The fire cackles, the only lights on in the house are the ones on the plastic tree in the corner. A stocking with your name neatly embroidered on the top hangs from a golden hook above the fire. How that stocking never started on fire, one may never know. A full plate of cookies awaits Big Ten Santa. You gave him the ones with only sprinkles, because the frosted ones are for you, right? Santa doesn’t need the fat and sugar included in a cookie caked with frosting. A now warming glass of milk sits beside the cookies. Because what goes better with dry, sugary baked goods than a lukewarm dairy product.
This is the life of Big Ten Santa. It is by no means glamorous, but he does it. Delivering recruits to coaches, shooting streaks to players, and a hackneyed conference vision to Jim Delaney. They all wake on Christmas morning checking under their trees to see if they were naughty or nice. Some are pleasantly surprised by the gifts left for them by Big Ten Santa while others are left with a figurative lump of coal.
Although the Holidays are a few weeks away, Big Ten Santa’s list in nearly solidified. If anything, he is in his “checking it twice” stage.
The Nice List
-Michigan State Spartans
What they want from Big Ten Santa: A rematch with Duke
This point has been made countless times on this site, but I may as well make it again. Michigan State may not lose the rest of the regular season. The rest of the non-conference schedule is incredibly favorable, and the up and down nature of the Big Ten this season hints at a desirable conference run as well. Out of all the teams in the conference, Michigan State is the one team to not be up and down, as it were.
In their loss to Duke on November 15th, the Spartans shot a higher field goal percentage, but were marred by turnovers. Against a team like the Blue Devils, turnovers need to be at a minimum. What Michigan State wants more than anything this Holiday season is another run at Duke.
What they want from Big Ten Santa: All-around dominance from Isaac Haas
The senior big man has been phenomenal offensively so far this season, averaging nearly 16 points on 63 percent shooting. However, he has always lagged behind in the rebounding category while at Purdue. In 2017-’18, he is only averaging 5.5 rebounds per game. To me, that is a terribly low clip given the tremendous size advantage he holds each and every night.
Although this is troublesome, the Boilermakers have remained one of the top teams in the conference. This is primarily due to their veteran core, but what they should want most of all is for Isaac Haas to an all-around player.
-Ohio State Buckeyes
What they want from Big Ten Santa: To be taken seriously
Many felt this was going to be a transition year for the Buckeyes. Yet, they have scored some major wins so far in this young season. Plus, their three losses have all been to quality teams in Gonzaga, Butler, and Clemson.
Ohio State is also coming off two Big Ten victories against Wisconsin and Michigan. They shot a scorching 66 percent from the field against the Badgers, including 54 percent from three. The Buckeyes cooled off a bit against the Wolverines, but still shot 49 percent from the field in that 71-62 win. Being taken seriously is their primary concern and they are on the fast track to doing that this year.
What they want from Big Ten Santa: Relevance
Listen, the Huskers have been good so far this season, but there is just no way they keep up their current level of play all season. I know I may be insane to write off Tim Miles, but the talent is just not there this season. They just need to stay relevant and not drift to the bottom of the conference standings.
Nebraska has definitely became more of a challenger after the wall to wall win over Minnesota on Tuesday night. However, they have suffered some firm losses to superior opponents too. The Huskers stay on the nice list because of the win over the Gophers, but they may teeter with a tough non-conference slate ahead of them.
-Penn State Nittany Lions
What they want from Big Ten Santa: Competitiveness
I think this Nittany Lion team is for real and I have said that in the past. They have been competitive in all of their losses and have been outright dominant at times. Yes, much of that may have to do with their relatively lax non-conference schedule, but that still bolsters their record regardless. The rest of their non-conference schedule plays extremely in their favor too.
Penn State’s one test will be their ability to stay competitive as the Big Ten season wears on. So far, they have played wire to wire with Wisconsin and Iowa, splitting those two games. What will take this team to the next level is closing out conference games in tight situations.
-Illinois Fighting Illini
What they want from Big Ten Santa: Consistency
Brad Underwood has already done a fantastic job with this once abysmal Fighting Illini team. I do not know if winning is their priority as of yet, they may just want to instill their culture as a program. However, they do need to develop a level of consistency to aid that culture.
After winning six straight they rode a three game losing streak into Wednesday night’s game versus Austin Peay. They ultimately won that game 64-57, and now look to stay consistent against UNLV on Saturday. That game may determine their status on this list come Christmas time.
-Minnesota Golden Gophers
What they want from Santa: A bench
This point is like beating a dead horse for me. I know the Golden Gophers have no bench and that was made more evident when they lost to Nebraska on Tuesday. However, it really cannot be overstated enough unfortunately. Minnesota has a real shot to make a decent amount of noise come postseason. This is due in large part to their starting five.
What pushes teams over the edge later in the season is good bench play, and the Gophers just do not have it, and they need it badly.
What they want from Big Ten Santa: An NCAA Tournament berth
The body of work the Terrapins have to offer hints that they are poised for the postseason. A mix of freshman and sophomores who have played deep into the season bodes well for them. Yet, there are games where they just do not put it all together. This could lead to some serious hurdles in Big Ten play.
Maryland may not win the Big Ten outright or even the conference tournament for that matter. All they need is a chance in the NCAA Tournament, which I think they will get. If this happens, they could be a dangerous foe for oncoming opponents.
The Naughty List
What they want from Big Ten Santa: To be out of the cellar
As I am writing this post, Iowa is in the cellar of the Big Ten. They have lost five out of their last six games. Of those five losses, you could argue all of them are to quality teams, besides Indiana, maybe. The truly puzzling part is that the Hawkeyes have the pieces to be successful. To this point, they just have not found something that works.
Iowa’s greatest Christmas wish is to get out of the cellar in the Big Ten. The rest of their non-conference schedule is fairly challenging, so that clearly does not bode well for their wish this Holiday season.
What they want from Big Ten Santa: Building cohesiveness
You have to give Indiana credit for playing a decent non-conference schedule. However, they have not been able to score that big upset win yet this season. All of their wins have come against average to below average competition. As they wrap up their non-conference slate, there are some tough games left.
With a fairly young team and a first-year head coach, no one really expected the Hoosiers to be a Big Ten staple, as they have been in the past. Many of their players will return next season to a familiar system. Perhaps all they need to do this season is build rapport with one another.
-Rutgers Scarlet Knights
What they want from Big Ten Santa: Shooting
A cupcake non-conference schedule painted the image of promising prospects in 2017-’18. However, in their two conference games they have been outplayed and beaten badly. The sad part is that Rutgers has some quality pieces on their roster, but they all do the same thing offensively. They thrive around the rim, and that is about it, making it easy for defenses to gameplan.
The Scarlet Knights are raw in the shooting spectrum and that is what they need the most. They will have streaks of success, but by nature, that is not their strength. Rutgers will need to rely on their defense and driving ability to make any noise in the Big Ten.
What they want from Big Ten Santa: A do-over
Northwestern came into the season ranked 19th in the nation. Right now, they are currently ranked 57th in KenPom. They have fell in the rankings despite a so-so non-conference schedule, competition wise. The Wildcats have dropped their close games and have failed to really “wow” anyone so far this season.
Given their veteran team, it is by no means a lost cause for Northwestern yet. However, if offered, I think they would take a do-over on 2017-’18.
What they want from Big Ten Santa: Leadership
Although they have three seniors on their roster, the Wolverines are, for the most part, a very young team. They scheduled a difficult non-conference slate, which is a formula for mediocrity given their body of work. If they had leaders they may be able to win some of those more difficult match-ups.
It’s not for lack of talent, but they may struggle to aggregate all of their talent to become a real complete team. Without any real team leaders, it could turn into a free for all at times.
What they want from Big Ten Santa: An easier schedule
I cannot blame the Badgers for scheduling so many robust opponents in their non-conference. It is a way to test your team while bringing in some quality money for the university. However, if it were up to the players, I think they would prefer an easier calendar. Yes, it’s fun to play in big games, but if you do not win those games, they kind of lose their luster.
Wisconsin still has some rugged games ahead of them before Big Ten play. Then, of course, they are met with the gauntlet of conference play. It may just turn into a lost season for the Badgers as we move forward.
Here is to hoping that Big Ten Santa brings us fans warm and cheerful gifts this Holiday season. For the teams of the Big Ten, some may wake up on Christmas morning with their cookies half eaten and an empty glass of milk. However, others may be eating the cookies they left out as they wallow because Big Ten Santa did not come to their campuses this season.