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Big Ten Weekly Rankings: The Muddled Middle edition

A look at Big Ten Basketball action, with rankings and commentary

Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports

Man, this is getting really hard to do. I like to reward teams that are playing well recently, as maybe they've figured something out, but I also like to look at head-to-head results and try to triangulate it all with tempo-free statistics. And the Big Ten is hard to figure out, at least below the top four. Take Indiana, Purdue, and Northwestern: Gasaway's efficiency margins give a slight edge to Purdue and punish Northwestern, while The Only Colors' conference win projections give a notable edge to Indiana, with Northwestern much closer to Purdue. And perhaps sentimentally, I feel like it's only fair to put NU above both Hoosier Indiana squads since the Wildcats own recent wins against both teams.

1. Michigan (15-4, 7-0) W v Iowa 75-67, W @ Michigan State 75-80

Sure, I could carp that they faced a MSU squad without Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson (perhaps the top center and top power forward in the conference). But they won against a team no other Big Ten team has been able to beat, and pairing that with the Iowa win, this is was an impressive week. Michigan has beaten all of the other top teams in the conference except Ohio State. I find it amusing that Nik Stauskas also doesn't seem satisfied with establishing himself as a future NBA draft pick, but is now venturing into Reggie Miller-style theatrics, blowing kisses to a rival crowd.

2. Michigan State (19-2, 6-1) W v Indiana 71-66, L v Michigan 80-75, W @Iowa 71-69 (OT)

The Spartans got a huge (and unexpected) win in Iowa City tonight. However, Branden Dawson breaking his hand during a film session is exactly the sort of thing the Spartans did not need, with Adreian Payne taking it slow in his recovery. Furthermore, Keith Appling's hand is so jacked up he's openly saying he can't shoot. Still, Appling came through against Iowa by scoring 16 points, even though he took 14 shots. Matt Costello has also really stepped up to be the player we were expecting this season. Over the last four games, he's averaging 8ppg, 6.5rpg, and 2.3 blocks while shooting 57% from the field.

3. Iowa (16-5, 5-3) L @ Michigan 67-75, W @ Northwestern 76-50, L v Michigan State 69-71 (OT)

Iowa has let a couple of big victories get away from them now. A win over the Spartans was within their grasp, but Roy Devyn Marble's floater bounced off the rim at the buzzer, and MSU went on to grind them down in OT. The Hawkeyes have the Wildcats' number so far this season, with two 26 point victories. Mike Gesell seems to play pretty well against NU, averaging 10 points, 2 steals, and 6 assists to one turnover per game. The Michigan game was more illuminating, as the Hawkeyes continually scraped themselves back into it despite not shooting particularly well and being held off the boards. It is notable that Josh Oglesby has replaced freshman Peter Jok off the bench, and is shooting 58.3% from behind the arc while almost never turning the ball over. However, Aaron White (or someone) needs to be the reliable second scorer.

4. Wisconsin (17-3, 4-3) L @ Minnesota 68-81, W @ Purdue 72-58

The Badgers halted their slide with a win at Purdue, and now they need to start to piling up wins to get back into the thick of the Big Ten race. Has Bo Ryan fixed the defensive shortcomings, or was Purdue just unable to take advantage of them? The Badgers looked to me like the best B1G team in non-conference play, so I'm guessing whatever happened was just a hiccup.    

5. Ohio State (16-4, 3-4) L @ Nebraska 62-68, W v Illinois 62-55

The four-game losing streak is over, but loads of questions remain. First and foremost, just how vulnerable this Buckeye club should be partially answered when they travel to Happy Valley on Wednesday. Shannon Scott still gets some steals and hands out some assists, but his field-goal percentage is tanking. Scott also hasn't hit a three in his last four games, and has only shot 2 free-throws in that same span.

6. Minnesota (15-6, 4-4) W v Wisconsin 81-68, L @ Nebraska 78-82

Sure, the loss at Nebraska was without Andre Hollins, but Malik Smith stepped right up and scorched the nets for 29 points on 9/15 shooting (8/12 on threes). He also notched 3 steals and didn't turn the ball over (although teammate Deandre Matheiu was doing that enough for both of them, posting 9 in the game). And the win over Wisconsin gives them a healthy dose of RPI boost for getting into the NCAAs. Even with a healthy Andre Hollins, I don't see them getting above 10 wins in conference play, but who knows? I've been wrong about them so far.

7. Indiana (13-7, 3-4) L @ MSU 66-71, W v Illinois 56-46

The Hoosiers unfortunately visited the Spartans when they still had Branden Dawson, and IU was without Will  Sheehey. Given that, the Hoosiers put in a great effort to hang around with MSU. The win against Illinois falls into the "at least it was a win" category. Indiana has positioned itself to climb up the ladder over the next few weeks, but it can't afford any more slip-ups. Nearly every winnable game has to be considered a "must-win" at this point. Indiana and Purdue are really the conference's only hopes for 7th NCAA tournament team. But probably even if they both manage to get their keels evened out, it'll be a hard road for either team to carve out a profile that the selection committee will fall in love with. I'm not confident for these Hoosiers' chances, but I remain hopeful.

8. Purdue (13-7, 3-4) L @ Northwestern 60-63 (2OT), L v Wisconsin 58-72

The Boilers had a bad week. Losing at Northwestern is no longer as humiliating as it would've been a few weeks
ago, but a struggling Wisconsin team didn't have much problem grinding out a double-digit win in Mackey. During a crucial stretch in the middle of the second half when the game got away from them, the Boilers were either relying  on threes (which weren't going in) or turning the ball over. It's all made tougher as their leading scorer simply isn't that accurate: Terone Johnson hitting 40% of his FGA is something of a victory these days. He does get to the line, though, and has paired his turnovers down. Of course, watch him not miss once against Indiana.

9. Northwestern (10-11, 3-5) W v Purdue 63-60 (2OT), L v Iowa 50-76

Although they just got crushed by Iowa at home, let's face it. Northwestern is way overachieving this season. Chris Collins has taken a bunch of players who had run a decent offense in their previous seasons at NU, and made them defensively adequate. This team drives me nuts. They're really the 10th best team in the conference on a
good day, but they've got wins over IU and Purdue now. Even though they might be able to notch 6 or 7 conference wins (stunning!), that won't get them into the NIT, even.

10. Illinois (13-8, 2-6) L @ Ohio State 55-62, L @ Indiana 46-56

It's not like anyone should've expected the Illini to get out of this last week with a split, but being the salve for two struggling teams is hardly encouraging. Six straight losses, Rayvonte Rice is playing hurt, and it's not like the schedule is going to get easier. They don't play a non-ranked team at home until February 26th, when they host Nebraska. This could get ugly.   

11. Nebraska (10-9, 2-5) W v Ohio State 68-62 , L @ PSU 54-58, W v Minnesota 78-82,

The Huskers prolonged the misery of the Buckeyes for their first win, but failed to build any momentum. However, they redeemed themselves after losing at Penn State  with a nice win over Minnesota. Sophomore Terran Pettaway went off for 35 points in the win, and went ahead and stuffed the box score with 6 rebounds, 3 assists, and a block and a steal. The Big Ten should consider itself notified, Petteway is one to watch. I'm not ready to boost them up too far, now that Tim Miles kicked Deverell Biggs off the team. It might be a necessary or a good move in the long run, but Nebraska didn't have a deep backcourt before Biggs got the boot.

12. Penn State (10-10, 1-6) W v Nebraska 58-54,

Well, they got the oh-fer status lifted, but their win over the Cornhuskers was not a thing of beauty. Last year, once Pat Chambers' club got the monkey off its back, they turned into a surprisingly competitve team down the stretch. Maybe this breakthrough, as ugly as it was, is what the Nittany Lions needed? If so, that would be bad news for the Buckeyes (probably not) and the Boilers (possibly), who play Penn State this week.