Big Ten men’s college basketball midseason report: Storylines, power rankings, more

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As we reach the midway point of the men’s college basketball season, it feels like an appropriate time to check in on the Big Ten.

First off, here’s what’s interesting about the top of the league: There is a legitimate national championship tier in the conference, and it is made up of one team – Purdue. The No. 2-ranked Boilermakers have the best player in college basketball, Zach Edey, and are aiming to end the Big Ten’s national title drought, as the conference has not crowned a national champion since 2000. However, Matt Painter’s team isn’t in first place in the conference standings.

Do I expect Purdue to win the conference regular-season title? Yes, but at the moment, Wisconsin holds the top spot in the Big Ten standings at 5-1, with the Boilermakers sitting at 5-2 following conference losses to Nebraska and Northwestern.

Let’s talk about the Badgers for a moment. Yes, they lost to Penn State earlier this week, but it’s been a strong turnaround season after the program missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time in five years last March. While this team returned nine of its top 10 scorers from last season, Wisconsin needed more of a scoring punch from the transfer portal, and they found it with St. John’s transfer AJ Storr, who is averaging over 15 points per game while shooting 45% from the floor.

For Wisconsin to have that bucket-getting presence on the wing is big because the Badgers have five players around Storr averaging between 8-12 points per game. They’ve got a physical frontcourt with Steven Crowl and Tyler Wahl, the playmaking skills of Chucky Hepburn, and a deep, experienced core. The Badgers sit at 13-3 overall and are ranked 11th in the AP poll, and the analytics like them a lot too. With the seventh-most efficient offense in America, Wisconsin is 11th in KenPom and 18th according to Torvik. Should we consider this team a March dark horse? I’m not ready to say that yet, but the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament is very much in reach. 

Speaking of the Big Dance, it’s a good time to examine the tournament prospects in the Big Ten. This conference’s depth has been a huge strength in recent years, with at least eight bids in the last three editions of March Madness. In this particular season, it looks like the league is tracking more toward six or seven bids. FOX Sports bracket forecaster Mike DeCourcy currently has six teams from the Big Ten in the NCAA Tournament, with Michigan State in his “Last Four In” column and Ohio State in his “First Four Out.” 

Purdue, of course, is on the 1-seed line, holding the top spot in the Midwest Region. The Maui Invitational champions own a combined 11 Quad 1 and 2 victories, the most in college basketball. Edey has been dominant again this season, averaging 22.9 points and 11.1 rebounds per game, but my biggest takeaway with Purdue is that Braden Smith has made the leap to All-American status. It’s not necessarily due to his scoring, as he averages 12.0 points per game, but more about his ability to distribute, dishing out 7.1 assists per contest, not to mention his 5.3 rebounds. With Lance Jones and Fletcher Loyer helping him on the perimeter, the Boilers have options. This team is shooting 39.6% from beyond the arc, which is the best mark in the Big Ten. With exceptional perimeter shooting and a big man producing generational figures, opponents are going to have trouble against this Purdue team all season long.

The big question in this league surrounds Illinois. Can the Illini continue to keep things afloat with senior guard Terrence Shannon Jr. suspended indefinitely following a rape charge stemming from an alleged incident that happened in September. The Illini are 3-2 without him, with one of those losses coming at Purdue, and a test at Michigan on Thursday night.

Southern Illinois transfer Marcus Domask has to continue to be the man on the perimeter and Coleman Hawkins must be consistent in the paint for Brad Underwood’s team to stay in a good position for NCAA Tournament seeding. Currently, DeCourcy has the Illini on the 4-line. 

All of this being said, here’s a look at my All-Big Ten team, as well as my current conference power rankings:

Zach Edey, Purdue 

Tyson Walker, Michigan State 

Jahmir Young, Maryland 

Boo Buie, Northwestern 

Braden Smith, Purdue 

Big Ten Power Rankings:

1. Purdue Boilermakers

2. Wisconsin Badgers

3. Illinois Fighting Illini

4. Michigan State Spartans

5. Northwestern Wildcats

6. Iowa Hawkeyes

7. Nebraska Cornhuskers

8. Indiana Hoosiers

9. Ohio State Buckeyes

10. Maryland Terrapins

11. Penn State Nittany Lions

12. Rutgers Scarlet Knights

13. Minnesota Golden Gophers

14. Michigan Wolverines

Three takeaways from my power rankings …

I believe Michigan State is still a top-four team in this conference and will continue to surge as the year goes on, but it’s got to start this weekend for the Spartans. The Spartans host Minnesota at 6:30 p.m. ET Thursday on FS1 before heading to play a sneaky Maryland team on Sunday. The biggest thing MSU has going for itself is a NET ranking of 20. The analytics like Tom Izzo’s battle-tested team, but this team has to shoot the 3 better. Walker and A.J. Hoggard can’t combine to go 2-for-11 from 3-point land like they did in a loss at Illinois. If you’re a Spartans follower, check out this interview with Steven Izzo, who scored his first career points on Sunday.

Steven Izzo scores his first field goal with an and-1 finish in Michigan State’s 73-55 win over Rutgers

Steven Izzo scores his first field goal with an and-1 finish in Michigan State's 73-55 win over Rutgers

Iowa is flying under the radar a bit, and the Hawkeyes have won three straight games to get to 11-6 on the season. Fifth-year senior Ben Krikke, who transferred to Iowa after four years at Valparaiso, has been terrific for Fran McCaffery’s group. The 6-foot-9 veteran has totaled at least 17 points in four of his last six games and is coming off a season-best 25-point performance in Monday’s win over Minnesota. 

The Hawkeyes are one of the nation’s best offensive teams, ranking 17th in KenPom adjusted offensive efficiency. Five players are averaging at least 9.9 points per game, with Payton Sandfort and Tony Perkins charging the team on the perimeter. Sandfort is shooting 46% from 3-point land, good for second in the Big Ten. The Hawkeyes are unproven on the road with a 1-4 record, but they are tough at Carver-Hawkeye Arena with an 8-1 mark in Iowa City. Up next? A golden resume-boosting opportunity against No. 2 Purdue at 2 p.m. ET Saturday on FS1.

Also, congratulations to Fran McCaffery on his 272nd win at Iowa, as he became the program’s all-time winningest coach, passing Tom Davis (1986-99). McCaffery was emotional following the win over Minnesota.

A daunting stretch is ahead for Mike Woodson’s Indiana Hoosiers. After traveling to Wisconsin for a Friday night road test at 8:30 p.m. ET on FS1, Indiana will head to Illinois on Jan. 27 for a second consecutive top-15 matchup. Indiana is 4-3 in Big Ten play, but the Hoosiers lack offensive consistency and perimeter shooting. With a NET ranking of 102 and an 0-5 record against Quad 1 opponents, the upcoming opportunities are precious if the Hoosiers are going to make a move this season. The sophomore duo of Malik Reneau and Kel’el Ware has been solid, combining to average 30 points and 15.4 rebounds per game this season. This team needs veteran guard Xavier Johnson to step up as the season goes on, while five-star freshman Mackezie Mgbako could be an X-factor. In four of their next five games, the Hoosiers will see Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, and an Ohio State team that is in NCAA Tournament contention.

Coming up on the Big Ten slate:

Jan. 18 

6:30 p.m. ET – Minnesota at Michigan State (FS1)

8:30 p.m. ET – No. 14 Illinois at Michigan (FS1) 

Jan. 19 

8:30 p.m. ET – Indiana at No. 11 Wisconsin (FS1) 

Jan. 20 

12:00 p.m. ET – Penn State at Ohio State (BTN)

2:00 p.m. ET – No. 2 Purdue at Iowa (FS1) 

2:15 p.m. ET – Northwestern at Nebraska (BTN)

Jan. 21 

12:00 p.m. ET – Michigan State at Maryland (CBS)

1:00 p.m. ET – Rutgers at Illinois (BTN)

John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter @John_Fanta.

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