With the conference season now past its halfway point, things are starting to take shape in the Big Ten. Five teams appear to be safely in the NCAA Tournament barring a complete collapse, while four others face critical stretches in the coming weeks as they attempt to improve their profile.
1. Ohio State (20-3, 8-2 Big Ten)
Best Win: Duke
Worst Loss: Illinois
The Buckeyes have won five straight since losing at Illinois, most recently handing the Badgers another loss at the Kohl Center. OSU ranks first both offensive and defensive efficiency during league play, and they rank first in all four factors defensively. Only two conference foes have scored more than 0.94 points per possession against them, while five have scored less than 0.80 ppp. On offense, the Buckeyes have scored at least 1.00 ppp in all 10 of their league games and have gone for at least 1.08 ppp in eight contests. If they can hold serve at home against Purdue and Michigan State this week, OSU will open up a two-game lead in the standings.
2. Michigan State (18-5, 7-3 Big Ten)
Best Win: Wisconsin
Worst Loss: Northwestern
Sparty lost 42-41 against Illinois last week, and the game was every bit as ugly as that score would indicate. Neither team scored more than 0.75 ppp, and just thinking about that game makes my head hurt. MSU bounced back to knock off Michigan at home on Sunday, but the schedule gets tougher starting with Saturday’s game in Columbus. Not surprisingly, the Spartans are first in OReb% in league play, and after dreadful shooting to start the season, they are second in eFG%. They also rank second in defensive efficiency and have held their last four opponents to 0.92 ppp or less.
3. Wisconsin (18-6, 7-4 Big Ten)
Best Win: UNLV
Worst Loss: Iowa
Saturday’s loss to Ohio State snapped a six-game winning streak for the Badgers, who have clawed their way back into the race following a 1-3 start in Big Ten play. Defense continues to be their calling card, as Wisconsin ranks third in defensive efficiency during conference play. Five of their last six opponents have scored 0.95 ppp or less, which speaks to their half court defense given a league-worst 14.6 TO%. The Badgers continue to rely heavily on three-pointers with 41.7% of their field goal attempts coming from beyond the arc. However, they are hitting just over 30% from deep and are next to last in free throw rate. As usual, they rarely turn the ball over, but they are definitely on vulnerable on nights when long-range shots aren’t falling. Starting with trips to Minnesota and Michigan State, Wisconsin plays four of their next five away from home.
4. Michigan (17-7, 7-4 Big Ten)
Best Win: Michigan State
Worst Loss: Iowa
The Wolverines have now alternated wins and losses over their last eight games. Defense is the biggest reason for concern, as six of their last seven opponents have scored at least 1.04 ppp. The Wolverines are second in TO% and opponents’ FTR, but they have allowed conference foes to shoot well from three-point range and have occasionally been victimized on the offensive glass. Michigan is in the middle of the pack in terms of offensive efficiency. They rank third in TO%, but rank 10th in OReb% and 12th in FTR with a paltry 27.8 mark. Like Wisconsin, the Wolverines shoot a ton of threes (43.6% of their attempts), but their success rate leaves a bit to be desired (31.7%). Even so, they have managed at least 1.03 ppp in eight of their 11 conference games. This team can play with virtually anyone, but don’t expect them to be a model of consistency down the stretch.
5. Indiana (18-6, 6-6 Big Ten)
Best Win: Kentucky
Worst Loss: Nebraska
After picking up a much-needed road win at Purdue, the Hoosiers play five of their final seven games at home. Indiana allowed just 0.91 ppp against the Boilers, which made it their best performance of the conference season by a fairly wide margin. IU still ranks 10th in defensive efficiency and has surrendered at least 1.08 ppp in eight of their 12 conference games. After scoring 0.97 ppp or less in three of their last seven contests, the offense hasn’t been perfect either. That said, the Hoosiers rank first in eFG% and third in OReb% and FTR despite playing a tough early schedule. No matter how good the offensive numbers look, this team will go only as far as its defense can take them.
6. Illinois (16-7, 5-5 Big Ten)
Best Win: Ohio State
Worst Loss: Penn State
Since beating Ohio State, the Illini have lost four of five games with the lone victory coming against Michigan State last week. The offense has been brutal at times during that stretch, and Illinois has scored more than 1.00 ppp just twice in league play. They need to get the ball to Meyers Leonard more often, because their long-range shooting has been poor. Turnovers have also been an issue, and even the defense failed them in Sunday’s home loss to Northwestern when they surrendered 1.25 ppp. Things could get dicey for the Illini with four of their next five on the road, including trips to Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio State.
7. Purdue (15-8, 5-5 Big Ten)
Best Win: Temple
Worst Loss: Penn State
The Boilers have now lost three of their last four games, and defensive issues continue to be a main reason why. They have allowed six straight opponents to score at least 1.01 ppp, and six league foes have hung at least 1.09 ppp on Purdue. They rank 10th in opponents’ FTR, 10th in eFG% defense, and last in three-point defense during Big Ten play. On offense, they are first in the nation in TO%, but they rank eighth or worse in the other three factors in conference games. Shooting woes continue to plague the Boilers, but they have still managed at least 1.05 ppp in seven of their 10 league games. The upcoming schedule is full of challenges, starting with a road trip to Columbus this week.
8. Minnesota (17-7, 5-6 Big Ten)
Best Win: Indiana
Worst Loss: Iowa (twice)
After starting 0-4 in league play, the Gophers have won four of six games, although many of those have come against the lower half of the conference. Their next six contests are brutal as they face Wisconsin twice, Ohio State, Northwestern, Michigan State, and Indiana. Minnesota ranks eighth in offensive efficiency, and they have scored 1.02 ppp or fewer in all six of their Big Ten losses. Turnovers continue to be their biggest issue on offense, while the defensive efficiency ranks in the middle of the pack. Even so, four of their last six opponents have scored 1.00 ppp or less despite an 11th-ranked opponents’ FTR and the ninth-ranked DReb%. The Gophers have been significantly better than I expected since Trevor Mbakwe’s injury, but I’m not sure they have enough firepower to navigate this challenging portion of their schedule.
9. Northwestern (14-8, 4-6 Big Ten)
Best Win: Michigan State
Worst Loss: Minnesota
Despite strong computer numbers, the Wildcats are firmly on the bubble thanks to losses in a couple winnable Big Ten home games and a few horrible margins of defeat. Their defense ranks last in efficiency, and they have now allowed at least 1.03 ppp in their last seven league games with five of their last six foes scoring at least 1.14 ppp. Other than doing a decent job keeping their opponents off the line, there isn’t much to like about the Northwestern defense. Offensively, they are second in FTR and three-point shooting and rank fourth in eFG% and TO%. The overall offensive efficiency looks decent in league play, but there have been some extremes. They have three performances with 1.25 ppp or more, but they were also held to 0.93 ppp or less three times. The Wildcats would be well served to win both of their games this week when they play at home against Iowa and on the road versus Purdue.
10. Iowa (13-11, 5-6 Big Ten)
Best Win: Wisconsin
Worst Loss: Campbell
The Hawkeyes have been a tough team to figure out. They have won games you wouldn’t expect them to, but they have lost others you would expect them to win. Ultimately it all comes down to defense for this team. When they have held opponents to 1.02 ppp or less, they are 5-0. Many of Iowa’s other defensive efforts have been horrific, as the other six opponents have scored at least 1.09 ppp with three teams scoring at least 1.30 ppp. Overall they rank 11th in defensive efficiency, with their fourth-ranked opponents’ FTR the only one of the four factors in the top half of the league. On offense, Iowa has scored at least 1.00 ppp in eight games with 1.12 ppp or more in three of their last four contests. The Hawkeyes are first in FTR in league play and fifth in OReb% and three-point shooting, while their eFG% and TO% are in the middle of the pack. They play four of their next six on the road though during what should be a difficult stretch.
11. Nebraska (11-11, 3-8 Big Ten)
Best Win: Indiana
Worst Loss: Wake Forest
Nebraska’s offense has improved in recent games, as the Huskers have scored at least 1.02 ppp in four of the last five games. Even so, they rank ninth or worse in each of the four factors during league play. They are taking 41.1% of their shots from long range despite a 30.2% success rate, which certainly doesn’t help. Unfortunately that offensive improvement has been accompanied by a decline in defensive efficiency with four of those five opponents scoring at least 1.11 ppp. The Huskers rank between seventh and 10th in all four factors on defense, and they are allowing a league worst 54.7% shooting on two-pointers. Things don’t get easier when Michigan comes to town this week before they hit the road for three of the next four.
12. Penn State (10-14, 2-9 Big Ten)
Best Win: Illinois
Worst Loss: Lafayette
The Nittany Lions have now lost four straight since upsetting Illinois. They rank 11th in offensive efficiency with just two games over 0.98 ppp and seven straight where they have been unable to break that mark. Penn State ranks last in two- and three-point shooting and 10th in FTR. Their OReb% has remained solid, but this team just doesn’t have much firepower outside of Tim Frazier. On defense, seven of their 11 conference opponents have scored at least 1.12 ppp, as PSU has racked up some rather odd defensive stats. They rank second in DReb% and third in TO%, but they are dead last in eFG% defense and opponents’ FTR. After a trip to Michigan State this week, home dates with Nebraska and Iowa give them their best chances at additional Big Ten wins this season.
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