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Tier Talk 2.0: Risers, fallers, and COVID catchers

A clear top four seem to have separated themselves from the pile, while three programs are now on a temporary pause due to COVID-19 cases.

NCAA Basketball: Ohio State at Rutgers Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

In baseball, the catcher wears a complete suit of armor to protect himself from everything that could hit, clip, or smack him. A catcher’s mask, chest protector, knee savers, shin guards, all of that. This equipment is affectionately known as “the tools of ignorance” because you’re willingly putting this stuff on to sit in the line of fire of a 90+ mph fastball. If playing catcher is so risky, why do so many athletes choose to don the tools of ignorance?

Because it’s fun, duh.

Similarly, trying to decide who the elite teams in the Big Ten are compared to the rest is a task of pure ignorance. Even worse: looking down the line and trying to decide which middle of the road teams stand out from the others.

One of those middling teams really made a statement this week and climbed into my top tier. Another tier two team from last week completely spilled the chili this week, and therefore will drop. And Nebraska is..... Nebraska.

Last week’s Tier Talk was a bit lengthy, so I’m going to try and cut it back a bit. Let’s get ignorant, shall we?


Tier 1: The Contenders

The clear best teams in the conference.

Iowa

NCAA Basketball: Iowa at Rutgers Catalina Fragoso-USA TODAY Sports

Record: 11-2 (5-1)
KenPom Rank: 3
Big wins: No. 16 North Carolina, No. 19 Northwestern, at No. 14 Rutgers, No. 16 Minnesota
Bad losses: None
Last week: Tier 1

Iowa continues to blow the doors off their opponents. Since last week, they went on the road to Maryland and bludgeoned the Terrapins by 22, and then came home and beat a very talented Minnesota team by 15 points. Luka Garza will continue grabbing the headlines (deservedly so), as he averaged 28.5 points per game in those two wins, but the Hawkeyes are absolutely loaded with talent.

Jordan Bohannon, who returned to Iowa after missing his entire fourth year with a hip issue, was the unsung hero in Iowa’s win over Minnesota. He scored 19 points to go along with 14 assists and seven rebounds in 36 minutes, and has scored at least 13 points in each of the past four games. Iowa’s defense is bad, but it’s not horrendous. When you score 85 points per game, you don’t need to play a ton of defense anyways.

Michigan

NCAA Basketball: Minnesota at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Record: 11-0 (6-0)
KenPom Rank: 4
Big wins: No. 19 Northwestern, No. 16 Minnesota, No. 9 Wisconsin
Bad losses: None
Last week: Tier 2 (⬆1)

The knock on Michigan before this week wasn’t that they weren’t good, it was their schedule. The Wolverines beat up Northwestern pretty nicely, but the Wildcats are sliding now. We were waiting for Michigan to step up to the plate and make a statement, and my goodness, did they.

Michigan blew out No. 16 Minnesota at home by 25, which was shocking at the time. The Gophers had already upset Iowa and had just embarrassed Ohio State, but the Wolverines’ balanced scoring attack and aggressive defense were too much too handle.

However, that was only the appetizer, as Michigan then pantsed No. 9 Wisconsin on Tuesday night, 77-54. This game was never close, and Michigan led by as many as 40 points before calling off the dogs with over six minutes to go. This game was so lopsided that Michigan could have dribbled the ball out every possession starting at the 15:07 mark of the second half, and still won. The Badgers scored 54 points on Tuesday. Michigan scored their 55th point with 15:07 to go.

Light. Work.

Illinois

NCAA Basketball: Maryland at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Record: 9-4 (5-2)
KenPom Rank: 8
Big wins: At No. 10 Duke
Bad losses: Maryland
Last week: Tier 1

During the preseason I picked Illinois to win the conference, but I’ve backed off that a bit. While Illinois is the most talented team in the B1G, they turn the ball over far too often for a team with their level of talent (13.5 TO per game, 2nd in B1G).

Kofi Cockburn (17.3 PTS, 10.1 AST) and Ayo Dosunmu (22.4 PTS, 6.9 REB, 4.8 AST) are superstars, but they’re combining for over five turnovers per game just between the two of them. The Illini don’t convert at the charity stripe either, knocking down less than 70% of their free throws.

Illinois could win the national championship, but they could also get bounced in the second round of the NCAA Tournament if they have a sloppy day like they’re prone to having.

Wisconsin

NCAA Basketball: Maryland at Wisconsin Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

Record: 10-3 (4-2)
KenPom Rank: 9
Big wins: No. 23 Louisville (by 37), at No. 12 Michigan State, No. 21 Minnesota
Bad losses: At Marquette, Maryland
Last week: Tier 1

This week, Wisconsin edged out a pretty average Indiana team 80-73 in double overtime and then got absolutely pooped on by Michigan (see: Michigan).

The Badgers are the most experienced team in the Big Ten and one of the most well-rounded teams in the country. Their entire starting lineup can knock down shots inside and outside the three-point line, and they play the same blue-chip, hard-nosed defense that’s been played at Wisconsin all the way back to the Bo Ryan days.

But after what just happened in Ann Arbor....we have to pause. The Wolverines did it on all levels, driving to the basket and shooting from distance. Everything was working for them, and nothing was dropping for the Badgers. I think this team is still one of the best in the conference, but we need to keep and eye on them and make sure this loss doesn’t snowball into something worse.


Tier 2: The Troublemakers

Not top tier yet, but nobody wants to play these teams if they can avoid it. Could all slide up at some point.

Ohio State

NCAA Basketball: Ohio State at Rutgers Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Record: 10-3 (4-3)
KenPom Rank: 16
Big wins: No. 11 Rutgers, No. 15 Rutgers
Bad losses: None
Last week: Tier 3 (⬆1)

I wanted to wait until after the Northwestern game to decide on Ohio State, and here we are. Without their starting point guard and their backup point guard, the Buckeyes withstood a furious Northwestern rally to exact revenge on the windy city kitties, 81-71. E.J. Liddell finished with six points and 10 rebounds, but did not make one basket. All of his points came off free throws, while other Buckeyes such as Justin Ahrens (12 points) and Duane Washington Jr. (23 points, six assists) stepped up.

This Ohio State team is extremely balanced and playing very well despite being down a few men. Their game against Illinois this weekend probably won’t be pretty, but the long-term picture is looking good for the Buckeyes.

Rutgers

NCAA Basketball: Purdue at Rutgers Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Record: 7-4 (3-4)
KenPom Rank: 40
Big wins: No. 13 Illinois
Bad losses: None
Last week: Tier 2

Since last week, Rutgers went on the road and got blasted by Michigan State 68-45 — their lowest point total of the year— and then came home and were promptly swept by Ohio State. Rutgers looked completely inept while playing Michigan State, hitting 30.5% of their shots and knocking down just six of their 17 free throws (35.3%).

Then, after talking up a big game against the Buckeyes, they went flat, losing at the RAC by 11 points in a game that wasn’t nearly as close as that final score would indicate.

Rutgers has lost three in a row and are dealing with lingering injuries to Ron Harper Jr. and Jacob Young, while starting center Cliff Omoruyi is still out with a knee issue. If Rutgers can get healthy, they’re a top-10 team in the country. But will that happen in time to turn this ship around?

Minnesota

NCAA Basketball: Ohio State at Minnesota Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports

Record: 10-4 (3-4)
KenPom Rank: 23
Big wins: St. Louis, No. 4 Iowa, No. 17 Michigan State, No. 25 Ohio State
Bad losses: None
Last week: Tier 2

It was a tough week for Minnesota, who went on the road twice to play top-10 teams and got abused by both Iowa and Michigan at their places. Minnesota kept it close into the second half in both games, but the Gophers’ inability to knock down the triple doomed them while playing two teams who excel at just that.

After starting the season on fire, Marcus Carr is struggling over his last three games (14 PTS, 27.7% FG), and Liam Robbins has not been able to replicate the same success he had against the Buckeyes (7.5 PTS, 5 REB per game since beating Ohio State). Minnesota is one of the better teams in the conference, but they’re clearly a notch below the big boys.


Tier 3: Purgatory

At one point seemed to have a high ceiling and still may, but they need to show us some sign of life to climb into Tier 2.

Northwestern

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Ohio State Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Record: 6-5 (3-4)
KenPom Rank: 58
Big wins: No. 4 Michigan State, No. 23 Ohio State
Bad losses: None
Last week: Tier 2 (⬇1)

The Wildcats’ depth is enticing, but too many of their major contributors have gone ice cold at the same time, and Northwestern is reeling. Boo Buie has been especially bad, scoring just seven points over the last four games. They’ve now lost four in a row after starting out 3-0, and have No. 5 Iowa coming up next.

KenPom has them all the way down at 58 and gives them less than a 50% chance to win each of their remaining 13 games, which includes six games against ranked teams. I don’t get into stocks, but this is one team you definitely want to sell now.

Michigan State

NCAA Basketball: Purdue at Michigan State Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

* This team has paused activities due to COVID-19 cases within the program. Their next game has been postponed. *

Record: 8-4 (2-4)
KenPom Rank: 43
Big wins: At No. 6 Duke, No. 15 Rutgers
Bad losses: None
Last week: Tier 3

The Spartans stuffed Rutgers into a locker defensively, holding them to just 45 points during their 23-point win last week. It seemed like Michigan State had finally woken up after playing opossum for the first month of the season, and now were ready to wreak havoc on the Big Ten, zombie Izzo-style.

Wrong.

They followed up the win over Rutgers with a head-scratching loss at home versus Purdue in a game where they led by 15 points at halftime. The Spartans couldn’t figure out how to guard Trevion Williams, nor can they figure out who their own go-to scorer is. Their defense is stout, but the Spartans have some work to do on the offensive end.

Indiana

NCAA Basketball: Indiana at Nebraska Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Record: 8-5 (3-3)
KenPom Rank: 24
Big wins: None
Bad losses: None
Last week: Tier 3

The Hoosiers nearly shocked Wisconsin in Madison last week, taking them to double overtime before ultimately falling, 80-73. Trayce Jackson-Davis (20.1 PTS, 9.3 REB) is one of the most talented bigs in the country, but without Armaan Franklin (ankle) Indiana doesn’t have enough support for their sophomore star. Al Durham (15.7 PPG over last four games) has been great the last two weeks, and he’ll need to continue at that pace if Indiana wants to tread water while Franklin is out.

Purdue

NCAA Basketball: Purdue at Michigan State Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Record: 8-5 (3-3)
KenPom Rank: 38
Big wins: No. 20 Ohio State
Bad losses: At Miami
Last week: Tier 3

Purdue is still a really boring team that scores the fewest points in the Big Ten and also moves slower than molasses, but this buzzer-beater against Michigan State last week was fantastic.

The Boilermakers don’t have enough support for Williams, but that win at Michigan State brought them back to .500 in B1G play. They have winnable games against Indiana and Penn State coming up; if they win both, then maybe I’ll change my tune about them.


Tier 4: Bottom Feeders

Pretty much the worst of the conference, but not a gimme-win. Also not Nebraska.

Maryland

NCAA Basketball: Maryland at Indiana Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Record: 7-6 (2-5)
KenPom Rank: 46
Big wins: At No. 6 Wisconsin, at No. 12 Illinois
Bad losses: None
Last week: Tier 4

To give Maryland credit, they have played an insanely tough schedule so far, with four of their last five games coming against top-20 teams. I think if you picked up Maryland and plopped them back into the ACC (where they belong), they would probably be a mid-level team and lock up an NCAA Tournament bid.

Unfortunately this isn’t the little leagues, and it’s unfortunate that their upcoming game against Nebraska is postponed, because the ‘Terps could’ve used that win. Maryland still has a ceiling of just 6-7 conference wins.

Penn State

NCAA Basketball: Penn State at Michigan Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

* This team has paused activities due to COVID-19 cases within the program *

Record: 3-4 (0-3)
KenPom Rank: 47
Big wins: VCU, at No. 15 Virginia Tech
Bad losses: None
Last week: Tier 4

Penn State’s last four games have been postponed due to COVID-19 cases within the PSU program. They jumped from 48 to 47 in KenPom’s rankings, despite not playing last week. Their next scheduled game is Sunday at Purdue. Refer to last week’s Penn State analysis for a more in-depth breakdown of PSU up to this point.


Tier 5: Nebraska

Nebraska.

NCAA Basketball: Indiana at Nebraska Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

* This team has paused activities due to COVID-19 cases within the program *

Record: 4-8 (0-5)
KenPom Rank: 121
Big wins: None
Bad losses: Nevada
Last week: Tier 5

I’ve got nothing here.