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Tier Talk 1.0: Which B1G hoops teams have surprised, and which have disappointed?

Roughly one quarter of the conference schedule is finished, and not one single team has separated themselves as the obvious favorite to win the B1G.

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

Before this season began, I ranked the Big Ten basketball teams from 1-14 based on where I thought they would finish at the end of the year. Some of those picks are looking alright, and others were complete misses. Northwestern, for example, was the final undefeated team in Big Ten play after their 3-0 start. I picked them to finish 13th. Sorry, Northwestern. Michigan State, on the other hand, started the season 0-3 in conference play for the first time in 19 years. I picked them to finish fourth. Go fish, I guess.

With the lack of separation between some of these teams, it makes much more sense to rank them into tiers rather than number them 1-14. There seems to be a clear top few, a big chunk in the middle that are all relatively comparable, and then a few teams at the bottom. Oh, and then Nebraska. They’ll get their own tier.

The Big Ten is an absolute meat grinder this season, where any team can beat you on any given night — as long as they aren’t named Nebraska. The teams are grouped together based on how closely I see them, but the conference in general is a giant snake pit. These tiers can change on a week-to-week or even day-to-day basis, so by this time next week we’ll shred these and try again.


Tier 1: The Contenders

The clear best teams in the conference.

Iowa

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

Record: 9-2 (3-1)
KenPom Rank: 5
Big wins: No. 16 North Carolina, No. 19 Northwestern, at No. 14 Rutgers
Bad losses: None

Luka Garza. What else needs to be said? Iowa’s superstar center is averaging 27.5 points and 9.1 rebounds per game while also knocking down 48.7% of his three-point attempts, which is an absolutely absurd rate. He’s the frontrunner to be the B1G player of the year and the national player of the year, and has already scored 30+ points five different times this season.

What makes this team so good beyond Garza? Iowa surround him with shooters like Joe Wieskamp, CJ Fredrick, and Jordan Bohannon. If teams want to double team Garza, he will find the open man. Iowa is an absolute juggernaut this season offensively, but their defense could be what prevents them from winning a national championship.

Illinois

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

Record: 8-3 (4-1)
KenPom Rank: 7
Big wins: At No. 10 Duke
Bad losses: None

I think Illinois is the most talented team in the B1G, but at times they lack the urgency a team of their caliber should exhibit when playing lesser competition. Kofi Cockburn and Ayo Dosunmu will both be drafted in the first round this summer, while freshman guard Adam Miller and longtime Illini guard Trent Frazier provide reinforcements behind their superstars.

The Illini have lost to No. 2 Baylor, No. 19 Rutgers, and a very talented Missouri team — none of which look bad on paper. But Illinois is arguably more talented than all three of those teams, and at times they just don’t quite click. Even if Illinois doesn’t win the Big Ten, they’re a legit Final Four-caliber team.

Wisconsin

NCAA Basketball: Arkansas-Pine Bluff at Wisconsin Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

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

Wisconsin is like a warm plate of chocolate chip pancakes. They’re not the best breakfast food, but they’re dependable, consistent, and pretty damn good.

Like most Wisconsin teams, this squad can shoot the ball from distance. The Badgers are shooting 41.4% from beyond the arc, which is second behind only Illinois. They have five —yes, five — players scoring double digits, headlined by senior guard D’Mitrik Trice, who is averaging 14.2 points per game. Ohio State transfer Micah Potter (12.7), ninth-year senior Brad Davison (10.1), Aleem Ford (10.0), and Nate Reuvers (10.0) all average double digits. And all of them save for Ford are shooting 36% or better from 3-point range, too.


Tier 2: The Troublemakers

Not top tier yet, but nobody wants to play these squads right now. Could all slide up at some point.

Rutgers

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

Record: 7-2 (3-2)
KenPom Rank: 19
Big wins: No. 13 Illinois
Bad losses: None

The Scarlet Knights have one of the most talented starting lineups in the conference, but their issue lies just beyond the starters. Steve Pikiell runs a tight ship at Rutgers, which includes his rotations. Only seven players average 10+ minutes per game, and one of those players — starting center Cliff Omoruyi — has been out since Dec. 20 with knee issues.

Ron Harper Jr. (22.1 PTS), Montez Mathis (15.3 PTS), Geo Baker (10.2 PTS), and Jacob Young (15.7 PTS) are all certified bucket-getters, and Myles Johnson averages nearly a double-double per contest. But as we saw when they played Ohio State, Rutgers can find themselves in a sticky situation fast if more than one starter gets into foul trouble.

Michigan

NCAA Basketball: Michigan at Maryland Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

Record: 9-0 (4-0)
KenPom Rank: 10
Big wins: No. 19 Northwestern
Bad losses: None

Michigan has benefitted from perhaps the softest schedule in the B1G thus far, having played just two teams inside the KenPom top-50 (Maryland and Penn State). However, we can’t knock the Wolverines for winning the games in front of them, and they didn’t slip up against any of the cupcakes in their nonconference schedule.

Freshman center Hunter Dickinson has been nothing short of spectacular, leading Michigan with 16.9 points and 8.1 rebounds per game while shooting an unbelievable 71.8% from the floor. The Wolverines schedule is going to get a bit tighter in the coming weeks, which will determine if they’re a Tier 1 or Tier 2 team.

Minnesota

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

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

I wasn’t a Minnesota believer when the season began because it didn’t seem like Marcus Carr had enough support to carry this team. Well, Liam Robbins proved me wrong on Sunday night.

The Drake transfer dropped 27 points, 14 rebounds, and blocked five shots in an absolute drubbing of Ohio State. Robbins’ transition to the Big Ten from the Missouri Valley Conference has been seamless. The 7-foot junior center is actually scoring more for Minnesota than he did while at Drake. If he can continue to play Robbin to Carr as batman, the Gophers are going to be tough to beat.

Northwestern

NCAA Basketball: Penn State at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Record: 6-3 (3-2)
KenPom Rank: 56
Big wins: No. 4 Michigan State, No. 23 Ohio State
Bad losses: None

Northwestern doesn’t have star players and bench players, they just have a boatload of really good basketball players. They have seven guys averaging between seven to 14 points per game, and every night someone different ends up being the hero.

Miller Kopp (14.4 PTS, 54.3% 3PT) has been outstanding and is the leader of this team, but Pete Nance (11.7 PTS) and Boo Buie (11.4 PTS, 5.4 AST) are both more than capable of picking up his slack if need be.

KenPom doesn’t love Northwestern, and is actually giving them a less than 50% chance of winning their next 14 games. The Wildcats will probably slide down by this time next week, but for now I we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt.


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.

Michigan State

NCAA Basketball: Eastern Michigan at Michigan State Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Record: 7-3 (1-3)
KenPom Rank: 50
Big wins: At No. 6 Duke
Bad losses: None

The Spartans are loaded with talent, but don’t seem to have one go-to guy they can rely on for a bucket when they need it the most. Joey Hauser has been a welcome addition to Tom Izzo’s team and Aaron Henry continues to improve in year three, but nobody on this MSU team takes the reigns and leads in crucial minutes.

While he essentially missed two-straight seasons due to injury, Joshua Langford has been underwhelming. The old head on this Spartan squad, Langford averaged 15 points per game and shot better than 40% from beyond the arc two seasons ago. This season he’s averaging just 8.6 points per contest, and if he doesn’t improve quickly, his Spartans could continue to slide.

Ohio State

NCAA Basketball: Ohio State at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Record: 8-3 (2-3)
KenPom Rank: 20
Big wins: No. 11 Rutgers
Bad losses: None

Ohio State’s roster saw a pretty massive turnover this offseason, headlined by Harvard transfer Seth Towns and the eligibility of Cal transfer Justice Sueing after sitting out last season, per NCAA transfer rules. While their contributions plus those of freshmen Zed Key and Eugene Brown have been positives, the Buckeyes still lack the explosiveness of a championship-caliber team.

Additionally, Ohio State doesn’t employ the services of a single player taller than 6-foot-8, save for sophomore Ibrahima Diallo, who is 6-foot-10 but plays just three minutes per game. The Buckeyes have struggled against Purdue and Minnesota because they can’t handle opposing bigs, and they haven’t even seen Iowa or Illinois yet. Woof.

As long as Ohio State continues to be vertically challenged, it’ll be tough to climb the B1G ladder.

Indiana

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

Record: 7-4 (2-2)
KenPom Rank: 24
Big wins: None
Bad losses: None

The Hoosiers have run into some tough teams early on, including Texas, Florida State, and Illinois, all of whom beat them. They were also beat by Tier 2 Northwestern at home, which isn’t a bad loss, either. But to be frank, this team isn’t interesting beyond Trayce Jackson-Davis.

TJD is averaging 20.1 points and 8.3 rebounds per game in what could end up being an All-American year for the Hoosier big man, but his team is not following his lead. The Hoosiers are averaging nearly as many turnovers per game as assists, and are one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the conference at just 34.5%.

They’ll probably make the NCAA tournament, but they’re not fun to watch.

Purdue

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

Record: 7-5 (2-3)
KenPom Rank: 37
Big wins: No. 20 Ohio State
Bad losses: At Miami

Much like Indiana, Purdue is powered by a star center in Trevion Williams, but he is flanked by subpar guard play. Williams (14.1 PTS, 9.6 REB, 2.4 AST) may be the best passing big in the country, but it’s too bad that Purdue’s other guards can’t do the same.

Purdue’s 13.3 turnovers per game are the second-most in the conference behind only Illinois, while also being the lowest-scoring team in the conference at just 71.6 points per game. Add that to their pace of play (303rd in adjusted tempo according to KenPom), and they’re just not a very appealing team to watch on TV. I promise there are plenty of shows on Netflix that will keep you awake for longer than the Boilermakers.


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: 6-5 (1-4)
KenPom Rank: 45
Big wins: At No. 6 Wisconsin
Bad losses: None

Maryland is a team mostly comprised of role players after losing first-round pick Jalen Smith and all-time Terrapin great Anthony Cowan from last year’s B1G Championship team. Luckily for the Terrapins they play in the Big Ten, where very few losses will be considered a “bad” loss. But how many “not bad” losses will Maryland rack up this year? My guess is quite a few.

Penn State

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

Record: 3-4 (0-3)
KenPom Rank: 48
Big wins: VCU, at No. 15 Virginia Tech
Bad losses: None

Penn State has had two games cancelled due to COVID concerns, so there’s less to work with here. Their throttling of No. 15 Virginia Tech in the B1G/ACC Challenge may have been the most impressive win for the conference that week, and VCU is now leading their conference. The Nittany Lions have several returning players from last year’s team that would have made the NCAA Tournament, so we may need to wait and see with Penn State.

A side note: two of Penn State’s three conference games have been on the road, and we all know how hard it is to win on the road in the Big Ten. Their other conference game was at home against Illinois. Be patient here.


Tier 5: Nebraska

Nebraska.

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

Record: 4-7 (0-4)
KenPom Rank: 117
Big wins: None
Bad losses: Nevada

Yikes.