I've mentioned before that this year was pretty similar to last season in the way that the top Big Ten Basketball teams finished: One won sole possession of the regular season conference championship (Michigan, Indiana), one won the Big Ten Tourney (Michigan State, Ohio State) and one played their way to into the Final Four (Wisconsin, Michigan). However, looking at John Gasaway's Efficiency Margins alongside regular season and postseason achievement, one gets a pretty decent view of how you can categorize the conference in four simple tiers:
Team (Overall record, Conference record, Efficiency Margin) KenPom Final Rank, Postseason Finish
1. The Best and Brightest
Each of these teams has a good argument about why they were the best squad this year, and each peaked (at least once) at different times. It's good to see Big Ten teams getting back to the Final Four regularly, and certainly three teams in the Elite Eight is a pretty good result, but when is the conference going to break through and start winning national championships again?
Michigan (28-9, 15-3, +0.11) #10, NCAA Elite Eight
The Wolverines, sans Mitch McGary, tore through the regular season in conference, outpacing everyone by three full games. Incredible. This was especially impressive given their preconference mediocrity. However, barring a handful of games, the vast majority of the time,Michigan didn't really outclass any of their conference opponents. The games were competitive, and Michigan just won them. John Beilien, right now, has a good argument that he's the best coach in the conference.
Michigan State (29-9, 12-6, +0.09) #9, NCAA Elite Eight
As I noted previously, MSU had loads of talent and was on the brink of really demonstrating just how good they could be, all season long. This was the one team that IU played that I just threw my hands up and said "They're just flat-out better." And then they lost at home to Nebraska. And the home loss to Illinois. And they got swept by their in-state rivals. At least they paid Michigan back in the Big Ten Tourney title game, but this was a team that really peaked around the midway point in conference play (interestingly, while Payne was still recovering). Maybe as coach I highly respect used to say, it was a case of "too many piano players, and not enough piano handlers."
Wisconsin (30-8, 12-6, +0.08) #6, NCAA Final Four
Bo Ryan is no longer (arguably) the best coach never to get to the Final Four. And with almost everyone returning, UW's got a legitimate chance to vie for the national championship next season. I thought this looked like the best Wisconsin squad I had ever seen, but the Big Ten (so full of blood and spiders) really took the air out of their sails for a bit. But they rallied and closed strong to build momentum going into the NCAA tourney. This was an incredible efficient team offensively, but if there's one area to nitpick, it's on defense. Their per-possession defense was solidly 7th in the conference, which is maybe unexpected - but that's what cost them in their narrow Final Four loss to Kentucky. They just couldn't get the stops when they absolutely needed them.
2. Not Quite There
Iowa (20-13, 9-9, +0.07ppp) #28, NCAA Round of 68
It was a long fall from being the fashionable darkhorses of the conference championship race, to sweating out Selection Sunday and falling in overtime to an ascendant Tennessee squad in Dayton. Whether the Hawkeyes were hurt by Coach McCaffrey's offseason distractions, or by Melsahn Basabe's illness, or whatever, Iowa could never really realize the potential that always seemed just below the surface. Again, I would point at team defense as a major reason for this team's uneven performance. Does that get better next season? After a quick look at the expected roster, I'm really not sure how much better it could get.
Minnesota (25-13, 7-11, -0.02ppp) #44, NIT Champions
The Gophers sure ended the season on a great note, winning the NIT. This was not team taking revenge for NCAA tournament exclusion, like foes SMU or FSU might have done. Minnesota had shown little of that promise earlier. After demolishing a weak non-conference schedule, Pitino's club limped out to a 4-6 start before somewhat rallying to split the last ten games before their NIT selection. Furthermore, starting power forward Oto Osenieks may have not been clearly worse than replacement Joey King, but his efficiency, keyed by his defensive per-possession numbers, had been consistently better. Senior Austin Hollins will be harder to replace next season, but Coach Pitino should NCAA Tourney expectations for next year's roster.
Nebraska (19-13, 11-7, +0.00ppp) #48, NCAA Round of 64
One of the surprises of the conference, Nebraska looked like the cellar-dwelling team they were picked to be until they reeled off three home wins to close out January. Turns out, they were just getting started, winning 9 of their next 11 games to clinch a NCAA tournament berth. They didn't do much against Baylor, but the ice was broken, and with seven of their top eight players returning from the end of the season, Coach Miles has to be looking forward to the future. I'm curious to see how the thin backcourt holds up without a clear replacement Ray Gallegos, but Miles will probably find a way.
Ohio State (25-10, 10-8, +0.05ppp) #20, NCAA Round of 64
The Buckeyes' soft non-conference schedule was exposed pretty quickly, as they stumbled to a 3-5 start in Big Ten play. However, they bounced back nicely, with a key road win at Madison starting a strong finish. Although they didn't make as much noise in the postseason as they did last year, there's no shame in losing a one-point game to a team that clawed their way into the Elite Eight. Like many Big Ten fans, I'm glad to see Aaron Craft move on, but Shannon Scott will ensure the Buckeye perimeter remains formidable next season.
3. There's lots of "I's" in this tier
These were two teams that, in the end, didn't really fit with either the above of below. Each had moments of achievement, and each sometimes looked like they belonged in squarely in the bottom tier.
Illinois (20-15, 7-11, -.07) #49, NIT Second Round
Until they snapped the stretch wherein they lost 10 of 11 games by winning at Minnesota, Groce's team looked like it was possibly the worst in the conference. After all, the gaudy 11-2 pre-conference appeared to be based on a soft schedule once Missouri started floundering, and remaining above .500 overall seemed pretty unlikely. But then they caught fire and beat Michigan State and Iowa both on the road, and beat Indiana in the Big Ten Tourney to secure a NIT berth. They still were pretty clearly not a NCAA tourney-worthy club, but at least there's something to build on here.
Indiana (17-15, 7-11, -.04) #67
One of the most disappointing years since the latter Mike Davis years. It'd be easy to blame this team's woes on bad luck or poor timing, but there's some fundamental things that need to change for IU move forward next season. Crean has addressed the need for shooters with recruiting, but I'm not sure if playing freshmen guards is going to help a key issue - turnovers. There will always be some turnovers, due to Crean's system, but I think it's also symptomatic of some of the intangibles that need addressed: Yogi needs to create his leadership role, and the team needs to understand their roles, and efficiency on both sides of the ball should follow. Should.
4. The Bottom
This was also one of the stronger bottom tiers that I've ever seen in the conference. For example, PSU swept OSU, Northwestern won at Wisconsin and Minnesota, and Purdue won at Illinois and dismantled Indiana.
Northwestern (14-19, 6-12, -.15ppp) #131
Even though Northwestern was the worst team in the conference by most measures, Chris Collins has to feel pretty good about getting some positives out of the year. A very surprising start to the Big Ten play keyed the Wildcats not finishing last, and Collins secured a recruiting haul that hasn't been seen in Evanston in years, if ever. it's hard to point out why they did so well, but I think almost everyone that Collins played wasn't particularly bad on defense, giving them a chance to execute and spring some upsets.
Penn State (16-18, 6-12, -.07) #82, CBI Second Round
Well, at least Pat Chambers got PSU to some sort of postseason. I know folks in Happy Valley like the guy a lot, but next season will really show whether Chambers is building for the future, or whether the second-place nature of basketball's standing at PSU will eventually doom his efforts as well. There are some pieces that can grow here, notably Brandon Taylor and Donovan Jack, and I would keep an eye on Geno Thorpe, too, but replacing Tim Frazier on both sides of the floor will be a daunting task.
Purdue (15-17, 5-13 -.07ppp) #97
So, even though the Boilers did indeed finish last in the conference standings, they were a lot closer to Indiana in efficiency margin than they were to Northwestern. But the senior game home finale chokejob to Northwestern secured Purdue's place at the bottom. I'd guess Painter is hoping that addition-through-subtraction is what really boosts the program next season, or his seat will move from warm to hot. I do think it all hinges on the point guard question, although I'd keep an eye on Raphael Davis and Basil Smotherman, too.
Coming up in Part III: Personnel losses and additions, and forecasting for 2014-2015.