With the Big Ten regular season turning to its final chapter, it seemed like a good time for the BTPowerhouse staff to get together and chat about the league and where things could be heading in the next few weeks.
Here is that discussion.
1. We’re now less than a month away from the regular season. What has surprised you the most about the Big Ten so far this season? And what are you looking forward to most in the coming weeks?
Thomas Beindit: The strength of the league. Whether fans wanted to admit it or not, the Big Ten wasn’t that great last season. It struggled to get teams into the postseason and only had one team (Michigan) do all that much there. Now, the Big Ten looks like it might lead the national in NCAA bids and have four or more teams as four seeds or higher.
Eric Leisure: After a year that saw the league get only four teams into the NCAA Tournament last season, I’ve been both pleasantly surprised and a little perplexed by the overall depth of the Big Ten. Much has been made about the cannibalistic nature of the conference this year, but it really does feel that on any given night any team in the league has the ability to win a basketball game (highlighted by the recent run of Illinois and Penn State’s upset over Michigan). Relatedly, I’m most looking forward to see which program is able to navigate these shark infested waters and find itself atop the Big Ten standings when all is said and done.
2. Who ends up grabbing the Big Ten regular season title?
Beindit: I wrote about this extensively earlier this week, but I think Purdue and Michigan State stand in the best position to get things done. You can read it here.
Leisure: I mentioned this in my most recent preview, but the schedule sets up rather nicely for Purdue. The Boilermakers remaining opponents are Penn State, Indiana, Nebraska, Illinois, Ohio State, Minnesota, and Northwestern -- none of which find itself among KenPom’s top 30. And with Michigan State and Michigan playing each other twice, and Maryland having two tilts against the Wolverines itself, the deck stacks up rather nicely for Matt Painter to earn his second conference championship in the past three years.
3. With the depth of the league this year, the NCAA bubble talk has been really interesting. Who do you think ends up making the cut from the Big Ten on Selection Sunday?
Beindit: Well, I think Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue, and Wisconsin are all pretty safe bets. Not all of them might be that the magic 20-win mark, but it’s hard to imagine any of those teams missing it at the moment. On the other side, I think Illinois, Northwestern, Penn State, and Rutgers are all clearly out.
That leaves us with Indiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Ohio State. I think the Gophers and Buckeyes get in, the Huskers are sitting squarely on the bubble, and the Hoosiers miss. All told, that should give the Big Ten either eight or nine teams, barring a Big Ten Tournament surprise.
Leisure: It’s crazy that only a few weeks ago, there was legitimate chatter about the league scoring 10 bids come Selection Sunday. Thanks, in part, to the conference beating up on one another, that almost definitely will no longer be the case. Six teams - Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue, Maryland, Wisconsin, and Iowa -- seem like locks, with Ohio State, Minnesota, and Indiana still on various forms of the bubble. Between the remaining schedule and conference tournament, all three will have the opportunity to play its way in, and gun to my head, I’d say Ohio State and Minnesota find a way to do just that.
4. With the calendar turning to late February, we also have to start thinking about the Big Ten Tournament. Who’s a surprise team that could make noise there?
Beindit: I really like Illinois to be a wildcard at the moment. We still have quite some time to go, but the Illini have been playing really good basketball as of late. In fact, since beating Minnesota just over a month ago, Illinois is performing at a top 30 level. That’s pretty crazy considering that the Illini aren’t even legitimate NIT at-large contenders right now. That’s like having a fringe top 25 team in the lower side of the bracket. Watch out.
Leisure: Getting on my East Coast bias soapbox for a hot second, I’m going to show the Scarlet Knights some love. For the first time since joining the Big Ten, Rutgers has itself in a position to avoid playing on Wednesday and earn a top ten finish in the conference. Steve Pikiell has pulled off nothing short of a miracle in New Brunswick, and has the dogs to put together a fun little run at the Big Ten Tournament for the second consecutive year. With a defense that ranks in the top 50 units by KenPom and solid guard-forward combo in Eugene Omoruyi and Geo Baker, the Knights winning a game or two in Chicago should come as a surprise to no one.
5. Which Big Ten team looks the most poised to make a run in March?
Beindit: Going far in March is generally about three things: (1) getting a good draw; (2) having the talent to go on a run; and (3) being able to win in different ways. The teams that stand out to me in these categories are Michigan and Michigan State. Maybe this is a bit of a cold take, but I don’t think either is head and shoulders above the other right now. Both have great on court coaching, depth, and can win in different ways. Perhaps this is the year we see both make it to the Final Four?
Leisure: Okay, fine, I’ll stay on my East Coast bias soapbox for just a little longer. Talent, above all else, wins out in March. And for my money, there isn’t a more talented starting five in the Big Ten than the one Maryland runs out on a nightly basis. Anthony Cowan has all the tools to go off for a big game or two, while the forward duo of Bruno Fernando and Jalen Smith can cause headaches for anyone looking to take the ball to the rim. And sure, you could point to the Terps almost nonexistent bench or the Turgeon effect as reasons to be pessimistic about Maryland’s chances, but I’m choosing to ride with the Terrapins all the same.