Men’s college basketball writer Amelia Rayno provides her final power ranking of the Big Ten season and lays out what each team is playing for in the conference tournament starting Thursday:
It’s been a topsy-turvy year, but at the end of the regular season, the Hoosiers are still on top of the Big Ten and in the nation’s top three. Indiana finished the regular season on a resounding note — defeating Michigan in Ann Arbor — but now the Hoosiers will be playing to lock up a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
2. Ohio State
You have to give it to the Buckeyes — what a final act! Ohio State picked up a season that looked on the ropes and infused it with new life, with the Buckeyes winning their last five, including games against Michigan State and at Indiana. With a good performance this weekend, the Buckeyes could get as high as a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament.
3. Michigan State
The Spartans went through their three-game losing streak, but they appear to be on the up-and-up now. Are they worn out, or simply “battle-tested” as coach Tom Izzo implies? The difference could mean whether the Spartans play well in the Big Ten tournament and challenge for a No. 1 seed or a 2-4.
Not the prettiest end to the season for the Wolverines, who dropped five of their last 10, including a shocker at Penn State, but there is little doubt Michigan will come into the Big Ten tournament hungry and eager to show that despite a fifth-place conference finish, they belong with the elite.
The Badgers are a little prone to a letdown every now and then. In the same vein, when they are clicking, they can beat anyone. After sliding past Penn State in the season finale — a buzzer-beating victory and the only thing keeping them from dropping three straight — Wisconsin looks to get back on track and stay in the hunt for a top-four seed in the NCAA tourney.
The days when the Boilermakers were getting beat by 30 points seem far away now that they have made a statement in their final stretch, beating Northwestern, Wisconsin and Minnesota in their last five games and nearly trumping Michigan as well. The Boilermakers don’t have enough victories to get an at-large bid into the Big Dance, so short of running the table this weekend they’re playing for the future.
Winning six of their last eight, the Hawkeyes are peaking at the right time. Their weak overall resume hurts their chances of an NCAA tournament bid, but as Iowa heads into the Big Ten tournament, the young team is building up confidence for next season. A good Big Ten tournament run could yield an NCAA berth, or at worst momentum for a possible run in the NIT.
The Illini have been up and down all year, and which of those high or low teams shows up could determine whether it makes the NCAA tournament or somehow falls off the bubble. Illinois has a very strong shot at making the NCAA tournament, but there is a difference between entering as an eight or nine and limping in as a double-digit seed.
Nonconference dominance, a very strong RPI and plenty of quality victories have saved the Gophers from, well, a pretty significant collapse. Minnesota will almost surely make the NCAA tournament, but with another shot at gaining momentum, the Gophers will also be playing for seeding.
10. Penn State
The Nittany Lions migh t be last in the standings, but give them credit for what they’ve done in the past couple of weeks. After a massive win over Michigan, the Lions had a letdown vs. Minnesota but bounced back to beat Northwestern and scare Wisconsin. Can Penn State take another step next season? Perhaps we’ll see a glimpse of that growth this weekend.
Tim Miles’ bunch has shown a lot of growth and determination this year. And now they’re ready to play the role of spoiler. They’ve seen enough success to know what it tastes like and to try to recreate it.
At the beginning of the season, it seemed next to impossible for the Wildcats to fall lower than 10th with Penn State and Nebraska around. But injuries have hurt the Wildcats in a tough league. Northwestern, however, can bring a spark into next season with a win over Iowa in the first round on Thursday.
Big Ten teams that will get into the NCAA tournament: Seven. The conference has five locks — Indiana, Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State and Wisconsin — and three that are floating at least close to either side of the bubble: Iowa, Illinois and the Gophers. The Illini should make it based on their strong early wins, and what they managed to do in the conference, even without a winning record, and Minnesota, thanks to a bloated RPI and strength of schedule, seems safe regardless of what it does in the Big Ten tournament. Iowa is not far away, but it would take at least one, probably two wins this weekend. Beating Northwestern in the first round could happen, but beating Michigan State in the following game is unlikely.
Projected Big Ten tournament champ: Ohio State. The Big Ten has been all about Indiana, Michigan and Michigan State for most of the year, but it’s the Buckeyes who are coming in with all the momentum. And while the Big Three could run into some matchup pitfalls, Ohio State’s pathway looks as smooth as any.
FIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH THIS WEEKEND
The Big Ten has an overflow of talent, but here is a good place to start.
Trey Burke, Michigan: The Michigan sophomore point guard won Big Ten Player of the Year and is one of the favorites for National Player of the Year. Can Burke (19 ppg, 6.8 apg, 39.6 three-point percentage) start to solidify that bid in Big Ten tournament play? After losing to Indiana in the final game of the regular season, you can bet Burke will be coming out full of fire.
Victor Oladipo, Indiana: The junior (13.7 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 2.2 steals per game, 61.4 percent from the field), whose improvement from a year ago has stunned and delighted those who have watched it play out in Indiana, is just a hair behind Burke in national consideration. After finishing the season head-to-head, the electrifying Oladipo could get another shot at Burke in the semifinals. Yes, please.
Gary Harris, Michigan State: It’s one thing to receive preseason accolades. It’s another to live them out on a team that already has great talent and scoring, and to do it regardless of injuries. What Harris (13.2 ppg, 41.9 three-point percentage, Big Ten Freshman of the Year) has done for Michigan State is nothing short of impressive. Along with Keith Appling and Adreian Payne, if Harris is rolling, the Spartans can go far.
Aaron Craft, Ohio State: The junior might not record the flashy numbers that teammate Deshaun Thomas does, but his presence sets the tone for defensive-minded Ohio State. Craft (9.7 ppg, 4.5 apg, 3.6 rpg) has harassed opponents so much that he was recently named one of the most hated players of the last 30 years by Grantland.com. And if the Buckeyes can shut down scoring threats, they have a chance to do some damage.
Jermaine Marshall, Penn State: Teammate D.J. Newbill leads the way in scoring, but with Marshall stepping up big in tandem, Penn State is getting a little dangerous. The junior (15.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 2.4 apg) scored 23 points in Penn State’s near upset of Wisconsin on Sunday and 25 in the Nittany Lions’ upset over Michigan. He sees the Wolverines again in the first round. Repeat performance?