January is here, conference play has resumed, college football is over, and for the next three months, the spotlight will be shining brightly on college basketball. Most nights there will be at least one Big Ten game. Some nights there will be up to five. Here’s what to expect as you watch.
The Conference Title Runs Through the State of Michigan
The Spartans and Wolverines are both in the top 5 in KenPom, and both are projected to finish three games ahead of the teams with the next-best projected record, Indiana and Purdue. T-Rank gives both teams a better-than-even chance of securing a one seed in the NCAA Tournament and about a one-in-three chance of making the Final Four. For the next three months, prepare for announcers and pollsters to be smitten with the mitten.
Eight Bids Looks Likely
According to T-Rank, the following teams all have an 85%-or-better chance of hearing their name called on Selection Sunday: Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska, Ohio State, Purdue, Wisconsin, Maryland, and Indiana. Now that’s not to say one of these teams won’t collapse. Purdue’s resume is long on “good” losses but short on good wins. Wisconsin looks like a team with a lot to figure out after a bad home loss to Minnesota. But if one of those eight does collapse, there’s always a chance of another team rising up. T-Rank gives the Iowa Hawkeyes a 33% chance and the Minnesota Golden Gophers a 25% chance of dancing in 2019.
Penn State Is Done
You’ll notice one team I didn’t mention above: the Penn State Nittany Lions. The reigning NIT champions look like their best scenario come March may be defending that title. T-Rank gives them just a 0.6% chance of making the March Madness field at this point. Pat Chambers’ squad is 0-3 in the conference, and their only good (or even halfway good) win is a one-point home victory over Virginia Tech. KenPom projects Penn State to go 7-13 in the league, and Penn State fans project that Pat Chambers gets fired.
Rutgers Still Can’t Shoot
Readers will remember that I started this year getting very hot and bothered about the Scarlet Knights. Last year they were a bad team for only one reason: they couldn’t shoot. This season, they started off well over 40% from deep, and I wondered if the Rutgers Renaissance (or maybe just Naissance in this case) had begun. It hasn’t. Rutgers is back to an abysmal 31% from three, though Geo Baker and Eugene Omoruyi are shooting a reasonable percentage. The problem is that freshman Ron Harper has attempted 40 threes... and he's hit 7. Oof.
I Have No Idea What Illinois Is Doing
Brad Underwood’s squad is great at forcing turnovers, and bad at literally everything else except shooting threes, where they are merely mediocre. Across six seasons at Illinois, Oklahoma State, and Stephen F. Austin, this is Brad Underwood’s fastest-paced team and also his worst team. I think Big Ten Geeks had this guy pegged more than a year ago. Illinois fans should read that piece, if only to develop a more cohesive critique of Underwood than “he can’t recruit”.
I Was Totally Wrong About Nebraska
I thought that the Cornhuskers’ recipe for success was the development of Isaiah Roby. I imagined a DJ Wilson-like Roby plus Nebraska’s existing three-headed monster of James Palmer, Isaac Copeland, and Glynn Watson. Well Nebraska is a Top-15 KenPom team, and it turns out that the recipe was simply more James Palmer. Palmer and Roby are the only two of the four who have significantly upped their usage from last year—Palmer also got more efficient; Roby actually got less efficient. Through three games, Palmer is also the second-leading defender in the league in terms of steals. Which brings me to my next point.
The Big Ten Player of the Year Race Is Wide Open
The Michigan teams are the league’s best, but neither of them have an obvious candidate. Nick Ward’s production has taken a big step back from last year, and Charles Matthews has a mediocre-in-the-extreme offensive rating of 101.7. You could possibly make a case for Ignas Brazdekis, but his usage rate isn’t that high, and while his offensive rating is good, it’s below fellow Big Ten freshmen Jalen Smith and Romeo Langford.
The three obvious candidates are Carsen Edwards, Ethan Happ, and James Palmer. All of those guys play on second-tier Big Ten teams. If Wisconsin rises up to finish within a game of first place, then Happ is probably Player of the Year. Same thing for Edwards and Palmer if Purdue or Nebraska finish strong. If those three teams all finish at 12-8, I don’t know who I’d pick.
The last possible contender is Ohio State’s Kaleb Wesson. At the start of the season, I compared Wesson favorably to Jared Sullinger. That comparison looks like it’s holding up well. Wesson takes more shots for this team than anyone in the league not named Carsen Edwards or Amir Coffey, and he draws fouls better than anyone except Nick Ward. Wesson is a terrific rebounder, can knock down threes at a reasonable rate for a big guy, and is a better passer than he gets credit for.
Either the Big Ten or the Big 12 Is the Best Conference in America
At the end of the day, rightly or wrongly, a conference is judged on how it does in March. Since we have to wait until March to find that out, right now the best we can do is to look at KenPom, who right now has the Big 12 as barely the best conference, with the Big Ten as No. 2. There are no non-conference games left for any Big Ten team, so the only way for us to pass the Big 12 is to retroactively improve our strength of schedule. That means we want teams who played a lot of Big Ten schools to do well in their conference. In the Big 12, that means rooting for Iowa State, Texas, and Oklahoma, each of whom played two Big Ten schools in the non-conference. Conversely, it would help the Big Ten if Michigan State—the only Big Ten team that played two Big 12 schools—tanked the Big 12’s strength of schedule by losing a lot. What do you say, Spartans? Want to take one for the team?