The Big Ten’s Biggest Early Surprises

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 19th, 2018

Now that we’re roughly one-third of the way through the Big Ten slate, let’s take a look at the biggest surprises and storylines taking shape in the Midwest.

Who had Ohio State pegged as a Big Ten title contender? (Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports)

  • Chris Holtmann, Keita Bates-Diop, and the Buckeyes. Forget the Big Ten for a moment — Ohio State might be the biggest surprise in the entire country. The Buckeyes began the season ranked 74th overall by KenPom and picked to finish 11th — yes, 11th — in the conference. And after getting blasted by Gonzaga in the PK80 on Thanksgiving Day, those projections appeared to make sense. That is, until Big Ten play rolled around. Since losing to Clemson on November 29, Ohio State has gone 11-1 overall and 5-0 in league play, including a 25-point road drubbing of Wisconsin and dominant win against top-ranked Michigan State. Its KenPom ranking has skyrocketed as a result to 12th overall nationally. Junior forward Keita Bates-Diop (19.8 PPG, 8.8 RPG) has emerged as the frontrunner for Big Ten Player of the Year — highlighted by a 32-point effort against the Spartans — while his coach, Chris Holtmann, may be on track for conference (if not national) honors in his own right. Perhaps Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith put it best: “None of us, including me, expected to be here.”
  • Purdue is the clear Big Ten favorite. Who would have expected to be saying that in mid-January? It’s not that Purdue wasn’t expected to be good — the Boilers were picked to finish second, after all — it’s just that Michigan State was supposed to be that much better. Roughly one-third of the way through Big Ten play, however, that’s clearly not the case. Whereas Michigan State has lost two of its last three games, both by double-figures, Matt Painter’s club has been on an absolute tear. Since November 24, Purdue is 14-0 (7-0 in Big Ten play) with eight wins by 25 or more points — including wins against Arizona, Minnesota and Wisconsin. The Boilermakers rank among the top six nationally in both offensive and defensive efficiency while boasting the third-highest three-point shooting mark (42.6%) in America. 7’2″ center Isaac Haas has been more efficient than ever (122.7 ORtg); sophomore guard Carsen Edwards (17 PPG) has been the breakout player some thought he could be; put simply, Purdue has looked infallible. With home games against Ohio State and Michigan left, Painter’s group is in great position to win the conference outright — even if it were to stumble in East Lansing on February 10.

  • Michigan State is flawed. Before losing to Ohio State on January 7, Michigan State looked like the dominant team we expected. The Spartans had scored over 1.3 points per possession for five games in a row, including an electrifying 1.44 PPP effort against Maryland. Their defense was nearly as great. Then they were blown out at Ohio State, with the offense struggling to find any flow in the half-court (0.96 PPP). Michigan State’s problems continued at home against Rutgers, an overtime squeaker. Finally, the Spartans lost at home to intrastate rival Michigan. Suddenly, one of the odds-on National Championship favorites instead looks like a young team struggling to find an offensive identity. To be sure, Michigan State is still oozing with talent and has a Hall of Fame coach pacing the sidelines, but it is clearly flawed and absolutely beatable.

When will Illinois catch a break? (Tribune News Service)

  • Attrition is shaking up the league’s power structure. Wisconsin has been without its point guard since early December. Maryland lost first-team All-Big Ten selection Justin Jackson for the season just after Christmas. Minnesota suspended shot-blocking maven Reggie Lynch on January 5, then lost Amir Coffey (14.1 PPG) to a shoulder injury the very next day. Penn State’s missed double-figure scorer Josh Reaves for three games, while Northwestern has battled its own injury concerns in recent weeks. All of these teams have struggled as a result, leaving the door open for Michigan and Ohio State to define themselves as the “next-best” behind (or alongside) Purdue and Michigan State. Oddly, another notable injury — one to Indiana center De’Ron Davis, who’s been out with a leg ailment — has had a reverse effect: without Davis, the Hooisers are 3-0 with wins over the Gophers, Wildcats and Nittany Lions.
  • Illinois has been impossibly unlucky. Illinois is 0-6 in Big Ten play, which is really quite incredible when you take a closer look. Three of the Illini’s losses came in overtime, including narrow defeats at Northwestern and home against Maryland. They also lost on a buzzer-beat on Monday night at Nebraska. Even their two double-figure road losses at Minnesota and Michigan were competitive. Bad luck aside — Illinois currently ranks 345th in KenPom‘s Luck FactorBrad Underwood has done a very fine job with a very young team.
  • Wisconsin might be legitimately bad. We’ve said it once and we’ll say it again — never (ever) count out Wisconsin. The Badgers haven’t finished below fourth in the Big Ten since 1999-2000, and even a 10-9 (2-4) start in 2015-16 couldn’t prevent them from righting the ship in time. That said, things are looking pretty dire for this year’s squad. Wisconsin (9-10, 2-4 Big Ten) is ranked an all-time worst 90th overall in KenPom, with offensive and defensive efficiency numbers barely ranking within the top 100. They’ve already lost three home games by double-figures this season and haven’t won a single contest against a certain NCAA Tournament-caliber opponent. Not even Ethan Happ could prevent the Badgers from being blown out of the building on Tuesday night at Purdue. Crucial injuries haven’t helped. Barring some kind of miracle — or at least a dramatic shift in approach by head coach Greg Gard — Wisconsin fans should prepare for their worst finish this century.
Tommy Lemoine (250 Posts)

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