Big Ten Power Rankings: February 15 EditionPosted by jnowak on February 15th, 2013
In this week’s power rankings, we take a look at what each team’s biggest improvement has been this year. Voters this week were Deepak Jayanti, Joey Nowak and Kevin Trahan.
- Indiana Hoosiers — The loss to Illinois last week hurt a little, but Indiana bounced back nicely and was able to hang on to the No. 1 spot in the country (as well the PRs). The Hoosiers took down Nebraska in fairly unspectacular fashion, but were very impressive in a road game against Ohio State. The schedule gets tougher, with games at Michigan and Minnesota coming up, so the Hoosiers have to play well on the road, where they’ve been very inconsistent as of late. However, Indiana proved that when it’s playing well, it is one of the most dangerous teams in the country. Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo were both very impressive against the Buckeyes and IU was able to pull out a nice win. Most Improved: This is a tough decision. We’ll go with Oladipo because of just how much he’s improved since last year. Cody Zeller has actually improved a lot within the course of the season after a so-so start too, though. Still, Oladipo has been the Hoosiers’ star and has his name in NPOY talk. Who could have guessed that at the beginning of the season?
- Michigan State Spartans — There’s no team in the conference on a streak like the Spartans (they’ve won 10 of their last 11 with their only blemish coming in a tightly-contested game at Indiana), one of the hottest teams in the country. The problem is, they’re trying to keep up with the one team that dealt them their only loss since 2012. The Spartans are somehow finding a way to get on without Travis Trice, and they’re doing a fantastic job of it. The romp over Michigan was the biggest statement made in Big Ten play this season, but things are going to get really tough on the Spartans now. Indiana comes to town Tuesday, followed by trips to Ohio State and Michigan before Wisconsin hits East Lansing. We’ll definitely get to see what Tom Izzo’s group is made of. Most Improved: On an individual level, this honor would have to go to Denzel Valentine, who has always been one of the Spartans’ most promising young players, but also one who needed to be reined in. But as he’s helped to fill the void left by Trice and cut down his turnovers, the Spartans have improved in the same department. After turning it over 18 times against Indiana, the Spartans have averaged just over 10 per game (including only five against Minnesota and eight against Michigan). This has to be remain the case if the Spartans are to continue this run.
- Michigan — The questions about Michigan have started to come up again. Earlier in the season, people questioned the Wolverines’ frontcourt and whether the freshmen could continue to play as well as they did early on. Well, Michigan seems to have hit a little bit of a wall, losing a nail-biter at Wisconsin and then getting blown out at Michigan State. The game against Michigan State was particularly draining, as the Spartans controlled the contest from the opening tip and basically nobody else played well other than Trey Burke and Mitch McGary. The remainder of the schedule is tough — although MSU and Indiana still have to go to Ann Arbor — and Michigan needs to get back on track before things spiral out of control. Most Improved: Over the first part of the season, McGary took a back seat to fellow freshmen Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III. However, he has shown great improvement over the past few games. Michigan needs him to play well down the stretch, especially during Robinson’s current slump.
- Ohio State — Ohio State really is just lingering right now. They’re also in the middle of a brutal stretch. (But then again, who in the Big Ten isn’t?) They struggled most of the way but eventually disposed of Northwestern on Thursday and can now turn their attention to Wisconsin on Sunday. We saw some really nice things from the Buckeyes in their loss to Michigan, but they reverted to many of their bad habits against Indiana the following game. I can’t emphasize it enough: This team absolutely has to have consistent scoring behind Deshaun Thomas. An occasional 10-point game from Aaron Craft just isn’t going to cut it. This is on Shannon Scott, LaQuinton Ross and Lenzelle Smith, Jr. There’s just too much talent for the Buckeyes to be so one-dimensional. Most Improved: You may have noticed that the aforementioned role players are all guards. Ohio State doesn’t really have much of a frontcourt presence, and that was known to be a weakness with the departure of Jared Sullinger last season. So a lot of this criticism falls on sophomore Amir Williams, whose minutes have more than doubled this year to 20 MPG (36 against Michigan). He could be Ohio State’s big man of the future, and his improvement could be key to their success.
- Minnesota Golden Gophers — The Gophers continue to flip-flop against the other top teams in the conference — their win against Wisconsin serves as the last example — but it’s tough to pinpoint any one specific reason for their inconsistency. They can’t be blamed for a home loss to Illinois on Sunday because the Illini were on fire from beyond the arc during the second half. At this juncture of the season, Tubby Smith’s team will still make the NCAA Tournament but their seeding may hurt unless they can rack up a couple of quality wins. Most Improved: This one is easy, offensive rebounding. It helps that the big fella, Trevor Mbakwe, is back after missing last season due to an injury. With Mbakwe controlling the paint, the Gophers are the top rebounding team in the Big Ten with a 43.1 % offensive rebounding rate. Not only are they the best in the conference, but they are the best in the country in this category.
- Wisconsin Badgers — Ben Brust’s three-point shot from half-court definitely triggered the Badgers’ return back into the Top 25. Unless they lose a game that they are not supposed to rest of the way, they should be on their way to a solid postseason seed. Two wins over top five teams — Indiana and Michigan — combined with no “bad” losses, will help Bo Ryan make a strong case for a protected seed. Most Improved: Consistent scoring across their starting lineup. After Jordan Taylor’s departure, the Badgers didn’t have a primary scoring option which has forced all of the starters to step up on the offense. They have three guys who can score from anywhere on the floor: Ryan Evans (10.8 PPG), Jared Berggren (11.9 PPG) and Ben Brust (11.2 PPG). All of these players have been around the Bo Ryan system for at least three seasons and their experience pays off in games against top competition.
- Illinois Fighting Illini — The late season surge continues for the Illini after an impressive win over the Gophers on the road and a shellacking of the Boilermakers in Champaign. John Groce’s team may be clicking at the right time but they need to take care of business against a depleted Northwestern squad in Evanston on Sunday. Lose that game and most of the momentum gained over the last 10 days goes out the door. Most Improved: No statistics here, just pure energy and attitude. Two weeks ago, after their loss to Northwestern at home, most college hoops fans may have experienced a deja vu with these Illini because they were about to slide into oblivion the same way they did last season. But it is clear that Groce has had an impact on his team as they were able to turn things around with a win over Indiana, and more importantly, a follow-up win on the road against a hungry Gophers team. The change in attitude and energy can’t be measured in any statistic but things are trending a bit differently in Champaign than they were a year ago.
- Iowa Hawkeyes — The Hawkeyes continue to hang around the bottom half of the Big Ten but one more quality win over a top 25 team and they may leap back into the bubble conversation. Fran McCaffery’s team refuses to quit after two tough losses to Minnesota and Wisconsin. They then turned around to win a game they were supposed to win against Northwestern at home. There is still hope for these young Hawkeyes over the next few weeks. Most Improved: Turnovers. Last season, they turned the ball over 21% of the time during conference play, but they improved that aspect of their game to 16.7% this season. Mike Gesell, despite being a freshman, has done an excellent job of handling the offense in the half-court and hasn’t really hit a “freshman wall” yet, which is very impressive.
- Purdue Boilermakers — I think we can officially write Purdue off. As soon as they had won three in a row and seemed to be turning things around, a loss to Michigan brought the Boilermakers back down to earth. They barely got by Iowa in overtime, and a win against Penn State is the only other victory sprinkled in since beating West Virginia on January 19. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Purdue lose five of its last six contests, with games against Northwestern and at Iowa their best chances at victories down the stretch. Most improved: This team was all about guard play at the beginning of the season. That was before we met and got acquainted with A.J. Hammons. Maybe the best freshman in the conference (and that’s saying something), Hammons has given the Boilermakers a formidable post presence that they had been lacking. Now, with their strong backcourt, it’s easier for Purdue to keep teams honest and maintain the strong rebounding edge they’ve had all season.
- Northwestern Wildcats — Before Thursday’s game against Ohio State, Kale Abrahamson likened Northwestern’s season this year to an episode of survivor. The Wildcats were without guard JerShon Cobb for the whole year and have been without star Drew Crawford for most of it. They just lost Jared Swopshire for the season when he was playing his best basketball of the year and they lost Alex Olah to a concussion for a few games. Reggie Hearn and Alex Marcotullio have also been hurt at times this year. Against Ohio State, Northwestern had just seven scholarship players and two walk-ons available, and the Wildcats took OSU to the brink. It was an impressive performance and showed some potential from the young guys. It will still be tough for NU to beat Illinois this weekend, but don’t count the Wildcats out. Most Improved: It either has to be Olah or Tre Demps. Olah has improved his offense greatly in the past month, especially as a passer. Demps, meanwhile, has become a solid shooter and dynamic scorer for NU. Both need to work on their defense, but they’ve shown great strides since the beginning of the year.
- Nebraska Cornhuskers — Nebraska took down Penn State again, meaning the Cornhuskers almost certainly won’t finish in the cellar of the Big Ten. That’s a semi-win for new coach Tim Miles, whose team has shown signs of improvement this year. Nebraska is offensively challenged, but its defense has been solid, and the Huskers held their own for a bit against Indiana this week before allowing the Hoosiers to pull away. Most Improved: It was tough to expect much from Andre Almeida, a physically limited fifth-year senior who was coming off of injury. While he still hasn’t been great, he’s shown improvement this year, especially on defense. It’s too bad for Miles that this is his final season.
- Penn State Nittany Lions — Every week, it seems, we revisit this. Did Penn State manage to get its first Big Ten win of the season? (No.) Is this the week they’ll be able to do it? (Probably not.) Well, I can say with just about absolute certainty that this is not going to be the week… again. If the Nittany Lions couldn’t upset Iowa at home on Thursday, they don’t stand a chance in their next four (at Michigan, at Illinois, against Michigan again, and at Minnesota). That’s tough sledding. Most Improved: At the beginning of the year, all we knew about this team was Tim Frazier. And when he went down, Penn State had no choice but to improve its scoring depth and find other play-makers. Enter D.J. Newbill and Jermaine Marshall, two names you’ll get used to hearing around the Big Ten for years to come. Penn State has been a one-man band for years. That’s changing now.