Hlas' Big Ten pre-Christmas hoops rankings

1. Badgers, 2. Buckeyes, 3. Spartans, 4. Hawkeyes, 8. Hoosiers

Mike Hlas
Published: December 23 2013 | 4:02 pm - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 1:13 am in
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This is purely subjective, believe it or not. I'm basing it on won-lost records and the quality of competition.

The Big Ten is the best basketball conference this year, by the way. Just Saturday, Illinois beat previously unbeaten Missouri on a neutral court, Purdue won at West Virginia, and Michigan State won at Texas. It's the only league in the nation with more than one unbeaten team.

But man, have Big Ten teams ever played a bunch of cupcakes.

1. Wisconsin (12-0)

Best wins: Florida at home, vs. Saint Louis in Cancun, at Virginia

Bad losses: None

Record vs. ranked teams: 1-0 (Florida)

Story: I'm not sure I see this team holding up as league-title contenders, but how many times could you have said that and looked foolish since Bo Ryan has been the coach?

Frank Kaminsky has been a revelation. The 7-foot junior played just 10 minutes a game last season. He tossed in 43 against North Dakota, but didn't fade away. Since then he has averaged 13.3 per game in a lineup with five players who can score.

Forward Sam Dekker is a sophomore who is living up to his billing. averaging 14.3 points. Guard Traevon Jackson is doing a nice job, with 10.9 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game.

There's not a lot of bench here, but there may not need to be.

2. Ohio State (12-0)

Best wins: Maryland at home, at Marquette, vs. Notre Dame in New York

Bad losses: None

Record vs. ranked teams: 1-0 (Marquette)

Story: The Buckeyes have played 10 home games, and few of them were against quality opponents. But they have played like a veteran, savvy team, which is what they are.

Any college team with Aaron Craft will be tough. Craft averages 4.7 assists and 2.6 steals.

Center Amir Williams has blossomed this season. He is averaging 7.6 rebounds and 2.1 blocks.

LaQuinton Ross, Lenzelle Smith, Shannon Scott, Sam Thompson -- these are first-rate players.

This isn't a great rebounding team, but it defends. Opponents are shooting just 37.9 percent from the field, and the Buckeyes lead the conference in turnover margin. This is a very good team. Again.

3. Michigan State (10-1)

Best wins: vs. Kentucky in Chicago, at Texas

Bad losses: North Carolina at home. Not that UNC isn't good, but it was a 79-65 whupping.

Record vs. ranked teams: 1-0 (Kentucky). North Carolina was unranked when it played MSU, but is now ranked.

Story: The Spartans appear to have been on a quest to find a groove after the Kentucky game on Nov. 12, and didn't play a preseason slate as stuffed with powers as they normally do. They limped to a 67-63 win over Oakland on Dec. 14. But they sure looked good at Texas Saturday in a 92-78 win over a Longhorns team that was 10-1.

Senior power forward Adreian Payne had 33 points in that game, and is averaging 22 over his last four starts.

MSU has had injury woes. Super sophomore guard Gary Harris has had health issues, and others have been in and out. When the core of Payne, Harris, Branden Dawson, Keith Appling and Denzell Valentine are right, though, this is a mighty squad.

4. Iowa (11-2)

Best wins: vs. Xavier in the Bahamas, Notre Dame at home

Bad losses: None

Record vs. ranked teams: 0-1 (at Iowa State). Villanova, now No. 7, was unranked when it played Iowa.

Story: The Hawkeyes, now 11 players deep, have outscored foes by a league-best 23.2 points, and have held opponents to a league-best 36.7 percent from the field. Iowa's 3-point shooting, a problem area last season, is third-best in the conference at 37.6 percent. Iowa is seventh in the nation in rebounding margin.

Iowa is two close losses against good teams from being in the Top 5 of the nation right now. The Hawkeyes aren't as big a sleeper nationally as many close to Iowa may realize. Now it's a matter of finding out how the players battle against a steady diet of Big Ten foes, and if they can win the tight games they couldn't close out in the league a season ago.

The Hawkeyes are very close to being an elite team, but the margin between that and middle-of-the-pack Big Ten club is thin. It will take getting some road wins, and there won't be any soft touches waiting. But it's certainly do-able with this collection of players. Jarrod Uthoff, who has scored in double figures in his last five games, may be the X factor.

I think Iowa has looked as formidable as any Big Ten team in November-December, but the Hawkeyes didn't close the deal against Xavier or Iowa State, and played a stream of rum-dums in Carver-Hawkeye.

5. Illinois (10-2)

Best win: vs. Missouri in St. Louis

Bad  losses: None

Record vs. ranked teams: 1-1 (at Oregon, Missouri)

Story:  In a game with 15 lead-changes, the Illini beat previously unbeaten Missouri in St. Louis Saturday, 65-64. The Illini gave unbeaten Oregon a great game in Eugene before faltering at the end.

Junior Rayvonte Rice, who transferred from Drake, has cored in double figures in every game. Indiana's Yogi Ferrell and Penn State's D.J. Newbill are the only other Big Ten players who have done likewise. Rice is fifth in the conference in scoring.

This isn't one of the league's five best teams, but it has been focused through 12 games and will probably clip some top Big Ten teams in Champaign this winter.

6. Minnesota (10-2)

Best win: Florida State

Bad losses: Losing by 87-73 to Arkansas in Maui.

Record vs. ranked teams: 0-1 (Syracuse)

Story: New Gophers coach Richard Pitino has a guard-dominated team that beat all eight of its Williams Arena opponents by double-digits.

Junior guard Andre Hollins is averaging 16 points. Senior guard Austin Hollins is averaging 13.5. Junior guard Deandre Mathieu is averaging 11.9. It's a guard-heavy team, but they can play.

The Gophers look like a team that will get worn down by opponents with pounders. But like Illinois, this team will be a handful and then some at home.

7. Michigan (7-4)

Best wins: vs. Florida State in San Juan, vs. Stanford in Brooklyn

Bad losses: vs. Charlotte in San Juan

Record vs. ranked teams: 0-2 (Duke, Arizona). Iowa State was unranked when it beat the Wolverines.

Story: Michigan has easily played the league's toughest schedule. It led Arizona for most of the game, but didn't close. Michigan's 68-65 win over a good Stanford team Saturday in Brooklyn was needed, and it was done without Mitch McGary in the lineup. The Wolverines are going nowhere in the league title-chase if McGary's bad back doesn't allow him to play anywhere near the level he did in last season's NCAA tourney

The team has talent, for sure. Glenn Robinson III is simply a superb all-around player. Sophomore guard Nic Stauskas has shown all sorts of game after being primarily a shooter last year. Stauskas has six games of 20 or more points.

8. Indiana (10-3)

Best win: Good question. I guess it's over Washington (now 6-5) in New York.

Bad losses: Losing by 69-52 at Syracuse, losing 79-72 to Notre Dame in Indianapolis

Record vs. ranked teams: 0-2 (Connecticut, Syracuse)

Story: The Hoosiers have played a lot of flotsam and jetsam at Assembly Hall. The last four home games were against North Florida, Oakland, Nicholls State and Kennesaw State.

It's a young team. Ferrell has been superb in his second season. He's seventh in the Big Ten in scoring, sixth in assists. Freshman big man Noah Vonleh got off to a roaring start. He leads the league in rebounding with 9.5 per game and has averaged 12 points.

This isn't a good shooting club, and the depth is questionable. But the starting five has a lot of vibrant talent.

9. Purdue (10-3)

Best win: At West Virginia Saturday

Bad losses: Lost 69-54 to Washington State in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

Record vs. ranked teams: 0-1 (Oklahoma State)

Story: Purdue had been going along, beating teams it should beat and not doing anything too distinguished. But winning at West Virginia Saturday was a strong way to end the nonconference portion of its sechdule.

Warning signs: This is only a 65 percent free throw shooting team, and its 10th in the league in rebounding margin. Sophomore center A.J. Hammons hasn't come out of the blocks too strong this season.

Purdue has an 11-player rotation, but there isn't anything resembling an all-league player among them.

10. Nebraska (8-3)

Best win: Miami

Bad losses: An 87-74 defeat to UAB

Record vs. ranked teams: 0-0. Massachusetts, unbeaten and now ranked, was unranked when it beat the Huskers in November.

Story: Sophomore guard Terran Petteway has been a breakthrough player so far, with games of 30 and 27 points, and an average of 16.8.

The Huskers have moved into a spiffy new arena, and have won all seven of their games there. Affairs away from Lincoln will be harder to face, as will a lot of conference games at home. But the honeymoon period is still in effect for coach Tim Miles, though his team is still a long way from being the best in Nebraska.

11. Penn State (9-4)

Best win: St. John's

Bad losses: Bucknell and Princeton at home

Record vs. ranked teams: 0-0

Story: This is a get-up-and-go team. Guard Tim Frazier looks all the way back from his torn Achilles last season. He is third in the league in scoring (18.2 points per game) and easily the  first in assists (7.5). Backcourt mate D.J. Newbill leads the league in scoring (18.9).

A third guard, John Johnson, made his debut for the Nittany Lions Sunday after transferring from Pittsburgh. He scored 20 points in his first game. He is a sophomore, but he's 21 years old.

Penn State also recently got the debut of 7-footer Jordan Dickerson, a transfer from SMU. Maybe he can provide some sort of defense for a team that needs some.

12. Northwestern (7-5)

Best win: ??? The only team with winning record that the Wildats have beaten are 6-5 Western Michigan and 6-4 Brown.

Bad losses: Illinois State at home, a 69-48 throttling at North Carolina State

Record vs. ranked teams: 0-1 (UCLA)

Story: First-year coach Chris Collins doesn't have enough firepower to put this team into any kind of postseason tourney. They do have a prolific scorer in Drew Crawford, a fifth-year senior who had 24 points and 11 assists Sunday in the Wildcats' 58-52 win over Brown.

 
 
 
 
 
 

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