1. Michigan (9-0, 4-0)
Do I believe Michigan is really the best team in the Big Ten? No. Have they played a particularly difficult schedule thus far? No, especially in comparison to some of their league opponents. But Michigan earned this ranking by virtue of being the only undefeated team remaining in the most difficult conference in America. The Wolverine offense is humming thanks to veterans like Isaiah Livers and Franz Wagner, as well as hyper-efficient freshman center Hunter Dickinson, who is scoring nearly 17 points per game while shooting an absurd 71.8%. Don’t expect Michigan to linger long on these rankings, but viewing this as a snapshot of where the Big Ten stands on January 5, they have to occupy the top spot.
2. Iowa (9-2, 3-1)
Iowa had a fantastic week after scoring big wins over Northwestern and Rutgers, and its lone Big Ten loss (at Minnesota in overtime) looks much more tolerable following big wins by the Gophers against Michigan State and Ohio State last week. The Hawkeyes have the most efficient offense in the country according to KenPom, and as long as Luka Garza is healthy, they are a legitimate threat to drop 90+ on virtually any team in the country.
3. Illinois (8-3, 4-1)
The Illini may have three losses to Wisconsin’s two, but Brad Underwood’s team is tied with Michigan for the most victories in the conference and has taken all of its Ls against strong competition, which is a credit to the team’s exceptionally difficult schedule this season. The Illini are absolutely crushing teams on the defensive glass, averaging a Big Ten-best 30.8 defensive boards per game in conference play. Kofi Cockburn is of course a big part of this, but the Illini guards also deserve their fair share of credit, as Ayo Dosunmu and Da’Monte Williams are among the best rebounders in college basketball at their positions.
4. Wisconsin (9-2, 3-1)
How does a team rank in KenPom’s top ten of both offensive and defensive efficiency yet come in at the #4 spot in their conference power rankings? Welcome to the Big Ten. Wisconsin gets dinged a bit for its uncharacteristically sloppy home loss to Maryland last week, but their exceptionally strong performance against Minnesota should put the whole league on notice. If Wisconsin can continue its hot three-point shooting ways (the Badgers have made 41.4% of their shots from beyond the arc this year), they can continue to grind teams down with their deliberate, yet highly efficient offense while suffocating opponents on the defensive end.
5. Rutgers (7-2, 3-2)
Scarlet Knights fans should be frustrated with the opportunities their team left on the court against Iowa on Saturday, particularly given how well Steve Pikiell’s team defended Luka Garza for most of the game. But Rutgers is still among the most dangerous teams in the conference on a nightly basis, as evidenced by their win against Illinois and road victory over Maryland. Ron Harper remains one of the most difficult covers in the Big Ten, and the Scarlet Knights have an interior defense that is a sight to behold. It’s unclear how the physical nature of Rutgers’ game will translate against elite non-conference opponents without the benefit of Big Ten referees willing to swallow their whistles, but the Knights still have as strong a chance as any team to win the conference.
6. Minnesota (10-2, 3-2)
If not for the next team on this list, Minnesota would be the runaway choice for the biggest surprise in the conference thus far. The Gophers can beat any team in the league when their shots are falling; just ask Iowa, Michigan State, and Ohio State. When their offense sputters, however, the Gophers are vulnerable to being run out of the gym, as evidenced by blowout losses against Illinois and Wisconsin. Minnesota’s position in these rankings could change dramatically after this week depending on how they weather consecutive road games against Michigan and Iowa.
7. Northwestern (6-3, 3-2)
KenPom isn’t in love with the Wildcats this year, ranking them only 56th despite their 6-3 record. There is also reason to question whether the magic is wearing off with this team after consecutive double-digit losses to Iowa and Michigan last week. But ask Michigan State whether Chris Collins’ squad deserves to be taken seriously. The Wildcats are mistake averse, can hit their threes with the best teams in America, and pass the ball as well and as willingly as any squad in the country. Thursday’s game against Illinois will create a better picture of what Northwestern can do against elite competition.
8. Ohio State (8-3, 2-3)
Given the amount of time that Seth Towns and EJ Liddell have missed this season, Buckeye fans have to be thrilled with where their team is sitting even after a dispiriting loss to Minnesota. Ohio State has built a strong resume thus far on the basis of their excellent play inside. That being said, the Buckeyes desperately need to improve their efficiency from deep, where they are making a conference-low 27% of their shots through five games.
9. Purdue (7-5, 2-3)
The Boilers are a much better team than their 7-5 record indicates—just ask Ohio State and Maryland. Nearly all of Purdue’s losses have come against opponents in KenPom’s Top 20, and with winnable games against Nebraska and Michigan State this week, the Boilers could dramatically improve their standings in the Big Ten race in the blink of an eye. Junior forward Trevion Williams is one of the best post players in the conference, though one can’t help but wonder how dominant he could be if he ever figured things out from the free throw line, where he is shooting an abysmal 47.2% this year.
10. Michigan State (7-3, 1-3)
The Spartans don’t have the record many fans expected as this point in the season, and their 81-56 loss at Minnesota gave plenty of reason for concern. Honestly, their ranking in this list may be partly influenced by their name, their historical performance, and how well the team looked in its early season win at Duke. But make no mistake, the Spartans are as talented and well-coached as any team in the league. That being said, the time is now for Michigan State to buckle down, particularly on defense, as the Spartans are allowing Big Ten opponents to shoot over 50% against them from the field and rank 12th in both two and three-point defense in conference play.
11. Maryland (6-4, 1-3)
Maryland deserves some serious credit for their road win against Wisconsin, though this victory has been a real outlier in a season that has seen the Terrapins consistently coming up short against above-average competition. This is not the typical Mark Turgeon team fans have grown used to seeing in recent years, as the Terrapins lack the elite big men they’ve been blessed with in the form of Jalen Smith and Bruno Fernando. But Eric Ayala and Donta Scott are both excellent at getting to and scoring at the rim, and if Aaron Wiggins can ever take the next step and become a more reliable scorer, this team could be dangerous going forward.
(Author’s note: These rankings were written before last night’s Maryland vs. Indiana game went final, so flip the rankings of these two teams if the Hoosiers manage to beat the Terps head-to-head.)
12. Indiana (6-4, 1-2)
I’m a little lower on this team than others are, including KenPom who has them ranked 24th in the nation in his latest power rankings. Trayce Jackson-Davis is a monster down low and the Hoosier defense is arguably one of the best in the conference, but their ball movement has been seriously lacking on offense, and Indiana has been shockingly deficient on the boards this season, averaging a conference-low 27 rebounds per game in Big Ten play. Archie Miller is a good coach, but it’s still unclear whether he’ll ever really find his stride in Bloomington.
13. Penn State (3-4, 0-3)
This is not the same Penn State team that gave the Big Ten fits last season, and new head coach Jim Ferry is not Pat Chambers. The Nittany Lions have a quality win against Virginia Tech, but their guard-heavy roster is too unbalanced, and it’s tough to see how this team will consistently guard the host of elite big men they’ll encounter in this conference on a nightly basis. Penn State’s next two games are against Ohio State and Michigan, and losses in each contest could put them in a serious hole that would jeopardize any hopes they have of being a dark horse NCAA contender.
14. Nebraska (4-7, 0-4)
Teddy Allen is a great scorer and a really fun player to watch, and it seems like Fred Hoiberg is doing a great job of recruiting to Lincoln so far. Unfortunately, unless the Huskers can schedule Doane College a few more times before season’s end, that may be all Nebraska fans have to hang their hats on until next year.