Jon Crispin, BTN men's basketball analyst, December 12, 2016
What may appear to most to be the worst two weeks of college basketball is certainly not viewed as such by coaches and staff. As fans, we want to see top 25 teams battle nightly, but the last two weeks of the non-conference schedule rarely offers such matchups.
With finals, students departing for the holiday and players' brains departing for anywhere but where it should be, the pre-Christmas schedule is certainly a challenge for high-level D-1 coaches. It's an opportunity to clean up certain areas that a team may be lacking in and it's a chance to learn about who on your team you'll be able to count on to lead the team on and off the court.
My Big Ten Power Rankings, presented by ArcelorMittal, may not change much over the next two weeks as my brain may be going on holiday vacation with everyone else. For now, this is how I see the top 10 teams.
Editor's note: Team records are through Sunday, Dec. 11, action.
1. Indiana (8-1). Toss out the loss in Fort Wayne, and we'd be talking about this team as the best in the nation. They really are that good and their style of play causes all sorts of problems for most opponents. Tom Crean will spend the next couple of weeks finalizing preparations for Big Ten play. Getting and staying healthy will be of the utmost importance, but Indiana plays "position-less" basketball, which maintains continuity and flow regardless of personnel.
Last week: 1
2. Purdue (8-2). I'm beginning to think the Boilers are going to start playing faster this season. They've been scoring more points and playing with more pace (increased possessions), and while it may require Matt Painter to get creative with rotations to keep Isaac Haas fresh, the faster play keeps opponents from setting their defense to protect against the Skyline. If I'm a smaller opponent, I'd love to see them walk it up and allow me to set my defense to collapse on the bigs. Smaller teams can win the position battle if you allow them to get set.
Last week: 2
3. Wisconsin (9-2). The Badgers seem to be improving in every way on a daily basis. Nigel Hayes has been such a good facilitator that it is forcing teams to play straight up and not double team him. If opponents are forced to play 5-on-5 with guys like Hayes, Ethan Happ and Bronson Koenig on the floor, the Badgers will roll. I'm waiting to see who the consistent bench producers are going to be, which will be a key to their long-term success.
Last week: 3
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4. Ohio State (8-2). After seeing them in person against UConn, I like the Thad's Matta's Buckeyes even more. The loss to Florida Atlantic doesn't frighten me. In some way, I view it as a wake-up call and another lesson on how to "win" a game, as "winning" a game is different than "not losing it." Tweet at me for further explanation, if need be. But it all comes down to "playing to win" vs. "playing not to lose." Marc Loving is very skilled, but the junior class of Trevor Thompson, Cam Williams, Ja'Sean Tate and Keita Bates-Diop, plus sophomore JaQuan Lyle, is good enough to beat anyone in the conference. I still like this team.
Last week: 4
5. Michigan (7-3). We learned two things from the Michigan-UCLA game: 1. The Wolverines, who space the floor so well, can play with (and beat) anyone in the country when they're shooting it well from the perimeter (12-16 3pt FG in first half); 2. Derrick Walton Jr. needs to get more aggressive and assertive as his offensive production is key for Michigan's continued success.
Last week: 6
6. Michigan State (7-4). We are seeing the young talent of the Spartans improve every single game. The Oral Roberts win may not sound like a big deal, but it showcased three freshmen picking up career highs in points (Nick Ward, Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford), all while super frosh Mikes Bridges was in street clothes (ankle). I still think this will be another late-season success story for Tom Izzo and crew. Izzo is a coach who understands and trusts the process, and while it may not appear so in games, he is patient when it comes to focusing on the development process.
Last week: 7
7. Northwestern (7-2). If you want to talk about quality losses and a good schedule, you've got to look at the Wildcats. This team is playing with purpose this season and even though they lost sophomore sharpshooter Aaron Falzon to a season-ending surgery, they're receiving good production from guys like Nathan Taphorn and Gavin Skelly. With Falzon out for the season, more will fall on Bryant McIntosh and Vic Law.
Last week: 8
8. Maryland (10-1). Mark Turgeon and his Terps are quietly lurking as they haven't had any monster victories or demonstrative performances. Yet, you can see how much this young bunch is improving behind one of the best point guards in the country in Melo Trimble. A less-than-stellar non-conference schedule is perfect for this team to get Big Ten ready after the holiday. One of the most important keys for Maryland is Trimble developing a better understanding of his young teammates' skill-set and potential. He'll make them all better.
Last week: 5
9. Minnesota (10-1). I actually feel badly leaving Richard Pitino's Gophers this far down the list, but I've got to see what they're capable of doing against Big Ten competition. I love the versatility and "wow-factor" that Amir Coffey brings and feel like that type of big-time local talent is exactly what Pitino needed to reignite the fan base. Half court execution on defense and offense will have to improve as the game is going to get much tougher when they face conference foes.
Last week: 9
10. Illinois (8-3). It's about time the Illini kick off the training wheels, dust off whatever cobwebs are left from Tracy Abrams sitting out two seasons and realize how good they can be. The pieces are all there, but we haven't seen them reach their true potential yet. This weekend will be a huge test against a BYU team that will force the Illini to play a fast-paced full-court game. It could be exactly what they need to pick up their tempo and enter Big Ten play with confidence and expectation.
Last week: 10