In this week’s power rankings, we take a look at each team’s biggest concern. Voters this week were Deepak Jayanti, Joey Nowak and Kevin Trahan.
1. Michigan Wolverines: Last weekend’s Michigan-Indiana game was supposed to be the game of the year. However, the Michigan-Ohio State game later in the week may have taken the cake. The Wolverines fought off some early adversity in that game and came back to beat the Buckeyes in overtime. Michigan’s remaining schedule isn’t too tough — Indiana still has to come to the Crisler Arena — and the Wolverines should be able to retain the top spot as long as they don’t slip up too much, since the Hoosiers have a much tougher remaining schedule. Biggest concern: Michigan probably has the best backcourt in the country, and while the frontcourt may have been better than we’d anticipated — Jordan Morgan, Glenn Robinson III and now even Mitch McGary have stepped up nicely — but there are still questions as to whether they can compete against top big men. Cody Zeller had a very good game against the Wolverines at Assembly Hall, and Michigan is still unproven at guarding top big men.
2. Indiana Hoosiers: Indiana had the opportunity to grab the No. 1 spot in our power rankings after becoming the No. 1 team in the polls. However, Indiana failed to seize the moment, dropping to Illinois by collapsing in the final minutes Thursday night. It was quite the meltdown for a Hoosiers team that looked like it was in control early, but allowed the Illini to hang in the game for too long until the late run. This likely won’t be the last loss for Indiana, which has a tough schedule from here on out. Biggest concern: The biggest concern here has to be consistency. Indiana has so many weapons that it is perfectly capable of winning on any given night. However, it’s rare that all those weapons play well together — the Michigan game was an exception. The Hoosiers must be more consistent in order to make a run in the NCAA Tournament.
3. Michigan State: This is a team Tom Izzo and Michigan State fans can be proud of, and one that’s built from the Spartan basketball blueprint. They don’t rebound as well as past Izzo teams, but they’re tough on defense and they have a certain grittiness that’s allowed them to grind their way through this tough Big Ten schedule. When they’re healthy, they can beat anybody. The problem is, they’re never totally healthy. Biggest concern: This is easy — injuries. The Spartans can’t seem to make it through a game without someone getting hurt. Take Wednesday’s win against Minnesota for example. At one point, Adreian Payne, Branden Dawson, Gary Harris and Keith Appling all were visibly hurting and/or had to leave the game. And Travis Trice is already on the sidelined. The Spartans have no depth, but they’re managing to get by … for now.
4. Ohio State Buckeyes: It may not be showing immediately in the standings, but Ohio State is improving. Their game against Michigan, albeit a loss, was full of encouraging signs — most notably, the heavy scoring output and the distribution across the rotation. When the Buckeyes get scoring from players not named Deshaun Thomas, they’re in great shape. Biggest concern: The balance of scoring. It’s been well chronicled that the Buckeyes don’t have many go-to guys beyond Thomas, so if he has an off night, Ohio State is usually in trouble. This team is loaded with talent, but it’s just a matter of these players recognizing their capabilities and turning it on.
5. Minnesota Golden Gophers: The Gophers took advantage of the Hawkeyes’ inexperience with a clutch win at The Barn on Sunday but at some point, they will need to beat another ranked opponent to secure a good seed in the NCAA tournament. Trevor Mbakwe continues to dominate the glass as he pulled down 14 rebounds against a tough Spartans’ frontcourt of Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne. Biggest concern: Do the Gophers have a player that can consistently generate offense in the clutch? Andre Hollins (14 PPG) may be their closer but he needs to come up big against formidable competition such as Michigan State. Austin Hollins (11 PPG) can only feed off good ball movement but Dre Hollins may be the only guard that can create his own shot – a skill that will be needed over the last few weeks of the season of the Gophers were to lock up a good seed in the NCAA tournament.
6. Wisconsin Badgers: The Badgers continue to hang around the top half of the conference standings but they might need another win or two against a top team in the conference in order to crack the top 25 polls and lock a good seed in the postseason. Bo Ryan’s team will have an opportunity on Saturday to take down Michigan. If Ben Brust and Traevon Jackson can limit Trey Burke to three-point shots, they may have a chance to sneak up on the Wolverines. Biggest concern: Badgers’ free throw shooting will be a concern because they don’t win by a huge margin and find themselves in several close games. For example, against Iowa, Ryan Evans (43% FT) was fouled and a miss could have proved costly in a close game. Fortunately for Badgers fans, Evans nailed both of the free throws but opposing teams will force the Badgers to close the games at the free throw line. As a team, the Badgers are shooting 62% from the charity line and this could be a factor down the homestretch in the conference season.
7. Illinois Fighting Illini: The Illini may be the most confusing team in the country right now. After pulling off a stunning upset over the top-ranked Indiana Hoosiers, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Illini lose to Minnesota on the road. But the win over Indiana will keep their NCAA hopes alive because it boosts their resume along with other “good” wins over Ohio State, Gonzaga and Butler. Biggest concern: Can they continue to stay motivated to play hard against Big Ten teams from the bottom tier of the conference? John Groce’s team shows up to compete against Michigan State and Indiana but they will need to consistently take care of business against Penn State, Purdue, Nebraska and Northwestern. They can’t lose one of those games and put themselves in a “must-win” situation against Ohio State or Iowa on the road.
8. Northwestern Wildcats: Northwestern blew out Purdue at home last Saturday, and while the Wildcats are far from an NCAA Tournament team, they’re progressing very well this year. Reggie Hearn turned it on for a career high 26 points against the Boilermakers, but perhaps more encouraging is the development of center Alex Olah. Olah really struggled early in Big Ten play, but he played well in games against Michigan and Purdue. If he continues to develop like this, along with the other freshmen, NU will have a solid team next year, with Drew Crawford and JerShon Cobb coming back. Biggest concern: While Olah is playing better, Northwestern has still really struggled inside, especially on the defensive end. Olah isn’t great rebounder and doesn’t alter a lot of shots in the lane, meaning forward Jared Swopshire has had to pick up the slack.
9. Purdue Boilermakers: The Boilermakers are a good team that can give any team in the conference fits on any given night, but they’re not much more than that. They either don’t play consistently well or they just can’t seem to get over the hump to consistently contend night and night out. When you have that much trouble scoring the ball, you’ll find that to be the case. Biggest concern: The problem with these team always has been, and always will be scoring. They can compete on the glass with anybody in the Big Ten, let alone the country, but when you rank 233rd nationall in PPG (65.2) and 261st in field goal percentage (41 percent), there’s a whole lot of room for improvement.
10. Iowa Hawkeyes: You have to feel for the Hawkeyes after two close losses to Minnesota and Wisconsin. Fran McCaffery’s team is trying their best to crack through the top half of the Big Ten but keep falling short but kudos to the head coach for keeping his team together. They can regain their confidence by beating teams that they are “supposed” to beat such as Penn State, Nebraska, Northwestern and Purdue over the next two weeks. Biggest concern: Devyn Marble’s recent slump is a big concern for the Hawkeyes. He was benched during critical minutes against Minnesota (0 points) and Wisconsin (2 points) on the road because he hasn’t been able to find any rhythm offensively. The offensive slump and lack of minutes is clearly affecting Marble and it shows during the games. He turned the ball over during the final minute against the Gophers and let Ben Brust cut towards the basket for a wide-open layup against the Badgers. The young Hawkeyes’ season is not done but they need Marble to play a role in their turnaround over the next few weeks.
11. Nebraska Cornhuskers: Nebraska has taken its lumps this year, but the Huskers have shown promise and hung with some solid teams. That was the case again this week, as Nebraska stayed close with Ohio State. The Huskers get Penn State this weekend in what could be their final chance to get a win; the last stretch of schedule — at Indiana, vs. Michigan State, vs. Iowa, at Wisconsin, at Illinois, vs. Minnesota, at Iowa — is brutal. However, Nebraska certainly has the ability to surprise some teams. Biggest concern: The Huskers have done a nice job defensively this year, but they’ve really struggled to score. They slow the game down, which keeps them close to more talented teams, but they don’t have the shooting to win at the end of games.
12. Penn State Nittany Lions: The Nittany Lions came dangerously close to that first Big Ten win with their last game at home against Purdue, but just couldn’t pull it out. But they’ve got another good chance at the first win when they travel to Nebraska this week. Otherwise, they may never see that win at all. Biggest concern: How about staying motivated? Patrick Chambers has to look for ways to keep his guys engaged despite getting beat every time they take the floor. They’re not competing for anything this year, but they have to find a way to make these games matter. Play the role of spoiler.