Big Ten Midseason Check-in: Loaded Conference Is Living Up to Its High Expectations

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We're halfway through the 2020–21 college basketball regular season, and conference play is well underway across the country. As teams jockey for position both in their own league standings and for NCAA tournament seeding, Sports Illustrated is checking in on the seven major conferences in men's college hoops (American, ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC) this week to see where each stands and how it has shaped up compared with preseason expectations.

We've already done the American, ACC, Big East, Big 12 and SEC; next is the Big Ten.

State of the conference

Just like last season, everything’s coming up roses for the Big Ten in 2020–21. The conference is clearly in the top two nationally—the Big 12 is the only other league that can claim to be on its level—and is home to a smorgasbord of competitive teams. The Big Ten’s depth is once again on display, with multiple national title contenders to boot. Consider this: Maryland, the team currently in 12th place, is 2–6 in conference play. Those two wins? Over then–No. 6 Wisconsin and then–No. 12 Illinois, both on the road. Even 0–5 Penn State took Indiana to overtime in Bloomington and pushed Michigan to the limit in Ann Arbor. Aside from Nebraska, which is still figuring things out under Fred Hoiberg, the league’s other 13 teams are all within the top 70 on KenPom, making each and every night a dogfight.

Michigan guard Isaiah Livers dribbles vs. Minnesota

Biggest surprise: Michigan

We called the Wolverines our dark horse to win the conference back in November, but their performance so far has exceeded pretty much all expectations. Picked to finish sixth in the Big Ten preseason media poll and checking in at No. 25 in the preseason AP top 25, Michigan isn’t just the surprise of the Big Ten; it’s one of the biggest surprises in the country. In his second season in Ann Arbor, Juwan Howard has built a legitimate national contender, one that suffered its first loss (a road blowout to Minnesota) only last week.

Pretty much everything has broken right for the Wolverines to date: Freshman center Hunter Dickinson is playing like a first-team All-Big Ten candidate, Franz Wagner has largely taken the sophomore leap (even if it doesn’t fully show up in his 12.3 ppg average), Isaiah Livers has stayed healthy, Columbia transfer Mike Smith has held his own in the Big Ten and Chaundee Brown and Eli Brooks have been effective and efficient role players. Defensively, Michigan’s interior defense has been suffocating, and it’s one of just three teams (Baylor and Virginia are the others) nationally in the top 10 on both offense and defense on KenPom.

Biggest disappointment: Michigan State

The departures of the great Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman have hit the Spartans even harder than many expected. After three straight Big Ten regular-season crowns, Tom Izzo’s team is off to an inauspicious 2–4 start in conference play. Additionally, its marquee win of nonconference play—a road victory at Duke—loses luster seemingly by the week. The Spartans find themselves at No. 83 in the latest NCAA NET rankings, one of several historically dominant programs nationally going through a down year in 2020–21.

Still, all is not lost for Michigan State, which is 8–4 overall and has a path to the NCAA tournament. The Spartans boast the nation’s highest assist rate, but are lacking the kind of go-to scorer that Winston so excellently was, and currently are Izzo’s worst defensive team on KenPom since 2005–06. Neither junior Aaron Henry nor sophomore Rocket Watts have broken out the way many MSU fans had hoped, and while transfer addition Joey Hauser has been solid (11.8 points, 8.1 rebounds, 36.7% from three), he’s not a traditional Big Ten center and is not a shot-blocking threat in the interior. With 6’ 11” junior Marcus Bingham still playing only a limited role, this isn’t the fearsome frontcourt of Spartans teams past.

The current favorite: Michigan

The Wolverines narrowly earn this label over Iowa, thanks largely to the fact that they’re far more balanced between offense and defense, which is somewhat of a safeguard in the event of an off night. And as every top team in the Big Ten has learned at least once already, if you have an off night in this league, it’s very difficult to leave with a W. Winning this conference will be no cakewalk for the Wolverines, whose remaining road games include Wisconsin, Purdue, Indiana and Ohio State, plus home matchups with Iowa and Illinois. As impressive as Michigan’s start to the season has been, its only KenPom top-30 wins have been against Wisconsin and Minnesota. Five more of those games await.

The top challengers: Iowa and Wisconsin

The Hawyekes, who are even with Michigan in the loss column, still control their destiny in the Big Ten and have a real shot at the conference title. If Iowa is to accomplish that feat for the first time since 1978–79, it will be on the back of its KenPom No. 1 offense, which is predicated on three key things: taking care of the ball, sharing the ball and shooting the heck out of the ball. The Hawkeyes’ offensive weapons at any given time are dizzying, from National Player of the Year favorite Luka Garza to senior point guard Jordan Bohannon to sharp-shooter CJ Fredrick to emerging freshman Keegan Murray—and more.

The Badgers, meanwhile, have sustained a couple of setbacks in Big Ten play but remain very much a threat. One of the best three-point shooting teams in the country at 39.1%, Wisconsin’s biggest drawback is the fact that its offense inside the arc has often lagged—and hit rock bottom when it shot just 29.7% from two in a recent nightmare loss to Michigan. But this is an experienced, talented team that should by no means be counted out.

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Dark horse: Minnesota

If we dip outside the current top four (Michigan, Iowa, Wisconsin, and a tied Purdue and Illinois) for this, the Golden Gophers are maybe the league’s most intriguing team. They would need some considerable help from the top dogs slipping up, but if there’s reason to call a 4–4 team in conference a dark horse it’s this: Per T-Rank, Minnesota has played the toughest Big Ten schedule so far—and that’s saying a lot given the depth of the conference. Its remaining schedule, meanwhile, is the second-easiest.

The Gophers are undefeated at home so far and must solve their road woes (all four of their road losses came by double-digits) to seriously entertain entering the Big Ten race. But after an impressive rout of Michigan at the Barn, stranger things have happened. Point guard Marcus Carr and 7-footer Liam Robbins have proved to be a dynamic inside-out duo, and this team has two of the best wins in the country in beating both Iowa and the Wolverines.

NCAA tournament outlook

The Big Ten is arguably in a better position right now than anyone when it comes to looking ahead to March. On the current Bracket Matrix average, the conference would have two No. 1 seeds (Michigan and Iowa), a No. 3 seed (Wisconsin), two No. 4 seeds (Ohio State and Illinois) and a No. 6 seed (Minnesota), plus four other teams (Purdue, Rutgers, Michigan State and Indiana) for a total of 10 bids. Maryland, meanwhile, is lurking on the bubble on the back of its two marquee wins.

The big question for the Big Ten, of course, is whether it can turn its regular-season reputation of the last two years into postseason success. The conference is still searching for its first national championship since 2000 (the Terps’ 2002 title came as a member of the ACC), though it never got the chance in 2020 to end that drought. This time around, Michigan, with its strengths on both ends, may represent the league’s best shot at tournament glory in Indianapolis.