Ah, I love this time of year watching college basketball. The answers to all of the questions previously posed aren't yet apparent, but they are vaguely coming into focus game-by-game. And there have been some good games(IU-Minny, OSU-Michigan), and even in the blowouts, there've been some amazing highlights (Brandon Paul's throwdown on Trevor Mbakwe, Sam Dekker doing the same thing on the entire Illinois team). Fun times. So, without further ado, the rankings:
1. Indiana (15-1 / 3-0) W v. Minnesota 88-81
I was very impressed with the way that Indiana just straight up matched the Gophers' strengths thoughout the game. Christian Watford and Cody Zeller are looking in the paint, and I saw Minnesota fans being actually sort of surprised at the end of the game that they hadn't actually been dominated on the boards (they were just used to dominating, so coming out even felt like losing in that area). IU also took decent care of the ball, until of course, until the last two minutes. There were a lot of strange things that happened at the end of this one to cause Hoosier fans stress: Oladipo fouling three-point shooters again and again, late bone-headed turnovers, and Jordan Hulls missing three straight free-throws. Hopefully, this all was just an aberration and Indiana will play with more composure the next time they face a late game crunch like this. The other small concern I have after this great win is, where did the bench go? They played 40 minutes, but shot 0-for-8 from the field and 3-of-6 from the line, while posting four rebounds, two steals and three turnovers. Luckily, Minnesota's bench wasn't much more productive (also 40 minutes, 8 points on 3-for-10 shooting, no FTs, 3 rebs, 4 asssists, a steal, and four TOs). It is strange, because these were two of the deepest teams in the conference IMHO, and they're both getting very little out of their benches these days.
2. Michigan (16-1 / 3-1) W v. Nebraska 62-47, L v. Ohio State 53-56
They lost this week, but Michigan is good. Really good. In fact, a Michigan blog ran some efficiency margin numbers (like John Gasaway often does for Basketball Prospectus) that place the Wolverines as tops in the league with an unreal + 0.27 per-possession differential. Don't take all of those numbers at face value just yet as the schedules have not been equal (Wisconsin, for example, has played Nebraska, PSU, and Illinois, while Iowa played IU, Michigan, Michigan State, and Northwestern). However, Michigan sure didn't have the best week, letting Nebraska stick around until deep into the second half at home, and then looking like chumps for the first 15 minutes at Ohio State. Perhaps it's just a dry spell for their outside shooting, as they've only hit 9-of-37 threes in those two game (24.3%), or perhaps it is truly harder to hit those shots in conference games. It's hurting them, for sure. Still, that slow but methodical rally they put on, starting at the end of the first half against OSU? That was so good that with about 6 minutes left, I was pretty convinced that the Buckeyes had blown their chance at a signature win. The Wolverines then went cold again, missing their next 6 shots (five of them threes) and OSU escaped. In any case, Michigan and Minnesota are definitely two of the top three teams in the conference. Thursday's trip to Minneapolis should be very interesting, indeed.
3. Minnesota (15-2 / 3-1)W @ Illinois 84-67, L v. Indiana 81-88
ESPN was pointing at numbers suggesting that this is the best Gopher squad since the 1997 team that went to the Final Four (and later forfeited the achievement). After this road trip, I'd say yes, this is a team that can get there. Although Illinois beat OSU soundly in Champaign, Minny left no doubt who was the better team. However, Indiana matched Minnesota's strengths and ran an outstanding offense in the first half. Minnesota gathered themselves well in the second half, chipping away at what was a 19 point with just under 11 minutes remaining to get it down to 11 with just under two minutes. From there, they capitalized on a series of Hoosier errors and missed free-throws to almost put the resolution of the game in doubt, showing amazing execution and resolve even as the game slipped away. I was reminded of the '93 Fab Five game at Assembly Hall, which bodes well for Tubby's team, I suppose. How they bounce back against Michigan on Thursday, who also has something to prove, will be very interesting.
4. Ohio State (13-3 / 3-1) W @ Purdue 74-64, W v. Michigan 56-53
Great week for the Buckeyes. A nice road win at Purdue, and then holding off Michigan at home for their first marquee win. I watched that game, and right away realized that Ohio State is a force to be reckoned with, defensively. Offensively.... well, DeShaun Thomas is pretty good. That offensive rebound, spin and slam in the first half against Michigan was one of the more impressive moves I've seen in the early stages of the conference season. OSU was rolling when Aaron Craft was taking shots and acting as a shoot-first point guard, but it became pretty clear as the game went on that this is not a role he wants to play. It's too bad, because there's noone else with the composure to make those sorts of plays (Shannon Scott also has the skill, but also looked like a walking turnover vs UM: how on earth does he have only 17 TOs on the year?). The Buckeyes do get some nice dunks every game, though, like that posterizing dunk of AJ Hammons by Sam Thompson.
5. Michigan State (14-3 / 3-1) W @ Iowa 62-59, W v. Nebraska 66-56
It was not a particularly impressive week for the Spartans, but some good things did happen. They picked up a road win against the dangerous Hawkeyes, and Branden Dawson came back from a knee injury in the Nebraska game to play well and help secure the win. I'm increasingly impressed with Adreian Payne: that kid is showing some mobility and range on his jumper that I had no idea he possessed. It may work for Izzo to keep bringing him off the bench this season, but next year I think Payne might be an all-conference type performer. The rest of the Sparty bench worries me, though. This is the thinnest Izzo-led team in my memory, as even the 2011 team had 10 guys playing 9 or more minutes. This club only has 8 guys playing that many minutes, and one of those is Russell Byrd, who is in strong contention for posting the least productive and least efficient numbers in the conference. Sure, these guys just lost Brandan Kearney, but 2011's Spartans had lost Korie Lucious, too. I don't think he or Alex Gauna would even be playing occasional minutes if there was anyone else available.
6. Wisconsin (12-4 / 3-0) W v. Illinois 74-51
That was certainly impressive. Wisky just made Illinois look horrible, and not in the way that I expected. I expected the Badgers to come out and win with good defense, force Illinois to take (and miss) a bunch of threes, and capitalize Illinois' lack of toughness to grind out a decent win with offensive rebounds and free-throws. This blowout just made the Illini look terrible defensively, as they got dunked on and dunked on by the Badgers, and then let the mediocre-at-best Traevon Jackson just waltz into the lane and create a lay-up for himself if he felt like it. All shots at Illinois aside, Wisconsin's confidence in their offense should be sky-high going into Bloomington, and their defense looks solid as always. Tonight, we find out if the Badgers are really a solid NCAA team, or if they just had a really good game against a fading Illini team.
7. Illinois (14-4 / 1-3) L v. Minnesota 67-84, L @ Wisconsin 51-74
Ouch. So, I know I said that Illinois should be solidly in the NCAA tourney last week, and a road loss at Wisconsin shouldn't change that, but they got embarassed both at home and in Madison. I mean, Coach Groce called out their effort and intensity after the home loss to Minny, and then they go to Wisconsin and still looked totally lost on defense at times. Luckily, the only game Coach Groce has to worry about this week is hosting Northwestern, so maybe he'll have the opportunity to tweak whatever's going wrong for the Illini. Or maybe it doesn't matter who's coaching, these players just crash and burn in the Big Ten. Seeing as how I thought Illinois overachieved like crazy in the pre-conference slate of games, I think it's a little unfair to call them overrated now. But they have to start at least looking like they belong in the conference.
9. 8. Iowa (12-5 /1-3) L v. Michigan State 59-62, W @ Northwestern 70-50
Make no mistake, a real opportunity for a resume-building win was squandered against Michigan State. Again, the Hawkeyes looked tough early, and hung around late, but key mental errors in both halves cost them the game. They just look so young sometimes. The fact that Iowa really could have won this one despite playing without Roy Devyn Marble hurts all the more, because they don't have many more opportunities to look good for the NCAA tourney selelection committee. But hey, look, a 20-point road win! Starting center Adam Woodbury notched 9 rebounds in 12 minutes against Northwestern. I don't know what was up with Woodbury playing so little, unless it was a match-up thing with NU's Alex Olah, who only got 11 mintues. I don't know if it was part of a gentleman's agreement between McCaffrey and Carmody to pull their freshmen centers as fast as possible, but it's weird. What Iowa needs right now is a win, and hopefully they'll get one when they host Wisconsin on Saturday.
8. 9.Purdue (8-8 / 2-2) L v. Ohio State 64-74, W v. PSU 60-42,
Coach Painter continues to mix it up, putting Jacob Lawson on the bench, while starting Raphael Davis and DJ Byrd at forward. Lawson, Travis Carroll, and Sandi Marcius only combined for 15 minutes in the blowout win, although Donnie Hale did get 14 minutes off the bench. The OSU game was a little bit like Purdue's earlier loss to Notre Dame, they spent more than half of the game down by double digits, scratched and fought their way back in the second half, but couldn't make up the difference late. At least in the OSU game they got the lead down to 6 with under three minutes remaining. Even though Iowa is currently below the Boilers in the conference standings, and I think PU is a better defensive team, I'm keeping the Hawkeyes above them in the power rankings for now. I just feel that Purdue's offensive issues outweigh any of Iowa's various shortcomings for the time being, but maybe this new four-guard lineup will fix that. Maybe.
10. Northwestern (10-7 / 1-3) W @ PSU 70-54, L v. Iowa 50-70
What a bizarre team. Bill Carmody's club is clearly in pieces, and sometimes those pieces can look good, like when they destroy Penn State on the road. But as just as soon you think "huh, maybe they could scratch out six B1G wins still," they lose at home to Iowa by 20. They shot 40% on twos, 19.2% on threes, and 60% on free-throws. At home. Against Iowa, who has improved defensively and all, but still, Iowa. I shudder to think of how NU will shoot against OSU or Wisconsin. We might see a halftime shut-out. Ok, something positive.... well, the Wildcats did get a road win, and even though it was just PSU, Jared Swopshire showed some of the ability that NU needs so badly when he posted 17 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists,a block and no turnovers in that game.
11. Nebraska (9-8 / 0-4) L @ Michigan 47-62, L @ Michigan State 56-66
Well, that could've gone a lot worse. The thought of a week of roadtripping in the state of Michigan was cringe-inducing last week, and sure, it produced two losses for the Huskers. But remember that Coach Miles didn't have either of his bigs really healthy for both games (Andre Almedia was limited in his return from injury at Michigan, and Brandon Ubel missed the game in East Lansing). So, to be in the game late in the second half in both games? Just astounding. They were within six points coming out of the second-half under-eight timeout in Ann Arbor, and the Spartans didn't shake them until the last minute of the game really. In fact, it was a one-point game with 2:16 to go when Gary Harris hit a three (his only field goal of the night) to put MSU up four. Nebraska has gone from almost hopeless to looking like they are actually capable of beating a ranked team sometime this year.
12. Penn State (8-8 / 0-4) L v. Northwestern 54-70, L @ Purdue 42-60
Losing by 16 and 18 points to two teams who have rough roads to even get to the NIT is not encouraging. Pat Chambers was pretty good at picking his guys up off the floor last season, so look for them to bounce back against somebody. But I'm starting to think even with one of the easiest schedules in the Big Ten, getting four wins might be asking too much. Brandon Taylor didn't have a great overall game against Purdue, but he went 3-of-7 behind the arc and still got four offensive rebounds in his 30 minutes. That's some DeShaun Thomas-style play for an unranked freshman.