1. WISCONSIN BADGERS (12-2, 1-0)
There’s still plenty to prove for the Badgers, whose two losses have been at Creighton and in Maui against North Carolina, the two best teams they’ve played to date. However, the Badgers’ experienced lineup and eight-game winning streak suggest they stand to be at least the most consistent team in the Big Ten race.
2. MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS (10-5, 2-0)
Despite the early-season struggles with a young Spartan team, including injuries, MSU is shaping up to be a most dangerous team as January begins with a modest three-game winning streak. Standout freshman Miles Bridges is due to return to the court, only boosting the outlook for a team that has grown up without him.
3. PURDUE BOILERMAKERS (12-3, 1-1)
The problem with the Boilermakers is they make it almost impossible to trust them. Every time you start to believe that Purdue is a legitimate threat, it does something like lay an egg in an overtime loss at home to Minnesota. This is a talented team, but they have to get over a mental hurdle before I can do the same.
4. MINNESOTA GOLDEN GOPHERS (13-2, 1-1)
The non-conference schedule left plenty of room for doubt with the Gophers, but after a one-point loss at home to Michigan State and an overtime road win at Purdue, there appears to be good reason to buy stock in Minnesota moving forward. It won’t be an easy pace to maintain, but for now let’s go with it.
5. MARYLAND TERRAPINS (13-2, 1-1)
Another in a long line of teams to try and figure out, the Terps put together an impressive record in non-conference play, but their best wins were by just one over Georgetown, Kansas State and Oklahoma State. Then after opening the conference with a rout of Illinois, Maryland falls at home to Nebraska.
6. INDIANA HOOSIERS (10-4, 0-1)
The Hoosiers might be the most difficult team to rank in the jumbled mess that is the Big Ten at this point. They have two of the best wins and two of the most perplexing losses. Having lost three of the past five games indicates IU is trending in the wrong direction, so put them in the middle of the pack for now.
7. NORTHWESTERN WILDCATS (12-3, 1-1)
Could this be the year? Northwestern’s bid to reach the NCAA Tournament almost always begs this question, but this time it’s a legitimate one and not just because the Cubs finally won the World Series. Chris Collins has this team continuing to move forward and an improved, if not necessarily stellar, non-conference schedule will help.
8. MICHIGAN WOLVERINES (10-4, 0-1)
Finding good reasons to believe in Michigan is an elusive task, but the Wolverines don’t have any bad losses to critique either. Dropping the conference opener at Iowa is no shame, and this team looks a little more like John Beilein’s teams of a few years ago than the more recent past.
9. NEBRASKA CORNHUSKERS (8-6, 2-0)
Put the Cornhuskers in the discussion for most schizophrenic team in the conference so far. They looked competitive enough against the likes of UCLA and Kansas in the non-conference, then lost at home to Gardner-Webb before starting Big Ten play with road wins at Indiana and Maryland. What’s next is anybody’s guess.
10. OHIO STATE BUCKEYES (10-4, 0-1)
The Wildcats finally had their four-game winning streak snapped at Illinois, but they still have some confidence and momentum to take down the stretch and into next year. Northwestern now hosts Michigan and visits Iowa in a bid for the NIT.
11. IOWA HAWKEYES (9-6, 1-1)
Not unlike its brethren in the bottom half of the league, the Hawkeyes are a team that will ooze potential one game and leak oil the next. Part of that is youth and part of it is injuries and a lot of it is a team that has yet to establish any identity in the absence of Aaron White, Mike Gesell and Adam Woodbury.
12. ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI (11-4, 1-1)
This past weekend’s home win over Ohio State probably ranks as the best victory of the season for the Illini, who got absolutely blitzed at Maryland last week. Malcolm Hill gives Illinois some star power and hope most nights, but coach John Groce needs more from everybody else to stay off the hot seat.
13. PENN STATE NITTANY LIONS (9-6, 1-1)
A great recruiting class is going through growing pains so far for Penn State. Getting a road win at Rutgers under the belt should help the Nittany Lions find their footing, but it looks to be a rocky road throughout as they lay the foundation for what appears to be a brighter future.
14. RUTGERS SCARLET KNIGHTS (11-4, 0-2)
New head coach Steve Pikiell has already got the Scarlet Knights more total wins than a year ago, but a loss at Seton Hall to close the non-conference, followed by losses to Wisconsin and Penn State serve as a reminder that Rutgers isn’t quite ready for primetime yet.