Conference play has begun for college basketball teams all across the country, and that includes those in the Big Ten. We got a taste of league play in December, with 12 of the 14 teams splitting their games — Nebraska included.
The Huskers did themselves no favors in the nonconference. If the 6-7 record wasn’t bad enough, it carries with it the lowest NET ranking in the conference through Thursday’s games: 171. Only two high-major teams are lower: California at 178 and Texas A&M at 196.
The Huskers dropped both of their quadrant 1 (Q1) games and split their Q2 games. They went 5-4 in Q3 and Q4 games. Obviously at this point, Nebraska isn’t worried about putting together a tournament resume; we’re way past that at this point with three buy-game losses.
That being said, things are about to get a lot tougher for Nebraska. The Big Ten looks like arguably the best conference in the country at this point. Twelve of the 14 teams were ranked inside the top 60 through Thursday’s results. Besides Nebraska, Northwestern is the only other Big Ten team that falls outside that range at 164.
Everybody’s favorite heading into the season, Michigan State, has had to deal with a lot of issues. Joshua Langford won’t play at all this season and 4-star freshman Rocket Watts has missed four games and struggled when he has been on the court. Star senior point guard Cassius Winston has missed a game and he’s also had to play with a heavy heart after the death of his brother. Returning starter Aaron Henry has missed a game as well. For all those reasons and others, the Spartans have not been the best team in the Big Ten — but they’ve still been very good.
Michigan State is 14th in the NET at 11-3, though KenPom still has the Spartans at No. 4. Michigan State has lost its toughest games (Kentucky, Duke and it also slipped up against Virginia Tech. The Spartans did secure a nice win over Seton Hall, but the other high-major teams they’ve beaten haven’t exactly tore it up this season. Michigan State is only 1-3 in Q1 wins. The Spartans are the only undefeated team in conference play at 3-0, but they also haven’t played any of the good teams in the league with wins over Rutgers, Northwestern and Illinois.
The Spartans score efficiently from everywhere, they rebound the heck out of the ball and they really share it; turnovers are their biggest weakness. They’re carrying a 24.3 net rating. Cassius Winston hasn’t been the player of the year many projected him to be, but he’s still an incredibly dangerous point guard, leading the Spartans in scoring and assists. Big man Xavier Tillman is nearly averaging a double-double and is a strong defender as well.
The real No. 1 in the conference, however, has been Ohio State at 11-2. The Buckeyes are No. 3 in both the NET rankings and at KenPom. and they’re the only team with a better net rating than the Spartans at 28.5. They’re 3-2 in Q1 games with wins over Villanova, North Carolina (minus Cole Anthony) and Kentucky. They’re coming off their only nonconference loss against West Virginia (Minnesota is their other loss).
Big man Kaleb Wesson has gotten in better shape and is having a strong season, though his efficiency inside the arc certainly could use some improvement (he’s actually shooting slightly better from 3 — 44.2% — than from 2 — 44%). Second-leading scorer Duane Washington Jr. and important role player Andre Wesson have missed a pair of games apiece, and now junior forward Kyle Young had to get his appendix removed and he will miss some time.
Still, the Buckeyes have made a huge leap from where they were last season and look like the favorites for the league crown if they can carry their nonconference play over into the Big Ten. Nebraska will head to their place in a couple of weeks.
Maryland was everyone’s pick to challenge Michigan State for the conference crown, and the Terrapins have looked strong at 11-2 overall, but they’re only fourth among Big Ten teams in the NET ranking at No. 19. They’re 2-2 in Q1 games and have a win over Maquette, but there aren’t any other high-profile wins on their schedule.
As expected, dynamic point guard Anthony Cowan Jr. and double-double machine Jalen “Stix” Smith are leading the way, but Aaron Wiggins and Eric Ayala are both shooting under 31% from 3 after they both shot better than 40% as freshmen last year to lead the team. Twin freshman centers Makhi and Makhel Mitchell have decided to transfer, but 7-foot-2 freshman Chol Marial has joined the lineup after missing the beginning of the season while recovering from stress fractures in both legs.
One spot ahead of Maryland in the NET rankings at No. 18 is Michigan under new coach Juwan Howard. The Wolverines are 10-3 including a 3-3 record in Q1 games featuring wins over Creighton, North Carolina and Gonzaga and losses to Louisville and Oregon.
Jon Teske and Isaiah Livers are leading the way offensively while also making a difference on defense and senior point guard Zavier Simpson is leading the league in assists and almost nine per game while also shooting 40% from 3.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is where Penn State is at: No. 16, just two spots behind Michigan State and two spots ahead of Michigan. The Nittany Lions are 11-2 overall including 2-2 in Q1 games. They got smacked by Ohio State and ten turned around and beat Maryland. I still don’t know what to think about them.
The trio of Lamar Stevens, Myron Jones and Mike Watkins is leading the way for the Nittany Lions who have done a lot of things well outside of shoot for a high percentage from 3.
If you’re curious about the two Big Ten teams Nebraska has already played, Indiana and Purdue are both top-50 at Nos. 39 and 47, respectively, though the only Big Ten teams behind them are No. 55 Illinois and of course Northwestern and Nebraska. Friday’s opponent, Rutgers, is string at No. 31 at 9-3 overall with a 2-2 record in Q1 games, though they’ve also dropped a Q3 game.
Seton Hall is the Scarlet Knights’ nest win though they also lost to Pittsburgh. Steve Piekell has done a really good job turning that program around. Ron arper Jr. and Geo Baker lead the way offensively and the team is really strong on defense with plenty of size inside, but the Scarlet Knights really cannot shoot the ball at all (30.1% from 3, 301st in the country).
Heres a look at how every team’s resumes stack up against each other at this point.
- No. 3 Ohio State: 11-2 (1-1 road, 2-1 neutral, 9-0 home; 3-2 Q1, 1-0 Q2, 2-0 Q3, 5-0 Q4)
- No. 14 Michigan State: 11-3 (2-0 road, 3-2 neutral, 6-1 home; 1-3 Q1, 3-0 Q2, 2-0 Q3, 5-0 Q4)
- No. 16 Penn State: 11-2 (1-1 road, 1-1 neutral, 9-0 home; 2-2 Q1, 3-0 Q2, 1-0 Q3, 5-0 Q4)
- No. 18 Michigan: 10-3 (0-2 road, 3-0 neutral, 7-1 home; 3-3 Q1, 2-0 Q2, 1-0 Q3, 4-0 Q4)
- No. 19 Maryland: 11-2 (0-2 road, 3-0 neutral, 8-0 home; 2-2 Q1, 3-0 Q2, 2-0 Q3, 4-0 Q4)
- No. 26 Iowa: 10-3 (2-1 road, 2-1 neutral, 6-1 home; 2-2 Q1, 3-1 Q2, 1-0 Q3, 4-0 Q4)
- No. 29 Wisconsin: 8-5 (1-2 road, 0-3 neutral, 7-0 home; 1-3 Q1, 2-2 Q2, 1-0 Q3, 4-0 Q4)
- No. 31 Rutgers: 9-3 (0-2 road, 0-1 neutral, 9-0 home, 1-0 non-D-I; 2-2 Q1, 1-0 Q2, 1-1 Q3, 5-0 Q4)
- No. 35 Minnesota: 7-6 (0-4 road, 1-1 neutral, 6-1 home; 2-5 Q1, 0-1 Q2, 1-0 Q3, 4-0 Q4)
- No. 39 Purdue: 9-5 (1-2 road, 1-2 neutral, 7-1 home; 1-3 Q1, 2-0 Q2, 1-2 Q3, 5-0 Q$)
- No. 47 Indiana: 11-2 (0-1 road, 2-0 neutral, 9-1 home; 1-2 Q1, 3-0 Q2, 0-0 Q3, 7-0 Q4)
- No. 55 Illinois: 8-5 (1-3 road, 0-1 neutral, 7-1 home; 1-3 Q1, 0-1 Q2, 2-1 Q3, 5-0 Q4)
- No. 164 Northwestern: 5-7 (1-2 road, 1-1 neutral, 3-4 home; 0-3 Q1, 0-1 Q2, 3-1 Q3, 2-2 Q4)
- No. 171 Nebraska: 6-7 (0-3 road, 2-1 neutral, 4-3 home; 0-2 Q1, 1-1 Q2, 2-2 Q3, 3-2 Q4)
Buckle in, Nebrasketball fans. The ride is about to get a little bumpy. Fred Hoiberg’s first season at Iowa State included a 3-13 Big 12 record. The Huskers already have a great head start on surpassing that mark after winning their second conference game, but it’s only going to get tougher as the season goes on.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.