The end of a basketball season is when a team starts to really discover who they are. Ideally, chemistry between players is stellar and execution is impeccable...right?
The strength of the Big Ten contenders came into question after four of the top six teams dropped a game this past week. Michigan’s inexplicable loss to Penn State headlined a week of underperformances.
Biggest drop: Wisconsin Badgers (-2)
Biggest improvement: Ohio State Buckeyes (+3)
1. Indiana Hoosiers (25-4, 13-3 Big Ten, AP No. 2)
Last week: 1
A loss during a light week would usually remove the top team from its throne, but Indiana gets off easy with the conference’s top four teams losing as well.
The Hoosiers took a four point loss on the road to Minnesota last Tuesday, but bounced back with a big win over Iowa.
Facing Michigan and Ohio State in their final two games, Indiana has a great opportunity to silence the critics and reestablish itself as the clear enforcer in the Big Ten, and for that matter, the country.
2. Ohio State Buckeyes (21-7, 11-5, No. 14)
Last week: 5
The Buckeyes rise in the rankings because of inconsistent play from other teams, not because of their win against Northwestern.
Despite its 2-7 record against ranked teams this season, Ohio State can look dominant at times.
NBA-ready forward Deshaun Thomas needs some help. In games against AP Top 25 opponents, second-leading scorer Lenzelle Smith Jr. averages just 6.9 points per game, more than three points below his average on the season.
Time to step up for junior point guard Aaron Craft. We know he’s a tenacious defender but he needs to prove his worth on the offensive end.
Tuesday’s game against Indiana is pivotal for both teams.
3. Michigan Wolverines (24-5, 11-5, No. 7)
Last week: 3
Let’s just chalk up Michigan’s loss against Penn State on Wednesday as a fluke. A huge fluke.
Michigan didn’t play particular poorly. In fact, the Wolverines shot over 50 percent from the floor and played pretty solid defense.
Sunday’s win over instate rival Michigan State was a lot more telling of their potential. While State bullied Michigan on the boards, the Wolverines played hounding defense, forcing 18 turnovers and snatching three steals.
Three-point shooting needs to get a lot better, especially in a conference with some downtown snipers.
4. Wisconsin Badgers (20-9, 11-5, No. 22)
Last week: 2
A win against Nebraska was expected, but a 13-point loss to Purdue on Sunday was not.
Wisconsin’s first half performance was commanding and fundamentally sound. In the second half, its shooting went down the drain and Purdue began to control the boards. The Boilermakers ended the game on a 15-6 run.
We all saw one of Wisconsin’s biggest downsides Sunday. When the game is slipping away, the Badgers don’t have that impact player that can shift the momentum in a few plays.
On Thursday, the Badgers travel to East Lansing to take on Tom Izzo’s Spartans, a team that has only lost two games at home this season.
5. Michigan State Spartans (22-7, 11-5, No. 10)
Last week: 4
Three loses in a row, even when they are against top-ranked teams, is never a positive. A top-10 team itself, Michigan State is concerned with wins and not how close they play teams.
A win against Wisconsin this week is the perfect way to get back on track before the Big Ten Tournament.
6. Minnesota Golden Gophers (20-9, 8-8)
Last week: 8
Senior center Trevor Mbakwe’s 12 rebounds and 21 points propelled Minnesota over No. 1 Indiana last Tuesday. Still, Mbakwe was ice cold in February.
While Minnesota has had some ups and downs throughout the season, there is no denying the team’s big play ability. The Golden Gophers have gone .500 (5-5) against AP Top 25 teams this season.
There is no reason Minnesota shouldn’t finish the season with two wins against Nebraska and Purdue.
7. Illinois Fighting Illini (21-9, 8-8) and Purdue Boilermakers (18-11, 7-9)
Last week: 6, 9
This is a strange choice, but deciding who has more momentum right now is a tough call.
Last week, Purdue lost to Iowa on Wednesday but then turned around to beat Wisconsin in Madison on Sunday. Meanwhile, Illinois beat Nebraska, but who hasn’t?
With games against Iowa and Ohio State, the Fighting Illini have their work cut out for them if they want to hold their six spot in the conference. Illinois could use some better minutes from leading scorer Brandon Paul. In February the senior guard only shot over 40 percent from the field on two occasions.
The Boilermakers might be the best rebounding team in the Big Ten, but they should use their second-chance opportunities for midrange jump shots and layups. Purdue barely shoots 31 percent from downtown.
Purdue has an even tougher couple of games left against Michigan and rising Minnesota.
9. Iowa Hawkeyes (18-11, 7-9)
Last week: 7
Based on their performance last week (a solid win against Purdue on Wednesday and a loss to Indiana on Saturday), Iowa didn’t really deserve to get a drop in the rankings.
A lack of impressive wins can hurt sometimes.
On the season, the Hawkeyes are 0-5 against ranked teams.
Looking forward, the Hawkeyes can still finish in sixth place in the conference with two wins and losses from Illinois and Minnesota.
10. Nebraska Cornhuskers (13-16, 4-12)
Last week: 10
A bad loss to Wisconsin on Tuesday and a respectable loss to Illinois on Saturday capped a typical Nebraska week in the Big Ten.
Senior guard Dylan Talley has been Nebraska’s one bright spot. Over the last five games, Talley has averaged 20.6 points, 6.2 points higher than his season average.
In the final week of the Cornhuskers’ conference play, they face off against a hot and cold Minnesota team and tough Hawkeye squad.
11.99 Northwestern Wildcats (13-16, 4-12)
Last week: 11
Recent play almost had me putting Northwestern as the worst team in the Big Ten.
In the last four weeks, Penn State has won more games than Northwestern: one.
The ‘Cats are on an ugly six-game slide with two more games to go. Their matchup against Penn State, oddly enough, is the Wildcats’ most important game they have left. Nobody expects Northwestern to beat Michigan State on Sunday, but a loss to the lowly Nittany Lions on Thursday would look awful.
Currently, the ‘Cats are tied with Nebraska for 10th in the Big Ten at 4-12.
12. Penn State Nittany Lions (9-19, 1-15)
Last week: 12
Good for Penn State. In an extremely disappointing season, it’s nice to be able to say you upset the No. 4 team in the nation on your home court.
The Nittany Lions have the opportunity to pass on the title of worst team in the Big Ten at Northwestern on Thursday.