- With six teams separated by no more than two losses, who's going to take the Big Ten crown? The nation's most improved—and maybe best—conference could go down to the wire.
The Big Ten has a claim to be the best top-to-bottom conference in the nation, and nothing illustrates that better than the fact that its last-place team took down its first-place team three nights ago and it arguably wasn’t even the league’s most surprising upset so far this year. The entire 14-team conference is within the top 90 on kenpom and the crowded race runs all the way to the top, where as many as five or six teams are still dreaming of at least a share of the league title.
The schedule has saved some of the best fireworks for last: tied for first place, Michigan and Michigan State have yet to play either of their two matchups, and the Wolverines also still have two games left with fourth-place Maryland, the first of which comes Saturday. What's more, there's a Purdue team looming that's ready to take advantage of its challengers' tougher remaining slates.
The last five seasons have produced five different Big Ten regular season winners, a run that may end in 2018–19 (Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue and Wisconsin have all been among those five). But who is going to take the crown this time? Here's where each contender stands heading down the stretch.
Michigan (11–3, tied for first place)
They may be in pole position, but the Wolverines’ path to the regular season title is a difficult one. After spending much of the season in the AP top five and being considered one of the leading contenders for the national title, Michigan has slipped a bit of late, losing three of its last eight and suffering a surprising upset at Penn State on Tuesday. Both the Wolverines’ Big Ten and national title chances are still very much alive, but concerns about depth and a too-often stagnant offense have increased as they've reared their head in all three defeats.
After scoring a stellar 1.20 points per possession or more in seven of their first 17 games—including wins over North Carolina, Purdue, South Carolina and Indiana—Michigan has not done it since, and has had better than 1.05 PPP just once, against Rutgers. In losses to Wisconsin (an elite defensive team) and Iowa (the Big Ten’s worse defense) the Wolverines managed a season-low 0.82 PPP, failing to crack 60 points in either.
If Michigan is to capture its first regular season crown since 2013–14, it’s going to either have to step it up on offense or have its reliably tenacious defense play almost perfectly. If there was a silver lining in the loss in State College, it was that Charles Matthews had his second encouraging game in a row, scoring 24 and hitting 3 of 4 threes. But freshman Ignas Brazdeikis has been inconsistent of late, and the Wolverines are struggling as a team from three, shooting just 30.7% from the perimeter over their last eight games despite averaging 23.6 attempts. And aside from point guard Zavier Simpson, assists can be few-and-far-between, with Michigan having the 11th-worst rate in Big Ten play.
Here’s where things get especially sticky: Of the Wolverines' six remaining regular season games, four come against top-20 defenses (Michigan State is ranked eighth while Maryland is ranked 16th) and a fifth comes against No. 36 Nebraska (the Huskers’ defense, however, dropped off during a recent seven-game losing streak and after losing Isaac Copeland to a season-ending injury). Having four games left against ranked opponents gives Michigan the toughest remaining schedule of any of the conference contenders and could leave the Wolverines anywhere from Big Ten champs to outside the top four.
Michigan State (11–3, tied for first place)
The Spartans won a critical game on the road at Wisconsin on Tuesday and appeared to fully put their recent three-game skid behind them. They have two winnable home games (Ohio State and Rutgers) up next before finally making the two-hour trip to Ann Arbor for their first game against Michigan this season, which could very well have first place on the line.
As good as Michigan State’s three-headed monster of Nick Ward, Xavier Tillman and Kenny Goins is inside, the play of Cassius Winston is what will determine how far it goes, both in the regular season and postseason. Winston is the one most responsible for the Spartans’ nation-leading assist rate (the junior point guard’s personal 42.5% rate ranks fifth among all players) and is not only their best three-point shooter (45.1%) but also one of only two rotation players shooting over 35% from the perimeter (Matt McQuaid, at 42.9%, is the other). MSU can beat you in a multitude of ways, but Winston is the key—and his matchup with Michigan defensive stopper Zavier Simpson will be a pivotal one in those clashes.
The Spartans’ balance is also what makes them so dangerous: they’re first in Big Ten play in both offensive and defensive effective field goal percentage and one of just three teams nationally in the top 10 of both offensive and defensive efficiency on kenpom.com (the other two are Duke and Virginia). Still, during their recent three-game losing streak they gave up at least 1.10 PPP each time, getting burned from behind the arc in two of the losses and inside the arc in the third. Like every team in the country (even the Blue Devils), they’re not without flaws.
Purdue (10–3, third place)
The Boilermakers are notably even with the Michigan schools in the loss column, so “third place” is more of a technicality here. And even after having their eight-game win streak snapped on the road at Maryland on Tuesday, Purdue is in great shape to go after the conference title. With seven games to go, it has no ranked opponents left on its schedule, and only two (Ohio State and Nebraska) are in the top 40 on kenpom. One of those, Nebraska, is reeling, having lost seven of eight.
With a schedule like the Boilermakers have, the only thing that would likely hold them back from finishing the season strong is themselves. Despite having the nation’s fourth-most efficient offense, Purdue fell apart in the face of a swarming Maryland D in College Park this week, scoring just 18 points in the second half and astoundingly going 20 for 71 (28.2%) from the field. Carsen Edwards went just 8 for 27 and 3 of 13 from three, Ryan Cline went 3 for 12 and the team tallied only five assists. Even with the immense improvement of their supporting cast in January and February—improvement that has powered the Boilermakers’ rise and helped put them in this position—they can’t afford to have their top two options produce like that.
The good news for Purdue is that it’s easy to write that game off as a blip; in the eight games preceding it, it scored anywhere from 1.09 to 1.38 PPP and went 42.5% as a team from beyond the arc. Still, as brilliant as Edwards is, he’s not impervious to bad shooting nights—beyond Tuesday, he’s had lines of 6 for 20, 4 for 19, 10 for 26 and 3 for 16 in 2019. The key is whether the rest of the Boilermakers, including Cline, Trevion Williams, Nojel Eastern and Matt Haarms, can pick up the slack, and whether Purdue can keep any offensive frustration from boiling over to the defensive end, where the team is far more shaky.
Maryland (10–4, fourth place)
The Terps kept their Big Ten hopes alive with a big win over Purdue on Tuesday, and two games left with Michigan presents both a major opportunity and a chance to lose their grip on the final spot for a value double bye in the conference tournament. But if Maryland is going to have any shot at winning the Big Ten, it’s going to have to do something it hasn’t done as a program since 2008: beat a ranked team on the road. It may seem improbable that the Terps haven’t done that in 11 years, but it’s true, and they figure to get two more cracks at breaking the drought this season: on Saturday at No. 6 Michigan and on Tuesday at No. 21 Iowa.
Those games will both be huge for Maryland’s position in the standings, with its final four being much more manageable (a home rematch with the Wolverines will loom, however). The young Terrapins have been up and down over the last month, but their defense may be rounding into form at just the right time. In less than three weeks, they’ve risen 31 spots in defensive efficiency on kenpom, turning them into one of the country’s more balanced teams (22nd on offense and 16th on defense). Additionally, they’ve learned to win even when not getting high-level contributions from Bruno Fernando and/or Anthony Cowan, with freshmen Eric Ayala, Jalen Smith and Aaron Wiggins all offering key offensive production and sophomore Darryl Morsell shining on defense.
Still, Maryland’s youth (fifth-youngest in the country in experience) is hard to ignore, and turnovers are once again a major concern. Additionally, the Terrapins are one of the country’s absolute worst teams at forcing giveaways, combining to sometimes put them at a disadvantage in the shot attempts battle. It can leave a thin margin for error, which isn’t ideal given their semi-streaky perimeter shooting.
Wisconsin (9–5, fifth place) and Iowa (8–5, sixth place)
Despite being only two games out in the loss column, both the Badgers and Hawkeyes likely have too many teams in front of them to make a real play for an outright title, but a bid for a top-four finish and a double bye in the Big Ten tourney is well within reach.
Four of Wisconsin’s five conerence losses came to teams directly ahead of it in the standings; the fifth was at home to Minnesota back on Jan. 3. The Badgers have a very opportunistic schedule the rest of the way, featuring just one ranked team (vs. No. 21 Iowa at home) and four opponents among the league’s current bottom six.
If Wisconsin is going to nab a spot in the top four, it’s likely going to need to get its shooting back on track. It’s gone just 29.6% from the perimeter over the last three games, and the Badgers must knock shots down from the outside in order to dissuade teams from double-teaming Ethan Happ inside. Happ is having an excellent senior season but turned it over 11 combined times in recent losses to Michigan and Michigan State and went 0 for 6 from the free throw line against the Spartans. Free throw shooting has long been a sore spot for Happ, but he’s posting the worst percentage of his career at a dismal 44.5%, and that’s a concern as the postseason nears.
Iowa, meanwhile, also has a favorable remaining schedule, although not quite to the extent of Wisconsin or Purdue’s. The Hawkeyes were lucky to escape their most recent game against Northwestern with a win thanks to Jordan Bohannon’s heroics, and the junior has been on fire from three lately, making 10 of his last 16. Between Bohannon (40.6%), freshman Joe Wieskamp (45.3%) and junior Isaiah Moss (45.2%), Iowa is a dangerous threat from the perimeter, and even made 15 of 21 threes in a game against Illinois last month. With Tyler Cook always a double-double threat inside and Luka Garza flanking him, you can see why the Hawkeyes have a top-10 offense.
Their defense, however, is another story. It has made big strides from last year but still sits outside the top 100 on kenpom and last in Big Ten play, frequently turning Iowa games into shootouts. The Hawkeyes have surrendered at least 1.0 PPP in six of their last seven games and have been torched for 1.19 or more in four of their five conference losses. A top-four finish would be a particularly impressive rebound after last year’s 4–14 disaster, but it won’t come easy.