By Michael Reed
There is no debating the best college basketball conference in the land; it’s the
Big Ten B1G. Here are the inaugural POWER RANKINGS! of the B1G. So buckle up, box out, and put on your Jim Burr Halloween costume and read on….
1. Michigan (18-1, 5-1)
Michigan has the number one rated offense in the country according to KenPom. Michigan has Trey Burke, who is playing like Chris Paul without the fawning positive press about how he helps students with calculus1. Michigan has a freshman, Nik Stauskas, who is shooting 49% on 3s and 83% on 2s. In its four B1G victories, it has won by margins of 28, 28, 15, and 8. It’s only loss came at Ohio State by a measly 3 points. They have destroyed the weak (obliterating Northwestern, Iowa, and Nebraska), and robbed from the rich on the road (at Minnesota). John Beilein has a squad, to say the least.
The only downside here is that Michigan’s 39th rated defense is not on par historically with other deep tournament teams, so Wolverine fans should wait and see if their defense improves in the maniacal B1G season before booking hotel rooms in Atlanta.
2. Michigan State (17-3, 6-1)
Who breaks up a fight between Branden Dawson and Adreian Payne? I assume Bane, but he’s hopefully busy getting ready for The Harbaugh Bowl of Death. Actually, maybe True Leader of Great Men Ray Lewis could have broken it up through careful moral guidance or by notifying the local authorities in exchange for more lenient treatment by the justice system2.
A strong case can be made for Indiana here, but Michigan State beat Kansas (who doesn’t lose, ever) in the non-conference, has 3 road wins already including at Wisconsin, and it’s only loss came in a hard fought battle in Minneapolis, or as Trevor Mbakwe refers to it, the Land of My Thousand Probation Officers. It’s a close call surely, and while Michigan State has been the beneficiary of good luck with 3 wins of 3 points or less, Michigan State seems more comfortable in its own skin than Indiana at this point. The Spartans will defend, they will rebound, and they will almost certainly watch Zero Dark Thirty at some point this year, followed by Mateen Cleaves and Draymond Green leading a discussion with the team entitled: “The Role of Torture in the War on Terror, or, Why if You Guys Don’t Out-rebound Indiana by 20 Izzo will Waterboard in Practice Again.”
3. Indiana (17-2, 5-1)
Friend of the Column Michael is a Hoosier diehard and therefore is as sharp as they come when analyzing Tommy Crean’s band of Merry Media Favorites. Take it away, Mrs. Coverdale:
Aside from Marley and Me, I’ve never seen a snuff film. But if I ever do, I expect it would evoke the same sense of metaphysical despair that I felt while watching last week’s home loss to Wisconsin. For 40 minutes in Bloomington, the Badgers’ gang of corn-fed, vaguely Nordic basketball oafs invaded Assembly Hall and shut down one of the nation’s most breathtaking offenses by, quite simply, doing Wisconsin Shit. From the get-go, they bled every shot clock into single digits before sinking jumpers that seemed, at once, fluky but calculated. They weaseled their way to every 50-50 ball. They kept IU out of transition and grabbed, shoved, and hip-tossed the Hoosiers into stasis in half court sets. In the final moments, the insufferable Mike Bruesewitz flashed the Hoosier faithful a shit-eating smirk that told the whole story: Wisconsin sucked the air out of the ball—and the art out of the game—but they won. The anthropomorphic gargoyle they call Bo Ryan would later liken his players to “junkyard dogs.” Some men don’t care about basketball’s aesthetic qualities. Some men just want to watch the world burn.
Comfortable victories at Northwestern and against Penn State this week may have shooed IU fans away from the cliff’s edge, but neither of those games means anything when you’re talking about the preseason NCAA title favorite. IU still has world-beating talent, but losing to Wisconsin—and, to a lesser extent, Butler—may have supplied the world with a template to snuff the life out of Crean and Co., at least for those who are willing to get their hands dirty.
FUN FACT: Friend of the Column Michael is a better defensive player than Jordan Hulls. In a just world, Tyler Griffey of Illinois and Hulls would be forced to see if they could stop a junior high basketball player from scoring.
Unrelated to the POWER RANKINGS! but worth mentioning is the occasional bit of Palace Intrigue among The Fraternity of B1G Coaches. No coach however is in more feuds than Tom Crean, who is not exchanging Christmas cards with Thad Matta (recruiting, Bob Knight’s famous love and affection), Matt Painter (IU-Purdue rivalry and recruiting), and Bo Ryan (Marquette-Wisconsin). After IU’s confidence-shaking loss at home to Bo’s Badgers, Crean delivered the best Passive Aggressive Postgame Comments of the young conference season.
CREAN: “We just weren’t moving the ball like we should have, like we do, and I think when we see the film, we’ll see that it’s not as much them as it was us…I’m not taking anything away from them. They played well.”
CREAN: “In the second half, they made shots and some of them reminded me of the Michael Jordan-Larry Bird McDonald’s commercial.”
Translation: Wisconsin is not actually good, we were just bad and that was our fault, not theirs, and I am in fact taking away something them, and they made crazy, lucky, shots that reminded me of a popular commercial from twenty years ago.
Despite all this,
Account Man Pete Campbell Tom Crean just wants to be loved and appreciated, everyone, so if you happen to crash your car in Bloomington in the middle of the night, be sure to say thank you and be particularly complimentary on the record of Tommy to the accompanying media member that shows up with Crean to get your car out of a ditch.
4. Ohio State (14-4, 4-2)
The most successful Big Ten program of the last decade was seemingly having a down year. The Buckeyes skipped through a soft nonconference with acceptable losses at Duke and at home to Kansas, but they weren’t exactly passing the All-Important Eye Test of Final Four Worthiness. It all culminated in a 19-point loss on the road to Illinois, a team that makes Carrie Mathison look emotionally stable, in which they trailed by more than twenty for the most of the 2nd half. Yet, considering Ohio State’s past consistency, a team that defends as well as any in the conference, and Deshaun Thomas, this team could easily win 12 conference games again. They aren’t scoring like they typically do (they are the 8th most efficient offense in the B1G during conference play), but they seem to have composed themselves after their disastrous trip to Champaign.
5. Wisconsin (13-6, 4-2)
After their 11th straight win against Indiana last week, the
Mike Wilkinsons Badgers sat 4-0 in B1G and once again looked poised for another top four finish in the conference. Losses at Iowa and at home to Michigan State however pulled the Badgers back to the middle of the pack, but fear not, Badger fans-Bo’s slow and yet always efficient brand of basketball will win more often than not the rest of the way. They will also definitely beat someone they shouldn’t at the United Center in the B1G Tournament, most likely on Friday night, 45-39, prompting national journalists to question the meaning of life.
6. Minnesota (15-4, 3-3)
Tubby Smith’s Mustache is ranked 1st in the POWER RANKINGS! of Eternity; Tubby Smith and his Mustache were originally cast in the James Spader role in Lincoln but went to Spader after Smith was notified by the US government that Trevor Mbakwe was spotted in Syria.
Thanks to Tubby Smith’s Mustache, Minnesota has been the surprise story of the B1G season. For once in Smith’s tenure in Minneapolis, he has a team that is completely healthy and, for the moment, devoid of any off the court distractions. Large deficits at Indiana and at home against Michigan suggest this team might not be hoisting any banners in the Barn, but finishing with 10 or more wins in the Big Ten this year is no small achievement, and may either push Smith’s program into a consistent NCAA Tournament team or drive him to warmer pastures3. Last night’s loss to Northwestern however is bad, but worse perhaps is how hapless the Gophers looked against Northwestern’s consistently unimaginative and poor 1-3-1 zone. The best case scenario for most teams against that 1-3-1 is a WIDE OPEN 3 from the corner. For a team with as many athletes as Minnesota has, they have been zipping the ball around and eventually over the top for thundering dunk after thundering dunk.
7. Purdue (10-9, 3-3)
At Illinois, the common narrative of Bruce Weber’s downfall was that once Bill Self’s players left, all the good times were over. That’s a gross oversimplification, but the talent simply never materialized in Champaign after Dee, Deron, and Luther left campus. Bruce Weber’s former consigliere at Southern Illinois and Purdue, Matt Painter, rode Robbie Hummel, JaJaun Johnson, and E’Twaun Moore to seasons with 25, 27, 29, 26 and 22 wins. Without that nucleus, this season seems like Purdue is starting over, and considering their shared Keady lineage, the Weber narrative works at the moment if not necessarily fair4.
Although their wins aren’t outstanding so far (Illinois, Nebraska, Penn State), a 3-3 start in the B1G is still impressive for this offensively challenged (136th nationally) group. Unfortunately for the Boilermakers, 6 nonconference losses will probably cost them a chance at the Big Dance, as they still need 10 more wins to get to 20 wins overall5.
8. Illinois (15-5, 2-4)
You know the opening scene in Inception? Leonardo DiCaprio is passed out on a beach, looking horrible, gets dragged up to Ken Watanabe, who somehow looks even worse, and there is a bunch of hard to understand yet unmistakably direct Nolan dialogue about a “half-remembered dream?” The scene is repeated at the end of the movie. After Illinois was humiliated at home again by a Northwestern program that only practices defense on April Fools’ Day, Illinois fans woke up on the next day feeling like DiCaprio but LOOKED more like the Watanabe character, undoubtedly whispering “Dee…I must see Dee again…”
Last season’s 15-3 start ended in flames, with an NBA Lottery Pick crying against NEBRASKA and Bruce Weber Becoming Ned Stark. Enter John Groce, a man who looked like Jim Furyk but actually had more than 5 hours worth of energy. With deservedly low expectations (a team that lost 11 of its last 12 games, their coach fired, their best player leave for the NBA , and no new freshmen arrived on campus), the Groce Era would surely take 3 years, at least. As everyone knows, something entirely different happened, as a difficult nonconference season became a 13-1 start, with resume enhancing victories at Gonzaga and a rout over Butler in Maui. Illinois was playing a completely different brand of basketball, fast and open, and gosh darn it, The Players Are Having Fun Again. Then, Illinois’ players and its fan went to limbo, or wherever it is Ellen Page said it was. They were beat up by Minnesota in Champaign, then never even made the trip to Madison, and lost to Northwestern at home, just like last year.
If there is a silver lining here for Illinois, it’s that it won’t have the Bruce Weber anvil hanging over them this year, and John Groce’s Ohio teams played their best basketball in February and March. If Illinois’ players have any soul left at this point, they should be able to win enough games against the bottom of the league to make the tournament. A win at Nebraska, even by 20, however, doesn’t get you out of college basketball purgatory, which is exactly where this Illinois team sits.
Will Illinois ever wake up from the Dream World of College Basketball Mediocrity? Will John Groce get a technical each game because B1G refs are hopelessly obsessed with their own vanity and want to make things tough on the “new guy?” Is Brandon Paul always in the Dream World, where he believes there is no such thing as a “bad shot?” Was the Joseph Gordon Levitt character solely used for explaining overly complex plot details that were covered up by a dramatic score and expert pacing? Stay tuned!
9. Northwestern (12-8, 3-4)
Without a doubt, Bill Carmody is the greatest coach in the history of Northwestern basketball. Having said that, the best basketball coach in the history of Northwestern is the equivalent to being the greatest captain in the history of the Titanic, except if the Titanic kept crashing every year for fifty years.
Even with Northwestern coming closer than ever the last few years to making the NCAAs, the powers that be in Evanston last year seemed on the verge of shoving Carmody and his eternal coat and no tie combo out the door6. With the loss of Drew Crawford (injury) and JerShon Cobb (academics) for the season, Carmody’s fate may be sealed by circumstances largely beyond his control. Despite wins over Illinois and Minnesota, this team is once again horrific defensively, ranking dead last in B1G play, and it’s hard to see them finishing anywhere near .500 in conference play considering the lack of talent and cohesive defensive philosophy. Of their next 5 games, 4 are away from the snug and often indifferent confines of Welsh Ryan Arena. But, they do have a Swopshire, and the Swopshire has been clocked at 32 miles per hour.
10. Iowa (13-6, 2-4)
You can argue, just purely looking at the numbers, that Iowa should be higher. After all, Iowa is rated 28th overall in KenPom, while Illinois sits at 55th. Illinois however has those aforementioned victories and Northwestern has a pair of Top 25 victories now, while the best victory for this Iowa squad came against an unranked Wisconsin squad this weekend. This was supposed to be the year Fran McCaffrey, with his considerable anger and propensity towards violence as a motivational technique, took Iowa to the middle of the B1G and possibly the NCAA Tournament. Even after a 2-4 start, the jury is still out on this squad, but considering their non-conference, the Hawkeyes probably need a .500 finish in the conference to have a chance, including a win at home over Indiana, Minnesota, or potentially Illinois. If that doesn’t happen, just remember world, Fran McCaffery has killed for less.
11. Nebraska (10-10, 1-6)
“We played with zero pride.” You go, Coach Miles. Don’t let them change you.
12. Penn State (8-11, 0-7)
On the bright side, at least…. never mind.
- It wasn’t enough that Chris Paul was one of the best players on paper going into the college basketball season in 2004-2005. No, he was also the nicest, most wonderful man the world has ever seen. A True Leader of Great Men in Academia, and he was the subject of endless puff pieces of his unquestioned Moral Fortitude, including an ESPN the Magazine cover story. Those stories were once again proven to be a fantastic idea, as Paul and his Wake Forest team didn’t win the ACC and were bounced in the second round of the tournament, and Paul himself honored his Great Man in History Legacy by punching Julius Hodge in the testicles. ↩
- Couldn’t resist, sorry, Ray Lewis apologists. ↩
- From seemingly the second he arrived in Minneapolis, Tubby Smith has been rumored for numerous other high-profile openings, including Virginia, Clemson, and
The University of SwooshOregon. ↩
- It’s not fair for Weber or Painter; Weber didn’t recruit Dee-Deron-Luther, but he had far more success than Painter had with Hummel-Johnson-Moore, while Painter actually recruited the talent that won so many games. ↩
- Considering the strength of the B1G, a team that reaches 20 wins has a better than decent chance of getting in, especially a team like Purdue that played a reasonably difficult non-conference slate. ↩
- The guy Northwestern would have jumped at last year and this spring potentially is Chris Collins, the long time Duke underling and son of Philadelphia 76ers coach Doug Collins. Last March, Collins, through his father and Coach K, pushed desperately to be involved in the Illinois search. The lack of heading coaching experience and poor track record of the Coach K coaching tree meant he was never a player in the Illinois search. For a consistently down and out program with high academic standards whose campus is 15 minutes from where the Duke assistant Collins grew up, Northwestern would love nothing more than to bring some man to man defense and floor-slapping to Welsh Ryan arena. ↩