It feels like the college basketball season has only just started, but it’s time for conference play to begin already. Well, sort of.
As part of the new 20-game league schedule, the Big Ten added two early games to its teams’ conference schedules and those games begin this weekend. The Huskers will host Illinois (2-5) on Sunday.
With that being the case, let’s take a moment to look back at how the league has done through the first part of the nonconference.
The NCAA isn’t relying on the RPI any more for tournament selection, but it’s still worth taking a look at. Currently, the Big Ten is the second-ranked conference in the RPI behind only the Big 12. As a collective, the Big Ten has gone 74-20 (.787) so far.
Two teams (Iowa and Michigan) are undefeated while seven others (Maryland, Nebraska, Northwestern, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Rutgers) have only dropped one game apiece. Three projected conference contenders, Michigan State, Purdue and Indiana are all sitting at 5-2 but four of those six losses have come to ranked teams, Duke and Kansas among them.
As a conference, the Big Ten went 6-7 against teams ranked in the AP poll at the time of the game and four of those losses were to top-five teams. The Big Ten is 23-18 against other high-major teams with five of those losses belonging to Illinois who was projected to finish near the bottom of the Big Ten.
The Spartans were picked by most to win the league again this season, but it is the other Michigan team who has emerged as the league’s top team thus far. Fresh off a loss to Villanova in the National Championship game and despite losing three of their top four scorers, the Wolverines are 7-0 with wins over Villanova and North Carolina in addition to Providence. Freshman Ignaz Brazdeikis is leading the team in scoring already and the Wolverines are second in the country in defensive rating.
After a nightmare 2017-18 season, Iowa is off to an undefeated start as well at 6-0 with wins over Oregon (ranked 13 at the time), UConn and Pittsburgh. The Hawkeyes had plenty of talent last season but didn’t play a lick of defense. This season, they’re still scoring at a high rate (85.3 points per game) but they’ve improved their defense from catastrophic to average. Five Hawkeyes are averaging between nine and 15 points led by junior forward Tyler Cook.
Maryland, who I expected to make a leap this season, has only played one good team all season and it lost that game, but that loss came to fourth-ranked Virginia, a 76-71 result that shows the Terrapins’ potential. Before that game, no team had even reached 60 against the vaunted Cavaliers defense. Returning studs Anthony Cowan and Bruno Fernando led the way with 15 and 14 points, respectively, while freshmen Eric Ayala and Aaron Wiggins also cracked double figures with 13 points apiece.
Wisconsin’s only loss to this point came at the hands of the Cavaliers, a 53-46 result. The Badgers have solid wins over Xavier, Oklahoma and North Carolina State, but to make some serious noise they’re going to need more offensively from players not named Ethan Happ or D’Mitrik Trice (and even with Trice it’s hard to expect him to continue shooting form the perimeter at a 60 percent clip).
Michigan State has wins over UCLA (ranked 17th at the time) and Texas with losses to Kansas (ranked No. 1 at the time) and Louisville in overtime. Purdue hasn’t beaten any high major teams but both of its losses are to top-20 squads in Virginia Tech and Florida State.
Indiana knocked off a solid Marquette team in the Gavitt Tipoff Games but lost a close one to Arkansas and got walloped against No. 3 Duke in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The Hoosiers are still figuring things out but have two of the best individual talents in the league in freshman guard Romeo Langford and senior forward Juwan Morgan.
Minnesota has wins over Utah, Texas A&M and Washington but lost to Boston College. The Golden Gophers are built around a couple of studs in forward Jordan Murphy and wing Amir Coffey, but outside of them they’re relying pretty heavily on freshmen including sharp-shooter Gabe Kalscheur and big man Daniel Oturu, both Minnesota natives.
Ohio State has wins over Cincinnati and Creighton but suffered a tough 10-point loss to Syracuse in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge (which ended as a 7-7 tie). I’m still not quite sure how good the Buckeyes are as they continue to incorporate a few transfers around key returners Kaleb Wesson and CJ Jackson. Chris Holtmann is a heck of a coach, so they’ve got that going for them as well.
You all know what Nebraska has done in the nonconference so far.
If you look at the teams expected to finish lower in the conference, even those squads are representing well at times. Penn State knocked off Virginia Tech in double-double machine and defensive force Mike Watkins’ season debut. An though Illinois has five losses, two of them came in down-to-the-wire games against then-No. 3 (and now No. 1) Gonzaga.
The best win of the nonconference belongs to the Wolverines with their triumph over the Tar Heels, and that win over the Wildcats should still end up looking solid even after the reigning champs fell out of the top 25 with a loss to Furman. Michigan State (UCLA) and Iowa (Oregon) have a couple of key resume-building wins as well in addition to all the other wins over high-major foes the Big ten has accumulated so far.
Last season, just four Big Ten teams qualified for the NCAA Tournament, and the league’s overall lack of quality played a big part in why Nebraska’s wasn’t the fifth. Based on what we’ve seen so far, this year looks to be a different story for the Big Ten.