denzel Valentine's absence means Michigan State will be without its best player for a conference-opening two-game road trip, starting with Tuesday's dangerous trip to Iowa. But based on how the Spartans performed without Valentine last time out, this isn't a one-man team that suddenly becomes mediocre.

    MSU also benefits from only having to play Maryland and Purdue once during league play, and it gets two games apiece against Penn State and Rutgers.

    The Dark Horse: Maryland

    The Terrapins' success against Michigan State last season provides a confidence boost heading into this year's league slate, not that they needed any extra boost.

    Even in losing to North Carolina during the Big Ten/ACC challenge, Maryland showed that it has the makings of a conference title team, assuming it can navigate a schedule that includes trips to nearly every top team in the league.

Who Makes the Tournament?

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    Shoo-ins: Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan State, Purdue

    All five are ranked among the top 24 teams in the country by KenPom.com, with only Indiana possibly facing concerns about making the NCAA tournament field from this group. For the rest, the Big Ten schedule is all about building momentum for March, as well as getting a strong seed.

    Hopefuls: Michigan, Northwestern, Ohio State, Wisconsin

    The Big Ten has earned at least six bids to the NCAA tourney each of the previous four seasons, twice getting seven during that span. BracketMatrix.com currently has six B1G teams in the field, with Michigan slipping in as a No. 11 seed on average.

    The Wolverines would be in better position had they secured a notable win during the preseason, but they fell to Connecticut, SMU and Xavier and beat Texas before the Longhorns started to hit their stride.

    Ohio State and Wisconsin are the next likeliest to get in, but only if they finish high in league play. Same goes for Northwestern, which probably needs its first winning record in the conference since 1967-68 to grab that elusive bid.

    Long shots: Illinois, Minnesota, Nebraska, Penn State, Rutgers

    With a combined 27 losses between them, the bottom tier of the Big Ten is only going to produce an NCAA tournament team if someone suddenly becomes a different team or gets hot during the conference tourney in Indianapolis this March.

    Since the Big Ten started playing a league tourney in 1998, it has had four teams seeded lower than seventh make the title game, the last being Illinois in 2008. The Fighting Illini lost that game to Wisconsin, and no team seeded lower than third has won the conference tournament in the past 14 seasons.

Predicting the 2015-16 Big Ten Standings

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    1. Michigan State
    2. Maryland
    3. Purdue
    4. Indiana
    5. Iowa
    6. Michigan
    7. Wisconsin
    8. Ohio State
    9. Northwestern
    10. Illinois
    11. Penn State
    12. Minnesota
    13. Nebraska
    14. Rutgers

    All statistics courtesy of Sports-Reference.com.

    Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.