Big Ten Power Rankings 2016-2017: Edition 2
|Melo Trimble, Maryland|
While the rest of the Big Ten is beating each other up, the Badgers have emerged as the clear-cut team to beat in the conference. They have won eight straight since an 11-point loss to Purdue, and look as motivated and hungry as ever. The Badgers core of veterans continues to be the X-factor pushing them over the rest in the conference. Nigel Hayes and Ethan Happ are two of the Big Ten's best forwards in the country, and as versatile and well-rounded as you can get at the position. Joining them is senior point guard Bronson Koenig, who doesn't put up huge numbers, but is perhaps the most clutch player in the conference. The Badgers don't have an easy schedule the rest of the way, having to go on the road against suddenly hot Ohio State and always dangerous Michigan State. Yet, this team appears to be the most balanced and well-built squad in the Big Ten. The next step has to be getting more national recognition, as the Big Ten was left out of the Top 16 seeds in the early NCAA Tournament seeding reveal altogether.
2. Purdue Boilermakers (20-5 overall, 9-3 conference)
While the Badgers may have the lead in the conference, Purdue is right on their tails, and looks talented enough to continue their chase after UW. The Boilermakers may sit at 20-5 with a 9-3 conference record, but they have also been very hot, winning six of their last seven with their lone loss coming on the road 83-80 to Nebraska. Gigantic sophomore big man Caleb Swanigan surprised some when he opted to return for another year in West Lafayette, but so far the move has paid off. Swanigan has emerged as a truly dominant force in the low post, and there are few teams inside the conference that have anybody that can match him. More good news for Purdue: they have a very favorable schedule remaining, really missing out on any of the real powers of the conference, with a road test against Northwestern likely being their toughest opponent.
3. Maryland Terrapins (21-4 overall, 9-3 conference)
The Terrapins continue to not get a whole lot of attention from the national media, but have continued a surprising campaign under head coach Mark Turgeon. There are a number of reasons for Maryland's continued stay near the top of the conference; the great play of junior Melo Trimble, the emergence of a quality group of newcomers, and a strong defense. Trimble had a wildly up-and-down 2016 but seems to have settled down in his third season in College Park, while he has been helped by Anthony Cowan and forward Justin Jackson, both freshmen. The key for Maryland the rest of the reason will be continuing their poised play, especially late in games, which has helped them win a ton of close games throughout the year. A tough three-game stretch that includes road matchups with Northwestern and Wisconsin before a home game against Minnesota could decide whether the Terps are ready to make a run at the conference's top spot, or merely be in the mix.
4. Northwestern Wildcats (18-6 overall, 7-4 conference)
Since a six game win streak that seemed to indicate Northwestern was ready to make a run at the conference title and an NCAA Tournament appearance, the Wildcats have dropped their last two to fall back to Earth. A 21-point loss to Purdue was immensely disappointing but even more frustrating was a seven-point loss to the struggling Illinois Fighting Illini. Those were both tough pills to swallow, and it puts significant pressure on the 'Cats over their next seven games. Considering three of those seven games include Purdue, Maryland and Wisconsin, it could be a very interesting end to the regular season in Evanston. Explosive guards Bryant McIntosh and Vic Law will have to play disciplined basketball, while also capitalizing on transition opportunities, something that has not been Northwestern's strength this year, but will be key to attacking any depth issues that may exist on the three teams above them in the conference standings. Although they may not be trending up, the Wildcats still have enough talent and experience to continue being a factor in the conference. If things go right, they could very well enter the conference tourney with a bye.
5. Minnesota Gophers (18-7 overall, 6-6 conference)
The Gophers aren't blowing out anyone, but a nine-point victory over Rutgers this weekend helping secure their third straight win, presumably helping them off the bubble (for the time being). Being able to close out games is definitely going to be the key for Minnesota as they progress through 2017. They have choked away games against Penn State, Wisconsin and Maryland that would have all helped their NCAA Tournament candidacy. The key to closing out games will hinge heavily on the play of point guard Nate Mason and whether the frontcourt can survive foul issues that have hurt them terribly at times. Minnesota's schedule the rest of the way isn't terrible, but they need to close out home games against beatable teams like Indiana, Michigan and Penn State to finish the year on a high note.
6. Michigan State Spartans (15-10 overall, 7-5 conference)
It is mid-February and March is fast approaching, usually around the time when Michigan State starts putting it altogether and looking like a Final Four-caliber squad. Yet, this year's MSU edition doesn't really have that feel to it. The Spartans have been playing better since conference play started but are still wildly inconsistent, and are coming off a 29-point loss to archrival Michigan just a few days ago. That makes them 15-10 with a relatively average 7-5 conference mark, and an NCAA Tournament bid not exactly guaranteed. That isn't to say this team doesn't have loads of talent and potential; true freshman Miles Bridges still struggles with decision-makers but is one of the best players in the conference when he is playing well, and fellow freshmen Cassius Winston and Nick Ward have played well. MSU gets Purdue, Wisconsin and Maryland all once before the regular season concludes, not to mention a meeting with Ohio State (who they have already lost to) in a Valentine's Day showing. That gives them ample opportunities to impress the NCAA Tournament Committee, but could also be very concerning if the team doesn't start showing some consistency.
7. Michigan Wolverines (16-9 overall, 6-6 conference)
Speaking about inconsistency, who knows what to make of Michigan at this point? The Wolverines post a pretty good record and are .500 in the conference, but have also struggled to beat some of the better teams in the conference. The good news is that the Wolverines are playing much better over the past couple games and their non-conference schedule looks a lot better than it once did (they beat SMU, who is on fire and threatening to win the AAC, and beat Marquette, who looks like an NCAA Tournament team). Also helping out UM is the fact they have a strong veteran core, including point guard Derrick Walton Jr., Zak Irvin and Duncan Robinson, something not a lot of other teams in the conference can boast. With that in mind, and their two toughest remaining games (Purdue and Wisconsin) being at home, this Wolverines team could be very dangerous down the stretch.
8. Penn State Nittany Lions (14-12 overall, 6-7 conference)
Penn State isn't going to be playing in the NCAA Tournament this year, but there is reason to be optimistic about PSU's future as we progress through the 2017 season. The Nittany Lions have played very well since conference play started, and two straight victories have them staring down a possible .500 conference mark, which is always impressive, even with the conference being down. Another reason to be optimistic is the fact the Nittany Lions best player has been freshman Tony Carr (12.5 PPG, 4.0 APG) and this team plays hard every night. Outside of Purdue, PSU's remaining schedule is not overly difficult, so a postseason bid of some sort could still very well be in play in State College.
9. Iowa Hawkeyes (14-12 overall, 6-7 conference)
It hasn't been surprising to see the Hawkeyes struggle at times this season, considering their veteran leadership they lost this off-season, but it should be comforting Iowa has played better down the stretch. They had won three straight at one point before dropping their last two to Minnesota and Michigan State, which shows they still have plenty of progress to make. Guard Peter Jok is legit, as the veteran is one of the Big Ten's best scorers, averaging 20.6 points per game, and underrated guard Jordan Bohannon is a great leader of the offense. Those two will have to play well down the stretch in order to give Iowa some much needed momentum entering the conference tourney.
10. Ohio State Buckeyes (15-11 overall, 5-8 conference)
After starting off conference play 0-4, the Buckeyes have been able to fix a season that was quickly going off the rails. They have been able to beat Michigan, Michigan State and Minnesota over the past few weeks, and look like they could be dangerous as the regular season wraps up. Explosive offensive weapons JaQuan Lyle and Jae'Sean Tate will continue to guide Ohio State's offense, but the search for a prominent big man is still underway in Columbus. Center Trevor Thompson is a great shot-blocker, but the lack of much beyond him in the paint has been a big issue for the Buckeyes. Even with that still in mind, this team is playing much better basketball, and has a head coach that knows how to win in the critical February and March months in Thad Matta. This team may not be going dancing, but they are certainly not a team I would want to play down the stretch.
11. Indiana Hoosiers (15-11 overall, 5-8 conference)
Has anybody taken a steeper fall from grace than Indiana over the past few months? The Hoosiers were thought of by some as a Final Four contender following wins over both Kansas and UNC in the non-conference but have been terrible since that point, and are a lowly 5-8 in the Big Ten. The reasons are understandable, O.G. Anuoby is hurt along with a number of other contributors, and big man Thomas Bryant has not taken the significant steps many had hoped he would following his sophomore season. Despite their recent struggles, their is still plenty to play for in Bloomington. Those victories over UNC and Kansas still make their resume pretty impressive, and they remain a bubble team. With the exception of a road test against Purdue, their schedule the rest of the way is not terrible. If they can regain some of the earlier-season magic, this team could be very intriguing as the season finishes.
12. Nebraska Cornhuskers (10-14 overall, 4-8 conference)
A 3-0 conference start seemed to indicate Nebraska could be a major wild card in the Big Ten in 2017. Then, a five-game losing streak, and here we are, the 'Huskers searching for any momentum. Overall, Nebraska has lost eight of nine, with their lone victory coming against Purdue in a thriller. Over the course of their struggles, they have definitely been competitive, losing three games by a single point. Yet, even that means little when you are losing at the rate they are. Nebraska doesn't face a ranked team the rest of the year and still has do-it-all guard Tai Webster, so there may be hope they can end the year playing well to give them some hope for next year.
13. Illinois Fighting Illini (14-12 overall, 4-9 conference)
While Indiana and Nebraska have tailed off, Illinois' struggles may even surpass them. The Illini were a bubble team not too long ago, but have lost seven of their last nine, likely pushing them out of the NCAA Tournament mix. During that span their offense has completely disappeared at times, with the low point occurring when they managed just 43 against Wisconsin. The Illini still have a star in guard/forward Malcolm Hill, but they have very little beyond him and no depth. They don't have a very difficult schedule remaining, so there is hope for this team, but if things don't turn around quickly, head coach John Groce's job may be on the line.
14. Rutgers Scarlet Knights (13-13 overall, 2-11 conference)
It definitely has not been a complete turnaround, but Rutgers has shown progress in head coach Steve Pikiell's first year. The Scarlet Knights recently beat Penn State to get their second conference win of the season, already more than they had last season, with time to do more. Guard Corey Sanders has provided plenty of offense, and is currently leading the team in points and assists, while center C.J. Gettys has been very good in the paint. Even so, the Scarlet Knights still lack the talent and depth necessary to really compete in the Big Ten, and there is plenty of work to be done. Yet, there is no denying there is something slowly being built in Piscataway.