As we sit here, just hours before we’re all drunk on egg nog and mad that we didn’t actually get any socks this year, there’s only a few true, knowable facts about college basketball.
Gonzaga is the best team in the nation. Baylor is the second best. Luka Garza is an offensive juggernaut. Cade Cunningham is the best NBA prospect. Coaches hate to wear masks and this season, as a whole, has been queasy and rocky.
All of those are true, but perhaps the most interesting fact about this season concerns an entire conference:
The Big Ten is, from top to bottom, as scary a conference as we’ve seen in recent memory.
The fourteen teams in the Big Ten (yes, I know, that’s a very dumb thing to write) are collectively 77-22 this season. Take out the eight conference games already played and the teams of the Big Ten are 69-14 against the rest of the nation. That includes road wins at Duke (twice) and Virginia Tech, plus home or neutral wins over Syracuse, Notre Dame (twice), Louisville, Stanford, Butler, and UCLA.
ESPN’s Joe Lunardi currently has nine Big Ten teams on track to make the NCAA Tournament, with two more among the last eight teams on the bubble. Seven of the top twenty teams in KenPom’s adjusted efficiency ratings come from the Big Ten, including two of the top five. The entire league except Nebraska ranks in the top 60 in adjusted efficiency. Of the 20 conference games on a Big Ten schedule, 18 or 19 will come against a top 60 opponent. Half of those will be on the road.
This will be a blood bath.
Iowa has the top ranked offense in college basketball and Wisconsin is a veteran-laden team with a top five defense in the nation. Both will be bruised and bloodied coming out of Big Ten play, with slip ups and losing streaks around every corner. There are no breaks. At one point in February, Iowa will play at Indiana, faced a ranked and very good Rutgers team at home, then head on the road for games at Michigan State and Wisconsin. Iowa is a Final Four caliber team that could fathomably lose all four of those games. Every team in the league has a stretch like that or worse.
Let’s whip around the league, meet all the teams, and find the stretch that will test their mettle the most this season.
3rd in KenPom, 9th in the AP Poll, 2-seed in Bracketology
We know these Badgers. They rank 22nd in the nation in minutes continuity, per KenPom, and are led by five seniors. Every Badgers starter has been a college basketball contributor for four seasons. If there’s a team built for this gauntlet, it might be Greg Gard’s Badgers.
All five starting Badger seniors average between 8.6 and 13.6 points per night. They share the ball and can beat you from inside or out. Ohio State transfer Micah Potter is the headliner, most capable of a breakout game that can bury an opposing team. Guards Brad Davison and D’Mitrik Trice are both strong shooters who can heat up in a hurry. Nate Reuvers is a match-up nightmare against opposing big men.
Most notably, these Badgers defend their buzzcuts off. Wisconsin has only allowed one team to score more than 1.0 points per possession. Add in the least turnover prone offense in the nation and you have a hard team to beat.
Toughest Stretch: The Badgers most difficult stretch is their final five regular season games. A home game against Iowa followed by at Northwestern, home versus Illinois, at Purdue, and then the biggest Big Ten game of the year, at Iowa.
5th in KenPom, 4th in the AP Poll, 2-seed in Bracketology
Luka Garza is the best offensive player in the nation. He’s aided by his surroundings, a team full of quick-trigger shooters. Those shooters all benefit from Garza sucking help defenders into the lane. It’s a lovely piece of synergy really. The whole of Iowa’s offense is greater than the sum of its parts.
The gap between Iowa being a fun, good team and a team with a real chance to be a championship contender is the performance of Joe Wieskamp. He’s the Hawkeyes most versatile and reliable perimeter player, capable of creating offense beyond the inside-out scoring Iowa develops from Garza on the block. Against the other top teams in the conference, Wieskamp has to score and defend at a high level to keep Iowa in games.
Toughest Stretch: As mentioned above, it’s at Indiana, versus Rutgers, at Michigan State, and at Wisconsin in February.
11th in KenPom, 18th in the AP Poll, 3-seed in Bracketology
No team already embodies the brutal schedules of the Big Ten better than the Illini. Brad Underwood has a top 15 team who lost two non-conference games to ranked teams, after winning at Duke. Yet they were welcomed to conference play with a match-up with Minnesota and then a trip to battle Rutgers. Illinois lost a close game on the road, something that we’re going to see heaps of this season in the Big Ten.
Illinois is still very much a Final Four caliber team, even at 5-3 on the season. The Illini have the best one-two punch in the country (or at least the best one outside of Gonzaga) in Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn. There won’t be a game all season in which Illinois doesn’t have two of the three best players on the floor. In most cases, Dosunmu and Cockburn will be the two best players on either team in any given Illinois game. That’s a hard hurdle to overcome for team loking to knock-off the Illini, especially in games in Champaign.
Toughest Stretch: No Big Ten team has to play Wisconsin and Iowa back to back, thankfully. Illinois comes close when they go versus Iowa, at Indiana, versus Wisconsin, and at Michigan in late January/early February.
16th in KenPom, 19th in the AP Poll, 4-seed in Bracketology
It’s Year Two of the Juwan Howard era and it’s become quite clear that Howard is a good fit at his alma mater. The Wolverines have a top ten offense in the nation, dominating the paint. Michigan shoots the 10th best percentage in the nation on 2-point attempts (60.4 percent) and is even better around the rim. The Wolverines shoot the 2nd best percentage in Division I on buckets right at the rim, making 78.8 percent of those tries. That’s a weapon in competitive games.
Toughest Stretch: Down the stretch, Michigan has an absolute gauntlet starting at Ohio State, then at Indiana, home for Iowa, and at Michigan State.
17th in KenPom, 6-seed in Bracketology
Sophomore Trayce Jackson-Davis is playing like a first team All-American so far this season for the Hoosiers. The 6-foot-9 big man is scoring 21 points and grabbing 8.6 rebounds per game, while adding 2.1 blocks on the defensive end. He’s succeeding in an old school way, having not attempted a single 3-pointer all season long.
The battles between Jackson-Davis, Garza, and Cockburn are appointment viewing and could be some of the best individual showdowns we see in college basketball this season.
Toughest Stretch: How about @Michigan State, @Iowa, home for Rutgers, @Michigan, home for Illinois and Iowa. Six straight games against top 20 teams.
18th in KenPom, 11th in the AP Poll, 4-seed in Bracketology
In the stretches of schedules listed above, if you’ve been casually following this season so far, you may have thought, “Oh, but they get to play Rutgers!”
I delight in informing you that no one gets to play Rutgers this season. If you’ve got the Scarlet Knights on your schedule, buckle up. This team is dangerous.
Rutgers is stacked with upperclassmen and they collectively play real, hard-nosed defense. Nothing is easy against these Scarlet Knights. They are led offensively by Ron Harper Jr., son of the former NBA player of the same name. His game isn’t dissimilar from his father’s. He is a smart passer and a quick, effective shooter, but he also weighs about 40 pounds more than his old man ever did. It makes for a really interesting style and match-up conundrum.
Rutgers hasn’t played in an NCAA Tournament game since 1991 and hasn’t won a tourney game since 1983. This team will break both of those streaks.
Toughest Stretch: The Scarlet Knights have been smiled upon by the Schedule Gods. It never gets *that* dark for Rutgers. Perhaps never more than at Penn State, home for Wisconsin, at Indiana, home for Michigan State.
Ohio State (6-1)
20th in KenPom, 20th in the AP Poll, 6-seed in Bracketology
Oh, cool. It’s another team with a top ten offense in the nation. That’s cool.
The Buckeyes have been aided by a talented transfer this year, though not the one we all expected. Hawaii-native and Cal transfer Justin Sueing has been fantastic for Ohio State, providing a secondary scoring pop. Everyone expected that contribution from Harvard transfer and former Ivy League Player of the Year Seth Towns. Following a knee injury, Towns hadn’t played in a basketball game in over 1,000 days before making his season debut against UCLA last weekend. He only played two minutes in that game, still ramping up to the speed of the game.
If Towns is his old self by March, Ohio State is adding a starter who can win games for the Buckeyes in March. That’s scary for the rest of the conference.
Toughest Stretch: Ohio State’s January Saturday games are at Rutgers, at Illinois, and at Wisconsin. There is a home game against Northwestern sandwiched in there too.
Michigan State (6-1)
27th in KenPom, 12th in the AP Poll, 5-seed in Bracketology
To butcher an old Rick Pitino quote, Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman are not walking through that door, for the first time in four years. For many programs, that would mean things are back to the drawing board. Tom Izzo barely skipped a beat, with Rocket Watts ready to become the next great Michigan State guard.
He’s only a sophomore and Watts has a long way to go before he’s mentioned in the same breath as Winston or Mateen Cleaves, though he’s on his way. With a rotation filled with skilled, smart upperclassmen, he’s in the perfect situation to develop into a game-changing point guard. If he can do so before this season heats up, Michigan State is as good as almost any team in the Big Ten.
Toughest Stretch: Mid-January brings home games versus Indiana and Illinois, then road games at Rutgers and Ohio State.
33rd in KenPom, 8-seed in Bracketology
The Boilermakers might be the perfect encapsulation of how good this conference will be this season. A game against your league’s ninth best team should be a match-up you feel good about. No one will think that about this Purdue team. They share the ball, shoot the lights out, and hammer the glass.
Even with minimal or no fans, you don’t stroll in and out of Mackey Arena with a win. At least not without coming out bruised and battered.
Toughest Stretch: Christmas Day features Purdue hosting Maryland before the Boilers head to Rutgers and Illinois on the road.
Penn State (3-2)
44th in KenPom
In what should have been a transitional year following the departure of head coach Patrick Chambers, Penn State has been a pleasant surprise. Wins over VCU and Virginia Tech proved that point. It’s possible that those wins will be the highlight of Penn State’s season and the Big Ten schedule will swallow up a team led by a first-time power conference coach.
With three talented, Philly-area guards leading the way, I wouldn’t count out this team as a factor in Big Ten play.
Toughest Stretch: The Nits next eight games are brutal. Home versus Illinois, at Indiana, versus Wisconsin, at Ohio State, versus Michigan, versus Rutgers, at Purdue, at Illinois. Just a death stretch.
49th in KenPom, Next Four Out in Bracketology
Year Seven of Maryland in the Big Ten. It’s still weird.
(We’re over 2,000 words. You get the idea. The Terps are pretty good.)
Toughest Stretch: At Indiana, home for Iowa, at Illinois in January is killer.
52nd in KenPom, First Four Out in Bracketology
I was a Gophers skeptic until recently. I was very critical of Richard Pitino late last season and thought it was about time for Minnesota to see who else could handle that job. The Gophers then opened the season with six straight wins, all over sub-top-100 competition. They needed overtime to dispatch a one-win Boston College team at home. The winning streak ended with a 27-point loss at Illinois, but the Gophers responded by beating a very good Saint Louis team to close out non-conference play. That raised an eyebrow and made a Minnesota tournament berth look a little bit more realistic.
Minnesota has the 5th best free throw rate in the nation and has scored a higher percentage of its points at the charity stripe than all but five DI teams. If those numbers don’t hold steady, I question their viability being led by a dribble-and-shoot first lead guard in Marcus Carr.
Toughest Stretch: For team stuck on the bubble, the stretch run could be death for the Gophers. Home for Purdue, followed by at Maryland, at Indiana, home for Illinois, home for Northwestern, at Penn State, home for Rutgers.
56th in KenPom
Northwestern is an enigma. The nonconference schedule was, to put it lightly, not instructive for the Wildcats. Northwestern beat two of the seven worst teams in college basketball (Arkansas Pine-Bluff and Chicago State, per KenPom) and a non-Division I opponent. In Northwestern’s only game of consequence in that stretch, the Wildcats lost to Pitt by one point at home.
So it was certainly surprising when Northwestern opened Big Ten play by sucker punching Michigan State. The Wildcats lead by as many as 21 and coasted away from Sparty.
Northwestern was propelled by 30 points from its leading scorer this season, a sophomore guard named, and I swear to you this is his real name, Boo Buie.
Michigan State won’t be alone. Plenty of teams fresh off a loss to one of the conference’s elite teams will coast into a match-up with Northwestern and then be smacked by a 30-plus point night from BOO GODDAMNED BUIE.
In conclusion: Boo Buie.
Toughest Stretch: December 29th starts a scary slate for the Wildcats at Iowa before they go to Michigan, home versus Illinois, at Ohio State, home versus Iowa, at Penn State, and at Wisconsin.
117th in KenPom
Poor Huskers. Fred Hoiberg is early in the re-build process and Nebraska finds itself at the bottom of a historically great conference.
The Huskers might not win more than two or three games in the conference. There really wouldn’t be shame in that this year. They don’t even get to play Northwestern at home, the one game you’d most expect them to win.
Oh well, Boo Buie would probably have scored 40 in a Northwestern win.
Toughest Stretch: The sad thing for the Huskers is every other team gets to play the worst team in the conference. The Huskers go straight through with 20 games against top 60 opponents. It’s all tough.
Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and senior writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to ESPN.com, Rush The Court, Larry Brown Sports, RotoBaller, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. You can find every post from this blog on Twitter by following @PalestraBack.