Once again, we’ve reached that magical point in the year when the calendar flips, the New Year’s ball drops, and conference play gets rolling with a storm. Of course, that makes it a great time to check in around the league and see where things stand.
So, what are the biggest questions facing the Big Ten as December rolls to a close?
Let’s take a look.
1. Is this the year for Purdue?
For at least the fourth time in the last six years, Purdue enters January with legitimate reasons for hope of bringing home some hardware in March. The roster is loaded with experience and talent, the team is rolling, and Matt Painter is a proven head coach. Add in a perfect 12-0 record and wins over various marquee opponents and it’s easy to see why Boilermaker fans are so excited about the months ahead.
So, is this the year Purdue finally breaks through to the Final Four?
Briefly stated, it’s hard to know one way or another right now, as there are plenty of reasons for optimism and skepticism about this squad. From the optimistic perspective, Purdue has played exceptionally well so far, jumping out to a 12-0 overall record that includes four wins over top 30 teams, including Duke and Gonzaga. Throw in the top spot in the weekly polls and it’s easy to see why the Boilers are getting so much attention.
But from the negative perspective, it’s also fair to acknowledge Purdue has faded a bit in recent weeks. While the Boilers keep winning, the team was fortunate to escape Lincoln with a win earlier this month, let Davidson hang around after that, and has seen itself drop a few spots on KenPom as well. The early wins over Duke and Gonzaga also don’t look quite as good as they did at the time, as the Blue Devils and Bulldogs have underwhelmed this season. In short, things still look great, but maybe not as good as they did earlier.
All told, it should make for an interesting story to follow. Don’t be shocked if the Boilers stumble a few times before hitting their stride.
2. Who is Purdue’s biggest challenger for the Big Ten?
Depending on what week you’ve asked, this question has differed significantly since the season began. Illinois looked great early on, but has faded recently, Maryland showed some promise before some missteps, and Wisconsin has come along, though its statistical profile is still lacking. Indiana also had the hype, but has suffered some significant injuries.
So, who’s going to challenge the Boilers?
The truth is it’s pretty unclear right now. The highest rated Big Ten team outside of Purdue is Ohio State, but the Buckeyes are only narrowly (five spots) ahead of the Hoosiers. It all seems murky and close right now. In fact, KenPom presently projects Maryland, Ohio State, Rutgers, and Wisconsin all to finish the regular season with 12-8 conference records and Indiana close behind at 11-9. Even one or two results could drastically shake that up.
The safest bets here are probably Ohio State and Wisconsin, who have shown a lot of consistency in recent years. However, it does feel like Illinois might be getting overlooked here simply on account of some recent struggles. The Illini are presently 0-2 in league play, but will have some favorable matchups in the next few weeks.
Most simply stated, this thing remains wide open. Purdue is clearly the Big Ten favorite, but only by a modest margin, and things remain a complete mess behind them.
3. Is the Zach Edey run for real?
We touched on Purdue’s fast start above, but the primary driver for things has been junior big man Zach Edey. Through 11 games of action, Edey is playing at an absurdly high level. He’s averaging 22.9 points and 13.9 rebounds per game and has scored double-digits in every game this season. KenPom ranks Edey as the nation’s best player and rightfully so.
Obviously, it’s been quite a run.
But can it keep up?
The truthful answer here is mixed. Yes, it’s doubtful Edey can keep up those numbers. The Big Ten is simply too good to keep up numbers that were compiled (at least partially) against weaker competition. Edey isn’t going to be hitting the same averages in league play.
However, Edey’s a junior now and has held up before. He’s clearly the frontrunner for Big Ten Player of the Year and it’s hard to see anyone passing him. Illinois’ Terrence Shannon and Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson will make some noise, but neither has shown the monster potential of Edey this year, especially considering the strength of Purdue’s team overall, which always factors into the Player of the Year award. It’s clearly Edey’s pursuit of various national awards will be a great storyline to follow in the months ahead.
4. Who will thrive and fall in the Big Ten’s middle group?
While we’ve only played a handful of conference games so far, the Big Ten largely sits in four tiers for purposes of the NCAA Tournament right now:
- Tier 1 - Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Purdue, Ohio State, Wisconsin
- Tier 2 - Michigan State, Northwestern, Penn State, Rutgers
- Tier 3 - Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska
- Tier 4 - Minnesota
The top tier is highly likely to make the NCAAs, needing a complete collapse to miss the field. The second tier has work to do, but is probably on pace to make the cut as long as they take care of business and win the games they should. Everyone after that has major work to do, likely needing multiple marquee upsets to feel good about things.
The battles between the seven middle-tier teams are going to be particularly interesting and the classic principles are going to apply. Whoever does the best job at protecting home court and winning the winnable road games is going to rise the most. Here are some of the most intriguing games between the group over the next month:
- 12/29 - Iowa at Nebraska
- 1/1 - Iowa at Penn State
- 1/3 - Nebraska at Michigan State
- 1/4 - Penn State at Michigan
- 1/7 - Michigan at Michigan State
- 1/8 - Iowa at Rutgers
- 1/11 - Rutgers at Northwestern
- 1/12 - Michigan at Iowa
- 1/15 - Northwestern at Michigan
- 1/18 - Iowa at Northwestern
- 1/19 - Rutgers at Michigan State
- 1/21 - Nebraska at Penn State
- 1/24 - Northwestern at Nebraska
- 1/24 - Penn State at Rutgers
- 1/26 - Iowa at Michigan State
- 1/29 - Michigan at Penn State
- 1/29 - Rutgers at Iowa
That’s 17 games between those seven teams over the next month, so expect things to sort out significantly over that period. Fanbases of those teams should be ready for quite a ride.
5. How much damage will the bottom feeders do this season?
While it isn’t a storyline that gets much national attention, much of the league’s performance on Selection Sunday is determined by how the Big Ten’s best teams perform against its worst. Even look at last year. Rutgers ended up in the First Four because of losses to Maryland, Minnesota and Northwestern and Michigan narrowly avoided the cutoff because the Wolverines avoided repeated missteps against the Big Ten’s lesser teams.
So, how much damage will the bottom feeders do this year?
Well, the first thing to recognize is that Minnesota is presently the Big Ten’s only true bottom feeder. While teams like Iowa, Michigan, and Nebraska have shown weaknesses, the only team that’s been objectively awful has been Minnesota. For perspective, 13 of the league’s 14 teams rank 89th or above on KenPom. The lone exception are the Gophers, who rank a horrendously bad 197th nationally.
This means a few things for the Big Ten. First, anyone who hopes to make the NCAAs needs to avoid losing to Minnesota. All 18 of Minnesota’s remaining Big Ten games (plus the Big Ten Tournament opener) are potential resume bombs. It’s the kind of loss that takes two or three wins to make up for. So, put plainly, all of those games are significant.
Additionally, the lack of any other true “bottom feeders” means you’re going to see a lot of competitive games from the upper bottom of the Big Ten. Teams like Nebraska can pose challenges, as Boilermaker fans observed when Purdue faced the Huskers earlier this month. That adds a lot of land mines for the league’s top teams.
It also makes the timing of the games particularly important. If you’re a top team, you want to avoid playing this “upper bottom” in let down situations or early on. For instance, while Nebraska has shown some spark, the Huskers still don’t look like an NCAA squad and the odds are the team will have tanked its season by March. As such, top teams should be hoping for the late season games when the roster might have checked out.