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Tier Talk 3.0: The Big Ten has gone full-blown cannibal

Indiana throws a wrench into things by knocking off the top dog, Penn State has a pulse, and should Nebraska even come back?

NCAA Basketball: Indiana at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Somehow, Tier Talk has been renewed for a third straight week, and boy were there some opportunities for shake-ups over the past several days. After beating Illinois on the road, Ohio State came home and had an opportunity to jump a tier or two if they could beat a very comparable (certainly not superior) Purdue team. Alas, they could not, so there won’t be an Ohio State leap.

After losing to Maryland at home, Illinois had a chance to right the ship against a Buckeye team that doesn’t have a single player taller than 6-foot-8. Seems simple for the team with one of the best centers in the country, no? Wrong. Illinois fell behind by 18 early, and a furious rally at the end was not enough as they lost their second straight game as a favorite at home.

The middle of the Big Ten is absolutely eating itself right now, which brings us to our letter of the day!

Today’s letter of the day is C, as in cannibalism! Which is exactly what the Big Ten conference is doing to itself! Here is the definition of cannibalism, straight from the Merriam-Webster’s dictionary:

Cannibalism: noun
The eating of the flesh of an animal by another animal of the same kind”

While Iowa and Michigan sit atop the conference, the teams below them are scratching, clawing, and bruising each other fighting for position. Only the Wolverines possess just one loss thus far, but the eye test gives Iowa a slight nod as the best team in the conference, even with their loss to Indiana last night.

Tier 1: The Favorites

The clear best teams in the conference.


NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Record: 12-3 (6-2)
KenPom Rank: 3
Big wins: No. 16 North Carolina, No. 19 Northwestern, at No. 14 Rutgers, No. 16 Minnesota
Bad losses: None

I had a full section written here and ready to go praising Iowa as the team to beat in the conference. I was going to make Tier 1 the Iowa tier, just like the bottom tier will always be reserved for Nebraska. They’d won three-straight games by 15+ points, and were the highest scoring team in the Big Ten. Iowa looked unstoppable.

And then they played Indiana last night.

The Hawkeyes failed to crack 70 points for the first time this season, losing to IU 81-69 at home and breathing new life into a middling Hoosier team that was at a tipping point in their season. Luka Garza and Joe Wieskamp combined for 44 points and 24 rebounds, but the rest of Iowa was just 8-of-31 from the floor for 25 points.

In the grand scheme of things, this game meant a hell of a lot more for Indiana than it did for Iowa. This win could be the reason Indiana makes the NCAA Tournament, while Iowa is still in a great position to win the B1G. The Hawkeyes are the best team in the conference, but seeing them go without a basket for 11 straight minutes was downright jarring.


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

Record: 12-1 (7-1)
KenPom Rank: 4
Big wins: No. 19 Northwestern, No. 16 Minnesota, No. 9 Wisconsin
Bad losses: None

The first chink was exposed in Michigan’s once-impervious armor last week, when they traveled to Minnesota and were promptly thumped by the Gophers, 75-57. Their 57 points was their lowest output of the year, but the true culprit behind Michigan’s loss were the turnovers. While the Wolverines haven’t exactly been sure-handed all season (fourth-most giveaways in the Big Ten), they turned the ball over a whopping 20 times against Minnesota, including five from freshman center Hunter Dickinson.

Michigan cleaned it up on Tuesday night against Maryland, winning by 24 at home. The turnover issues seem to be a one-time thing, but if they linger or Dickinson continues to struggle, Michigan could find themselves in more close games in the future.


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

Record: 12-3 (6-2)
KenPom Rank: 9
Big wins: No. 23 Louisville (by 37), at No. 12 Michigan State, No. 21 Minnesota
Bad losses: At Marquette, Maryland

After getting thoroughly embarrassed by Michigan last week, people were watching the Badgers closely to see how they responded after such an ugly loss. Wisconsin went on the road and beat a sliding Rutgers team by six, but Greg Gard will take any road win in the Big Ten.

They then came home to face Northwestern Wednesday night, who had lost five straight entering the game. The Wildcats were desperate for a big win that could bolster their fading NCAA Tournament hopes, but Wisconsin’s depth and consistency picked them apart piece by piece. The Badgers had four players score in double digits, and every time Northwestern went on a run, Wisconsin punched back, keeping them at arm’s length all night long.

This Wisconsin team isn’t the best in the B1G, but they’re deep, consistent (aside from the Michigan clunker), and reliable. They’re like a cinnamon bun from Buckeye Donuts: you always know what you’re going to get.

Tier 2: The Troublemakers

Not the best of the conference, but quality teams capable of making a run in the NCAA Tournament.


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

Record: 10-5 (6-3)
KenPom Rank: 10
Big wins: At No. 10 Duke
Bad losses: Maryland

Illinois is the biggest head-scratcher of the conference, bar none. They were undefeated at home before losing to Maryland last week, so we fully expected the Illini to give Ohio State a thorough beating coming off their first home loss. Instead, they fell behind by 18 in the first half and never caught up, losing to the Buckeyes by six.

With two future first-round picks in Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn and a pair of uber-talented freshmen in Andre Curbelo and Adam Miller, Illinois may be the most talented team in the conference. But they seem to be playing with a “We know we’re good” attitude while simultaneously getting run off their home court in back-to-back games. Illinois is a very dangerous team that still could make a Final Four, but they make too many unforced errors.

Ohio State

NCAA Basketball: Purdue at Ohio State Columbus Dispatch-USA TODAY NETWORK

Record: 11-4 (5-4)
KenPom Rank: 17
Big wins: No. 11 Rutgers, No. 15 Rutgers, at No. 14 Illinois
Bad losses: None

Riding a three-game winning streak, Ohio State just needed to beat Purdue at home on Tuesday night to jump into third-place in the B1G and continue to climb in the AP Poll. Having just beaten Illinois on the road, the Boilermakers were a formidable adversary, but Ohio State was the heavy favorite at home, where they had yet to lose a game. The Buckeyes led for virtually the entire game — including by nine at halftime —but Purdue chipped away at the lead the entire second half.

Jaden Ivey’s three-pointer with four seconds remaining broke the tie and helped the ‘Boilers escape Columbus with a 67-65 win. This also secured the season sweep of Ohio State, which could become very important when it comes time for the Big Ten Tournament.

The Buckeyes are a good basketball team. Getting outscored 36-8 in the paint and blowing leads late in games happens to good teams occasionally, but it does not happen to great teams — which Ohio State is not.


NCAA Basketball: Purdue at Ohio State Columbus Dispatch-USA TODAY NETWORK

Record: 11-5 (6-3)
KenPom Rank: 26
Big wins: No. 20 Ohio State, at No. 23 Michigan State, at No. 15 Ohio State
Bad losses: At Miami

This is my formal apology to Purdue. While I will not back off my opinion that they’re boring to watch (275th in tempo according to KenPom), or that they play the ugliest, lowest-scoring games (71.4 points per game is last in the B1G), the Boilermakers are still...good?

It doesn’t make sense, but Purdue is exceeding expectations. Trevion Williams has been an absolute baller (15.4 PTS, 9.5 REB), but aside from him, Purdue hasn’t gotten a ton of production from anyone else. Sasha Stefanovic (11.1 PTS, 45.6% 3PT) and Eric Hunter Jr. (10.5 PTS, 3.3 AST) have been solid, but neither are game-changers.

The Boilermakers frustrate teams with their physicality and roughneck defense, getting right up in your face and making you uncomfortable. Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann and guard Duane Washington Jr. suggested during the post-game press conference that Purdue’s physicality and aggression “threw them off” and made it hard for them to get their offense set.

I still don’t love Purdue, but if they can continue to win games in the 60’s and bully teams on the defensive end, they’ll have a shot at finishing top-four in the conference.


NCAA Basketball: Michigan at Minnesota Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports

Record: 11-4 (4-4)
KenPom Rank: 23
Big wins: St. Louis, No. 4 Iowa, No. 17 Michigan State, No. 25 Ohio State, No. 7 Michigan
Bad losses: None

Minnesota is one of six B1G teams with three or four losses in conference play, but they may have played the most difficult conference schedule of anyone so far. They just finished a seven-game stretch against ranked teams where they went 4-3, including victories over No. 4 Iowa, then-No. 17 Michigan State, then-No. 25 Ohio State, and No. 7 Michigan.

They’re dead last in the conference in three-point shooting (29.9%) and shooting in general (41.3% FG). They’re middle of the pack in rebounding, assists, and most other counting stats when compared to the rest of the B1G.

Minnesota is an interesting team because their margins of victory and defeat tend to be pretty large. Each of Minnesota’s last three victories have been by 15 or more points, while all four of their losses have been by at least a dozen points. In fact, their last game that was decided by less than 12 points was on Christmas day during their overtime win over No. 4 Iowa almost a month ago.


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

Record: 9-6 (4-4)
KenPom Rank: 22
Big wins: At No. 4 Iowa
Bad losses: None

Until Thursday night, the Hoosiers were about as mediocre as can be. They rode the .500 line in conference play all season, and Thursday night’s game against Iowa was looking like a bloodbath waiting to happen.

The Hoosiers kept it close all night, but when Iowa went eleven minutes straight without a basket, IU was able to create some separation, headlined by Trayce Jackson-Davis’ 23 points. Indiana has struggled offensively at times, but it was their defense that won them Thursday night’s game, and that will need to continue moving forward if they want to ride the momentum of this win for a few more weeks. They’ll face a crumbling Rutgers team next before tangling with Michigan and Illinois.

Tier 3: Danger Zone

Probably NCAA Tournament teams, but that could change if they don’t figure it out right now.


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

Record: 7-6 (3-6)
KenPom Rank: 46
Big wins: No. 13 Illinois
Bad losses: None

Rutgers started the season 7-1 and looked every bit like the dangerous team we saw last season that should have made the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 29 years. Their starting five rivals every lineup in the B1G and it looked like they’d make a run at a B1G title, too.

Since then, they’ve lost five in a row to drop to 3-6 in conference play. They lost to Penn State (who was 0-5 entering that game) on Thursday evening, and Rutgers is still the worst free-throw shooting team I have ever seen. They’re lost.

Michigan State

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Michigan State Raj Mehta-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: 41
Big wins: At No. 6 Duke, No. 15 Rutgers
Bad losses: None

Michigan State has not played for over a week due to COVID-19 issues in the program. See last week’s Tier Talk for the latest on the Spartans.


NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Michigan Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Record: 6-7 (3-6)
KenPom Rank: 72
Big wins: No. 4 Michigan State, No. 23 Ohio State
Bad losses: None

Northwestern has simply ~passed away~.

The Wildcats have now lost six straight games after Wednesday night’s 68-52 loss to No. 10 Wisconsin, and their NCAA Tournament hopes are on life support. Credit to Northwestern, they have played a brutal stretch of games, as all six of those losses were to ranked teams. But that is life in the B1G, and going 0-6 in those six games can’t happen. The Wildcats have a few winnable games coming up, but it will take a monumental effort for this team to turn things around and make the NCAA Tournament.

Tier 4: Bottom Feeders

Their chances of winning the Big Ten or making the NCAA Tournament are all but gone. But hey, they’re not Nebraska!


NCAA Basketball: Maryland at Michigan Lon Horwedel-USA TODAY Sports

Record: 8-7 (2-6)
KenPom Rank: 53
Big wins: At No. 6 Wisconsin, at No. 12 Illinois
Bad losses: None

Maryland has two of the most impressive wins in the B1G with road wins at Illinois and Wisconsin, but aside from that it’s been ugly. Their leading scorer Eric Ayala (13.8 PTS) is out with a groin injury, and things aren’t going to get easier in this conference. This ship isn’t sinking, it has already sunk.

Penn State

NCAA Basketball: Penn State at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Record: 4-6 (1-5)
KenPom Rank: 44
Big wins: VCU, at No. 15 Virginia Tech
Bad losses: None

KenPom loves Penn State for some reason, and I haven’t seen enough of them to necessarily disagree. At 1-5 in B1G play, the odds of them turning it around and making the tournament are close to zero, but this team keeps it close most nights and has 14 more conferences games to at least end the season ahead of Nebraska and Maryland.

Tier 5: Nebraska


NCAA Basketball: Michigan State 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: 123
Big wins: None
Bad losses: Nevada

This is the Nebraska section.