Welcome to the Big Ten 2019: The Blood and Spiders Are Back

By RossWB on November 30, 2018 at 1:00 pm
there are spiders hiding in the dark

© Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

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Several years ago, back at our old digs, Adam declared the Big Ten "full of blood and spiders." This was in 2013-14, when the league was riding high and loaded with quality from top to almost-bottom. The idea was that the there were so many good teams in the league that every game was a battle and there were no off nights; the difference between the fourth-place team in the league and the 11th-place team was miniscule. Those heady days didn't last -- the arrival of Rutgers made the bottom of the Big Ten much softer and the overall quality of the league ebbed away a bit in the last few years, highlighted (lowlighted?) by last year's campaign, when just four teams made the NCAA Tournament (although even then Michigan made the title game, so it wasn't all bad news for the league). 

Well, it's starting to look like the blood and spiders might be back this year. After a few years of getting their teeth kicked in by the ACC in the annual ACC-Big Ten Challenge (the ACC won 9-5 in 2016 and humiliated the Big Ten 11-3 last year), the conferences finished in a 7-7 dead heat this year -- and the Big Ten would have won, 8-6, if Purdue had managed to close out Florida State on Wednesday night. The league is also exceedingly well-represented in the KenPom rankings: it's ranked second in the country (behind the Big 12) and 12 of the league's 14 teams are ranked 53rd or better. That's basically 25% of the Top 50 teams in the country hailing from the Big Ten. The ACC only has 10 teams that can say that. And their bottom -- Pitt and Wake Forest -- is weaker than the Big Ten's bottom as well. Illinois and Rutgers aren't good, per se, but they're not pushovers, either -- the Illini are 89th in the latest KP rankings while Rutgers bottoms out at... 103rd. That's pretty good for the worst team in the league. 

So with league play getting underway this weekend, let's take an overview of the league and see how teams are looking, particularly compared to preseason expectations. We'll use the preseason conference projections voted on by the Big Ten media, as reported by The Athletic

1) Michigan State (5-2)
Preseason KenPom:
13
Current KenPom: 11

Sparty has been pretty much who we thought they were: a talented team likely to be one of the Big Ten's best. They narrowly lost to Kansas to start the year dropped a 4-point game to Louisville in OT on the road; no great shame in those losses, even if this doesn't appear to be top-tier Louisville outfit. They also blasted UCLA and beat Texas by 10 on neutral courts and they rank in the Top 20 in offensive efficiency and defensive efficiency; they're going to be just fine. 

2) Michigan (7-0)
Preseason KenPom:
23
Current KenPom: 6

Michigan won 14 games in a row at the end of last season before falling to Villanova in the national championship game (beating Iowa twice in that span, once in the regular season and once in the Big Ten Tournament), but they don't appear to have missed a beat -- despite missing Moritz Wagner, Duncan Robinson, and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman from that team. They're 7-0 this year and all seven wins have been comfortably by double digits; in fact, their closest win of the season so far was a 17-point win over North Carolina on Wednesday night. In addition to drilling UNC, they disintegrated Villanova and thrashed a decent-looking Providence team. Like last year's Wolverine squad, they're playing lights out defense, currently ranked #1 in defensive efficiency in the country. 

3) Indiana (5-2)
Preseason KenPom:
27
Current KenPom: 21

Indiana has pretty much lived up to expectations so far this season. They're coming off an absolute humbling by Duke at Cameron Indoor, but... Duke's gonna do that to a lot of teams this year, so getting rolled by the Blue Devils is hardly a mark of shame. IU's only other loss was a one-point loss to Arkansas on the road. They haven't been tested a lot -- four of their five wins have come against teams ranked 227 or lower in the KenPom rankings -- but they did thrash Marquette by 20+ in the Gavitt Games earlier this month. Super-frosh Romeo Langford looks like the real deal so far: 17.7 ppg (46.7% FG), 5.9 rpg, 2.4 apg. 

4) Nebraska (6-1)
Preseason KenPom:
38
Current KenPom: 21

Nebrasketball's inclusion in the preseason top four of the league was a surprise, but so far they've looked pretty solid. Their only loss came at a neutral site against a very good Texas Tech team. Like IU, they've mostly been beating up on cupcakes (four wins over teams ranked 211 or lower in the KP rankings), but they've also been absolutely housing those teams; their closest margin of victory in those games was 23 points and they already have two 50+ point margin of victories (including a 106-37 win over Mississippi Valley State). Their best wins are a 23-point drubbing of a quality Seton Hall team at home and, just this week, edging a quality Clemson team on the road. Their calling card is defense -- they're 20th in the defensive efficiency, 1st in effective field goal percentage defense, 4th in 3FG% defense, and 5th in 2FG% defense -- so they're going to make opponents work for all their buckets. If they don't end up finishing 4th this year it probably says more about the quality of the rest of the Big Ten than it does the failures of Nebraska. 

5) Purdue (5-2)
Preseason KenPom:
18
Current KenPom: 12

Purdue is just a few buckets away from being 7-0 and likely ranked inside the Top 10. They lost 89-83 to Virginia Tech on a neutral court in a game that got away from them late and just lost to Florida State 73-72 on the road in another game they had ample chances to win late. Purdue lost Vince Edwards, Isaac Haas, Dakota Mathias, and PJ Thompson from last year's team, but so far the Carsen Edwards Show (25.1 ppg on 44.4% FG/39.4% 3FG, 2.6 rpg, 4.1 apg) has been enough to win, especially with solid support contributions from Ryan Cline (15.3 ppg on 45.8% FG) and Evan Boudreaux (11.3 ppg on 55.6% FG). Purdue will probably go as far as Carsen Edwards can carry them -- but he's good enough to take them pretty far. 

6) Wisconsin (6-1)
Preseason KenPom: 19
Current KenPom: 13

Damn Badgers. After a rare down year last season, the Badgers... might be back? They already have four wins over teams ranked in the KenPom Top 100(ish), highlighted by a blowout win over Oklahoma in the Battle 4 Atlantis and a narrow win over NC State in the Challenge earlier this week. Their lone loss was 7-point setback (53-46... blecch) to Virginia in the Battle 4 Atlantis finals, which is certainly not a loss to be ashamed about. The Badgers are all about Ethan Happ, who is the latest in the long (long) line of annoyingly talented big guys in Madison. This year Happ has been even better than advertised, scoring 18.0 ppg (on 54.8% shooting), grabbing 12.3 rpg, and dishing out 5.3 apg. He's currently leading KenPom's Player of the Year standings, so yeah... pretty good! The Badgers are also getting good production out of D'Mitrik Price (17.0 ppg on 48.2% FG, 60% from 3FG), but this is the Ethan Happ Show through and through. If you're not a Badger fan, it's not going to be a very fun show to watch. 

7) Maryland (6-1)
Preseason KenPom: 28
Current KenPom: 34

The Terps were perfect this year before they renewed acquaintances with their old conference-mate Virginia on Wednesday; they lost to the Cavaliers, which dropped Maryland to 0-5 in the Challenge since they switched sides five years ago. Virginia was also the first time Maryland had really leveled up in terms of competition this year; their six wins had come against three teams ranked in the 300s of the KenPom rankings and against three teams ranked between 99 and 187. Maryland was another team that suffered a few notable losses after last season (Kevin Huerter, Dion Wiley, Justin Jackson), but they returned Anthony Cowan and Bruno Fernando, and they've turned into a dynamite 1-2 punch. Cowan is averaging 16.6 ppg (46.6% FG), 4.4 rpg, and 4.6 apg, while Fernando is scoring 15.9 ppg (on 77% shooting!) and 9.6 rpg. Freshmen Jalen Smith (12.1 ppg, 7.1 rpg) and Aaron Wiggins (10.6 ppg, 4.3 rpg) have been big additions, too. 

8) Ohio State (6-1)
Preseason KenPom:
41
Current KenPom: 29

The Buckeyes were the surprise of the Big Ten last year, going 25-9 overall and 15-3 in the league. Year Two of the Chris Holtmann Era is off to a good start as well, as they've already banked road wins over Cincinnati and Creighton, which could be very nice resume boosters come March. Aside from that they've roasted a bunch of bad teams and lost by 10 at home to Syracuse earlier this week. OSU has been rolling with balance this year: six players are averaging at least 21 minutes per game and seven players are averaging at least 7.0 ppg, led by sophomore Kaleb Wesson with 14.4 ppg and senior C.J. Jackson with 13.6 ppg. 

9) Minnesota (5-1)
Preseason KenPom:
59
Current KenPom: 53

The Gophers are presently the lowest ranked of the 12 Big Ten teams ranked in the Top 50(ish) of the KenPom rankings, though they did drop 8 spots after losing by 12 at Boston College earlier this week. Minnesota has generally eschewed playing cupcakes so far (only two of their six games have been against teams ranked lower than 200, and none have been lower than 244) and they have a tricky stretch coming up: a neutral(ish) court game against Oklahoma State (at US Bank Stadium) and then a road game at Ohio State and a home game with Nebraska. If they emerge from that gauntlet with at least two wins, it's probably time to start taking the Gophers seriously this year. 

10) Iowa (6-0)
Preseason KenPom:
34
Current KenPom: 38

Hey, that's us! Despite being 6-0, Iowa's KenPom ranking has actually... gone down? It's true -- Iowa started the year ranked 34th in the KP rankings but has dipped to 38th as of today. They were actually up to 32nd prior to the Pitt game, so that shambles of a performance really dinged them in the KP rankings. That said, Iowa has been hovering around the 30s in the KenPom rankings all season; their wins over Oregon and UConn were nice, but neither of them is great right now and Iowa's performances in some of their wins hasn't been lights out. Still, keep winning and good things will come. 

11) Penn State (4-2)
Preseason KenPom:
31
Current KenPom: 37

Penn State has been a tricky team to figure out thus far: they have two of the lousiest losses in the Big Ten (Ls to DePaul and Bradley), though both were close (they lost to DePaul by two in OT and lost to Bradley by three), but they also scored one of the Big Ten's best wins in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, nipping Virginia Tech 63-62. They also have one of the biggest splits between offense and defense in the Big Ten: they're 9th in defensive efficiency, but 90th in offensive efficiency. (Only Rutgers has a more lopsided split; they're 10th in the defensive efficiency, but 269th (!) in offensive efficiency.) Penn State looks like a team that will probably eat a few too many losses to build a successful NCAA Tournament, but they'll definitely dish out a few upsets too and you will not want to play them in February if you're a bubble team. 

12) Northwestern (6-1)
Preseason KenPom:
54
Current KenPom: 47

Northwestern followed up 2017's historic NCAA Tournament appearance with a losing record last year, but they look poised to improve on that showing this year. They're the 11th of the 12 teams the Big Ten has in the KenPom Top 50(ish), but at the moment they look more like a potential spoiler than an NCAA Tournament team. Their best win to date was against Georgia Tech earlier this week and they wheezed to the finish line in that game. They also got blasted by nearly 20 points by Fresno State. Right now they look more like a team that's likely to spoil things for a bubble team in late February than secure their own bid to the dance, but if they can string together some Big Ten wins early... 

13) Illinois (2-5)
Preseason KenPom:
83
Current KenPom: 89

No B1G team has struggled more than the Illini -- they have five of the league's 20 losses (20%) to date -- but no B1G team has faced a more daunting schedule, either. Four of their five losses have been against teams ranked 57th or better in the KenPom rankings and their other loss was against Georgetown (ranked 100th at the time). They've taken their licks with that brutal schedule, but they've showed some flashes, too -- they gave Gonzaga everything they could handle in a 6-point loss at the Maui Invitational last week. They'll have a losing record this year, but they're going to be a landmine laying in wait in the Big Ten this year -- and they're probably going to blow off a few limbs. 

14) Rutgers (5-1)
Preseason KenPom:
149
Current KenPom: 103

Look at Rutgers -- yes, even Rutgers! -- shooting up the KenPom rankings in the season's early going. Like a lot of teams, they've been mainly feasting on more or less cupcakes (four teams ranked 163 or lower via KenPom), but they're been dominating those games, which is what you need to do -- four of their five wins have been by 10+ points (and three of five have been by 30+ or more, essentially). Their only loss was against a Top 50 St. John's team and they just scored a narrow win over a quality Miami team on the road. They aren't going to be an easy out this year. 


So that's the Big Ten as it stands right now: quality from the top all the way down (more or less). There aren't going to be many chances to catch your breath during league play. The good news is that being in the Big Ten should have a positive halo effect this year, so league wins will mean more from a national perspective and you might not need as many wins to get into the NCAA Tournament. A 20-win Big Ten team should be an absolute lock for the tourney this year and 18- and 19-win teams should be in pretty good stead too. The bad news, of course, is that getting to that point is going to be a bear. The Big Ten is going to be a grind this year and, for Iowa, the grind starts tonight.  

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