- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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This morning's A-10 power rankings contained a somewhat lengthy spiel about the evaluative place of wins and losses in close games; go check it out and then come back, because it's relevant here, too. Or ignore it entirely and just jump right in. Choose your own adventure!
1. Michigan. It took the Wolverines a little time to get going in Thursday night's home win over Purdue, but going they got, to the tune of a 68-53 victory and 1.17 points per possession. That brings Michigan's offense to a grand total of 1.20 points per possession in Big Ten play. When you play that kind of offense, you can allow opponents to score 0.96 points per trip and not really even break a sweat. If Trey Burke isn't the current front-runner for player of the year (Creighton's Doug McDermott probably belongs atop that list), then it's awfully close. This team is humming.
2. Indiana. The Hoosiers are back in the No. 2 spot after a road win at Northwestern and a home demolition of hapless Penn State. This is due in part to the fact that Wisconsin lost back-to-back one-possession games after taking down the Hoosiers at home, but it has more to do with the fact that Indiana is, for all of the fan-cited warts discussed in last week's edition of these power rankings, still very much a national title contender. The Hoosiers still boast an offense ranked in the KenPom top 5, and a defense ranked in the top 15, and that combination of factors remains the important thing to keep in mind about this group: It can still score, but its defense is much, much better than at any time in 2012, when it shot itself into the Sweet 16.
What the Hoosiers need the rest of the way aren't overhauls; they're tweaks. For example: In its first five Big Ten games (not including Penn State), Indiana outscored opponents by an average margin of 12.8 points in the first half. In those second halves, though, Indiana was actually outscored by a combined 5.2 points. This happened last Sunday against Northwestern, and after the game, when asked about this tendency … well, let's just say IU coach Tom Crean did not particularly enjoy this line of questioning. The Hoosiers have to get better in a variety of other small ways -- better zone offense, more bench contributions from young players -- but it would take a total meltdown to not consider IU one of the eight or so teams with an overtly realistic shot of winning the national title this season.
3. Michigan State. For a team that spent most of November and December turning the ball over way too often, Michigan State sure has taken to the rigors of Big Ten play well. This is in large part because the Spartans have stopped turning the ball over as much; their full-season rate is 21.0 percent, but they've cut that to just 17.4 in conference play. The Spartans were the beneficiaries of a couple of really close wins over good teams this week (over Ohio State at home, over Wisconsin in Madison), not only because of late-game plays (and Shannon Scott's horrific final shot Saturday in East Lansing) but also because their combination of athleticism and interior strength has made them one of the better defensive rebounding teams in the country -- and one of the more toughest teams to play.
4. Wisconsin. Again with the close losses: After flummoxing Indiana on its own floor, Wisconsin had to play at Iowa on the 20th anniversary of local legend Chris Street's too-early passing, followed by a home date against an all-too-familiar opponent -- both historically and stylistically -- in Michigan State. The end result was two losses, by a combined six points, which should do nicely to bring the Badgers down from the No. 2 perch I so benevolently bestowed upon them last week. (Sometimes I like to give teams a little extra love after great wins. So sue me.) This is about where they should be: Not at IU and Michigan's level overall, but most certainly in the thick of things.
5. Ohio State. It's safe to call Jan. 5's 74-55 loss at Illinois -- in which the Buckeyes shot 21.1 percent from 3 and scored 0.74 points per possession -- an aberration, but that doesn't mean the Buckeyes don't have their limits. Or, more accurately, limit. Or, even more accurately, the fact that there is only one Deshaun Thomas, and unless we figure out this whole cloning thing before March, Ohio State is going to be stuck with essentially one offensive option. That was the case at Michigan State, when Thomas played all 40 minutes and scored 28 of his team's 56 points. No other Buckeye scored more than six. Six! This team can defend and hang around with just about anybody, but until it finds that second scoring threat, the ceiling is simply not that high.
6. Minnesota. Tough week for the Gophers, eh? (That sentence sounds much better when you read it with a north-midwestern accent. I can slip into one seamlessly, as my girlfriend could angrily attest.) Losing at Indiana is one thing. Losing at home to Michigan -- even though it came at the expense of a buzzing Barn crowd ready to coronate the best Minnesota team in over a decade -- is entirely forgivable, too. But losing on the road to Northwestern, and scoring 0.84 points per trip against the Big Ten's 12th-ranked defense in the process? That's cause for concern. We are at the point of the season where we can basically guarantee Minnesota is going to dominate the offensive glass against pretty much any team it plays. What we don't know is whether Tubby Smith's team can cut down on all those self-destructive turnovers. When you rebound your own misses like this team does, you can't afford to end possessions with giveaways.
7. Iowa. The past couple of weeks have been pretty good to the Hawkeyes. They won at Northwestern, held on for an emotional 70-66 home win over Wisconsin, and suffered a predictable and understandable loss at Ohio State Tuesday night. Those results left Iowa 13-6 overall, 2-4 in conference play, and already fitting the absolute profile of a bubble team.
The bad news? When you look at Iowa's schedule, it's hard to see obvious ways the Hawkeyes can improve their standing before March. Their best chance is a Feb. 17 home game against Minnesota, the only home game that would obviously impress the committee (Illinois and Purdue don't count). There are opportunities on the road, but if you're Fran McCaffery you'd probably rather not stake your NCAA tourney bid on winning in Minneapolis, Madison, or Bloomington, and Purdue, where the Hawks play Sunday, is not even remotely a given. Throw in not one but two potentially dream-killing road games (at Nebraska, at Penn State) and not only does Iowa have to avoid pitfalls along the way, but it might have to surprise a top team on the road, too.
The good news? Iowa is ranked No. 34 in KenPom's efficiency rankings, with the 31st-ranked defense under its command. This is a pretty good team. Now they need a few big wins to prove it.
8. Northwestern. For the record: I do not think this Northwestern team is better than Illinois. But when you beat Illinois on the road, push Indiana to at least some semblance of second-half panic, and topple Minnesota 55-48, you get to be the best of the bottom half of the Big Ten, at least this week. Really impressive stuff; Reggie Hearn is worth the price of admission.
9. Purdue. As recently as Tuesday the 10-8 Boilermakers were the trademark efficiency margin offset team: They scored 0.98 points per possession in Big Ten play, and they allowed 0.98 points per possession in Big Ten play. Then they went to Michigan, and Michigan did what Michigan does, and that efficiency margin predictably slipped into slight negative territory (.032). Even so, that's a nice first six games. Purdue is 3-3, which makes sense, and their fans have been hammering me for weeks insisting they're the seventh-best team in the league, a point on which I will have to respectfully disagree. But they are playing some decent hoops right now, even if their record in this brutal league won't show it.
10. Illinois. Illinois has a major opportunity on its hands Sunday. After getting at least somewhat right at Nebraska Tuesday night (Illinois won 71-51, but still shot just 32 percent from 3), the Illini now set their sights on a home game against Michigan Sunday afternoon. Michigan allows opponents to shoot 31.9 percent from 3 thus far this season, so it's at least conceivable that Illinois can break out of the month-long shooting slump that has chased it down to a 2-4 start in league play. Of course, the Illini also will have to, you know, stop Michigan. That's another story entirely.
12. Penn State.
Normally, I would give Nebraska the slight edge here, if only because it actually has a league win (at Penn State) to its name thus far this season. But then I was forced to deduct points for the following tweet, which Miles let rip at halftime of the Cornhuskers' loss to Illinois:
We played with zero pride.
— Tim Miles (@CoachMiles) January 23, 2013
So, yeah. Let's just call it a wash.
This morning's A-10 power rankings contained a somewhat lengthy spiel about the evaluative place of wins and losses in close games; go check it out and then come back, because it's relevant here, too.