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BIG TEN BASKETBALL RESET: PRETENDERS AND CONTENDERS

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Big Ten conference games are almost upon us -- so let's take a look at how the teams in the league look with the non-conference portion of the schedule in the books.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Let's assess the state of the Big Ten by taking a look at what we thought we knew a few months ago -- and what we think we know now.  We'll use the preseason Big Ten rankings on BTN.com because they're as good as any (and because there weren't any official preseason Big Ten rankings by the coaches or media).

1) Maryland (10-1; KenPom #23 then, KenPom #15 now)

What Have We Learned?

Early on, the Terps looked distinctly underwhelming -- they labored to beat a bad Rider team, struggled against a not-good Illinois State team, and needed a furious comeback to beat a Georgetown team's that turned out to be pretty middling.  But things have clicked for Maryland in recent weeks -- their six wins since the Illinois State struggle have been by an average of 21.8 points, including a 10-point win over a quality UConn team on a neutral court.  Their lone loss of the season was a narrow setback against North Carolina in Chapel Hill during the Big Ten-ACC Challenge.  Their resume is lacking in notable wins right now (after UConn their best win is... Rhode Island on a neutral site?) but they've done a good job of smashing lesser opponents lately and appear to be trending upward.

Pretender or Contender?

Contender: the Terps are starting to look like the team that the preseason prognosticators thought they'd be. Melo Trimble has been playing at an all-conference level, blue-chip recruit Diamond Stone has been delivering performances that live up to the hype, and Rasheed Sulaimon and Jake Layman have provided key performances for Maryland in the early going.  The Terps are going to be a very tough out in Big Ten play and look like they'll be in contention for a spot at the top of the league.

2) Indiana (10-3; KenPom #13 then, KenPom #24 now)

What Have We Learned?

Indiana can't really defend.  This isn't a huge surprise -- Indiana has ranked outside the KenPom Top 100 in defensive efficiency in 4 of Tom Crean's first 7 seasons at Indiana -- but it looks like it's set to be a problem for the Hoosiers again.  Duke shredded Indiana when they played in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge and while that might be excusable (Duke is an elite offensive team), not being able to get stops against Wake Forest and UNLV is much more alarming.  Indiana once again has a top-5 offense, which will keep them in plenty of games, but defensive breakdowns figure to lead to more than a few losses in league play.

Pretender or Contender?

Pretender: this was an easy choice until Indiana staged a furious comeback and knocked off Notre Dame last weekend on a neutral site.  That was an impressive performance and if Indiana plays a bit more like that the rest of the year, they might be a genuine B1G contender.  But those losses to Wake and UNLV are hard to ignore and the overall defensive stats are still pretty poor.  A finish in the top-half of the Big Ten looks doable, but contending for a title (or a double-bye in the Big Ten Tournament) may be beyond this team. On the other hand, Indiana has a really soft scheduled in Big Ten play -- they play Michigan State, Maryland, and Purdue just once each and they don't play any of them until Valentine's Day.

3) Purdue (12-1; KenPom #22 then, KenPom #4 now)

What Have We Learned?

Purdue looks poised for their best season since Robbie Hummel (and his oft-injured knee ligaments) were leading the way in West Lafayette.  The Boilermakers are 12-1, including 3-1 against teams in the KenPom Top 30 (with two of those wins coming away or on a neutral court), and they've absolutely obliterated weaker opponents.  Isaac Haas (#6 in KenPom's Player of the Year standings) and A.J. Hammons have combined to provide a terrifying Twin Towers tandem in the post, and big-time recruit Caleb Swanigan has been living up to the hype as well.  Purdue is going to be a match-up nightmare for teams in the Big Ten.

Pretender or Contender?

Contender: Purdue hit a speed bump when they dropped a tight game to Butler last week, but they bounced back to handle a very solid Vanderbilt team a few days after that and their overall body of work in non-conference play has been extremely strong.  This team looks like one of the best in the Big Ten and should easily contend for the top spots in the league, especially with their stifling defense.

4) Michigan State (13-0; KenPom #18 then, KenPom #5 now)

What Have We Learned?

Sparty is the only remaining unbeaten in the Big Ten and that 13-0 mark includes impressive wins over Kansas (on a neutral site) and Louisville (at home), as well as wins over solid-looking Florida and Providence teams.  Like Purdue, Michigan State has also mauled the weaker teams on their schedule. They did get pushed hard by Oakland in their last game, but Oakland is actually pretty good (KenPom #66) and MSU was playing their first game without Denzel Valentine, a leading contender for national Player of the Year honors before he suffered a knee injury.  I don't think that performance diminishes Sparty too much.

Pretender or Contender?

Contender: MSU is the only Big Ten to rank near the top ten in KenPom's offensive (#8) and defensive (#11) efficiency ratings.  They have tremendous balance, good depth, and in Valentine, a player delivering a superstar performance this year.  Of course, the caveat there is that Valentine is going to miss time with a knee injury -- and a Valentine-less MSU isn't quite as fearsome a proposition (as we saw against Oakland).  He isn't expected to be out too long, but if he is that could have a big impact on MSU's title hopes.

5) Wisconsin (8-5; KenPom #9 then, KenPom 56 now)

What Have We Learned?

Death. Taxes. Bo Ryan quitting in midseason.  We had a sense that this wasn't going to be a vintage Wisconsin season when it opened with a loss at home to Western Illinois; they've backed that up with four additional losses, including home losses to UW-Milwaukee and Marquette, a neutral court loss to Georgetown, and an away game blasting by Oklahoma.  That indifferent form is reflected in their stats -- #64 in offensive efficiency and #70 in defensive efficiency, well below their norms in recent years.  It turns out replacing guys as good as Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker, and Traevon Jackson isn't a piece of cake.

Pretender or Contender?

Pretender: The Badgers were a fixture atop the Big Ten standings throughout Bo Ryan's tenure -- they famously never finished worse than a tie for 4th place in the league -- but it's damn near impossible to see that streak continuing this year. This is a flawed team with several weaknesses.  The league schedule makers didn't do them any favors, either -- they play Michigan State, Purdue, Indiana, and Maryland twice each.  This team is going to have to scrap for a top half of the Big Ten finish.

6) Michigan (10-3; KenPom #17 then, KenPom #34 now)

What Have We Learned?

Michigan was a trendy pick to bounce back in the Big Ten after suffering an injury-ravaged season a year ago, but they haven't quite lived up to that expectation yet.  They don't have a bad loss among their three defeats (Xavier, UConn, and SMU all rank in the KenPom Top 30)... but they also got smoked in all three losses (average margin of defeat: 18 ppg) and six of their wins have come against teams ranked 247 or worse in the KenPom rankings (and a seventh came against a non-Division I opponent).  So it's a little hard to get a read on just how good Michigan might be this year.

Pretender or Contender?

Pretender: Accordingly, it's also tricky to figure out where they sit on the Pretender-Contender axis, but ultimately it's tough to label any team that's been blown out by the three best teams they've played as a "Contender."  Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton provide a pretty potent backcourt punch, but they've got some issues elsewhere in their lineup and overall this looks like more of a rebuilding team than a real Big Ten contender.

7) Ohio State (7-5; KenPom #39 then, KenPom #50 now)

What Have We Learned?

Ohio State has been a consistent contender in the Big Ten in recent years, but this doesn't look like one of those Ohio State teams.  The Buckeyes started the year at 2-4, including some ugly losses to UT-Arlington and Louisiana Tech. They also lost at home to Virginia, an understandable loss, and a neutral site OT loss to Memphis. After that rough start they turned things around, though, going 5-1 with a surprising neutral site win over Kentucky.  (They also got blasted by 20 points by UConn in that stretch, though.)  There's no D'Angelo Russell or Aaron Craft or Deshaun Thomas on this roster to carry OSU to the top of the standings.

Pretender or Contender?

Pretender: 7-5 is 7-5. The Kentucky win was nice, but the five losses are hard to overlook.  This team has some definite talent -- Marc Loving, Jae'Sean Tate, JaQuan Lyle, and Keita Bates-Diop are all good players -- and looks like a team that will probably improve quite a bit over the course of the season, but they don't look like a team that will contend for a top finish in the Big Ten.

8) Illinois (8-5; KenPom #60 then, KenPom #114 now)

What Have We Learned?

Yes, that's right: Illinois was picked to finish ahead of Iowa in the Big Ten.  LOL.

Illinois started the season 1-3 and fell to 3-5 after back-to-back losses to Iowa State and Notre Dame at the start of the month.  Illinois has run off five straight wins since then, but their performances been terribly impressive -- they struggled to beat really bad Chicago State and Illinois-Chicago teams and nearly collapsed against a dreadful Missouri team.  Illinois has problems all over the place, but first and foremost on the defensive end -- they rank 169th in defensive efficiency, per KenPom, which is second worst in the Big Ten (only Minnesota is worse).

Pretender or Contender?

Pretender: does this really need further explanation?  The one saving grace for Illinois is their schedule -- they play the top four Big Ten teams in the KenPom rankings (Michigan State, Purdue, Maryland, and Iowa) just once each and the get two games apiece against Big Ten dregs Minnesota and Rutgers.  But this team looks bad enough that it probably doesn't matter who they play.

9) Iowa (9-3; KenPom #36 then, KenPom #17 now)

What Have We Learned?

Well, I think it's fair to say that Iowa is better than the 9th best team in the conference.  Iowa's played one of the tougher non-conference schedules in the Big Ten and navigated it pretty well.  The loss to Iowa State still really stings -- a road win over a top-10 opponent would have been worth its weight in gold -- but Iowa still managed to go 3-3 against teams ranked in the KenPom Top 100, with wins over  Wichita State, Florida State, and Marquette.  With the exception of a nail-biter against Drake, Iowa absolutely dominated lesser opposition in their non-conference games.

Pretender or Contender?

Contender: Based on their play so far, Iowa merits inclusion in the "Contender" group.  They've handled weak opponents and been competitive against the best teams on their schedule; if they had managed to avoid prolonged scoring droughts against Dayton, Notre Dame, or Iowa State, their record (and resume) would look even better. Iowa's depth still has a few question marks -- Fran has ridden his experienced veterans hard in several of Iowa's games against their tough competition, but someone other than those veterans will need to step up during Big Ten play.  The only other knock on Iowa is their schedule -- Iowa plays Michigan State, Purdue, and Maryland five times in their first eight games.  The schedule opens up a lot after that, but if Iowa isn't able to make it through those games with a decent record, genuine Big Ten contendership might be out of the question.  This could finally be the year Iowa cracks a top-4 finish, though.

10) Northwestern (11-1; KenPom then #72, KenPom now #45)

What Have We Learned?

Northwestern can beat bad teams.  That 11-1 record is nice, but it hasn't exactly come against a murderer's row of opponents.  Not one of those 11 wins has come against a team ranked in the KenPom Top 100; their best wins are over Columbia (128), Virginia Tech (117), and DePaul (148) -- and all three of those wins required overtime.  Meanwhile, five of their 11 wins have come against teams ranked 269 or lower via KenPom.  Mmm, cupcakes.

Pretender or Contender?

Pretender: We probably need to see Northwestern play a few more decent teams before we really get a feel for how good they are this year, but beating up on a bunch of weak opponents does not inspire a ton of confidence.  There's only one Rutgers in the Big Ten, after all.  Northwestern does get to play multiple games against the Big Ten's lesser lights -- two apiece against Penn State, Nebraska, and Minnesota, plus one game against Rutgers -- and avoids double-plays against Michigan State, Purdue, Maryland, and Iowa, but it's still hard to see this team amassing enough wins in Big Ten play to contend.

11) Nebraska (8-5; KenPom #139 then, KenPom #131 now)

What Have We Learned?

Nebraska has eight wins so far this year and lost by 11 points to Samford -- at home.  Six of their eight wins have come against teams ranked 300 or worse in the KenPom rankings.  Nebrasketball gonna Nebrasketball.

Pretender or Contender?

Pretender: Nebraska scored wins over KenPom Top 100 opponents Tennessee (neutral court) and Rhode Island (home), which is nice, but it's impossible to overlook their many other failures when playing anyone but the softest of cupcakes.  If not for Rutgers, the only thing this team would be a contender for is worst in the Big Ten.

12) Minnesota (6-6; KenPom #65 then, KenPom #150 now)

What Have We Learned?

That Minnesota is really, really glad that no teams from the Dakotas are in the Big Ten after they lost back to back games to South Dakota and South Dakota State.  They also lost to Temple and UW-Milwaukee and struggled to beat Missouri State and Nebraska Omaha.  This does not look like a good team.

Pretender or Contender?

Pretender: Minnesota has the worst defense -- by far -- in the Big Ten, ranking a ghastly 217th in defensive efficiency. That's going to cost them plenty of games in league play.

13) Penn State (9-4; KenPom #121 then, KenPom #130 now)

What Have We Learned?

Penn State doesn't have any really good wins -- their best is probably their most recent, a 75-69 win over Kent State (KenPom #115) -- but they have five other wins over teams ranked in the 101-200 range by KenPom.  They also narrowly lost to the best team they've played so far this year, a 71-70 defeat to Colorado on a neutral court. They did get torched by Duquesne and Radford, which is a bad look for a Big Ten team, but those losses were over a month ago.  Lately Penn State has looked much more competitive.

Pretender or Contender?

Pretender: That said, "competitive" only goes so far.  Penn State looks like they may be a bit better than some of the dregs of the Big Ten -- although it doesn't help that they only play Minnesota, Illinois, and Rutgers once each -- but that may only amount to a 10th place finish in the Big Ten this year.

14) Rutgers (5-7; KenPom #221 then, KenPom #261 now)

What Have We Learned?

Rutgers has a chance to be the worst team in Big Ten history -- at least in the KenPom era.  Before Rutgers joined the league, there had been just four Big Ten teams to end the year ranked 200 or lower in the final KenPom rankings: 2003 Penn State (212), 2004 Penn State (218), 2005 Penn State (215), and 2009 Indiana (209). This Rutgers team is poised to rocket past them on the race to the bottom.  So, you know, they've got that going for them.

Pretender or Contender?

Pretender: this needs no further explanation, but in case you need one stat to sum up Rutgers' futility -- they rank 319th in offensive efficiency in the country.  That is very, very, very bad. and they are going to lose a whole lot of games.