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Big Ten Basketball Digest: Ohio State Tops The Conference, Can Anyone Take Them Down?

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A weekly series on men's basketball in the Big Ten...

Hello again Digest readers. Please welcome the return of the Big Ten Digest: Basketball Edition. I took a little hiatus from basketball for a while as the mania of College Football Bowl Season occupied most of my thoughts and time. Football is now done until the draft and spring ball, but fortunately for us, we still have our hoops.

While there's still more than a month until the big dance, the signs of March Madness fever are already in the air. Sure, many are still occupied with the NFL playoffs, but for those of us who are more interested in the college games, dreams of brackets and pool winnings aren't far from our thoughts...

The Big Ten has gotten quite interesting of late. Ohio State has looked the juggernaut - not just in conference but on a national level too. Once solid Michigan State has been faltering in ways that are simply not characteristic of Izzo coached squads. Purdue and Wisconsin have returned from the wilderness and gotten hot, going 10-2 and 9-3 in their last 12 games respectively. The likely tourney bound teams of Illinois and Minnesota have stuck around too... plodding towards what seems like an inevitable position in the 5-7 seed range come March.


NCAA Tournament Prospects:

While we still have unanswered questions, the picture of the conference has finally taken shape, to the point that I can now group teams in the conference into four categories: the definites - teams that will be low seeded in the tournament barring an inconvenient asteroid barrage, the likelies - teams that should find themselves comfortably ensconsed in the middle seed range come dance time, the bubbles - teams that are currently out but could work their way into a high seed with just enough luck and good play, and the outs - teams whose seasons, at least for tournament purposes, have ended just barely after they began.

It's worth remembering for a second just how tournament selection works. 31 teams will have automatic bids by virtue of winning their conferences, with 37 teams earning at-large bids. At-large selections are influenced quite heavily by a team's RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) number. The influence is heaviest towards the last seeds of the tournaments, but it still influences seeding order even in the middle and low seed ranks.

At its base level, the RPI is a formula that attempts to take into account both a team's winning percentage and their strength of schedule. Teams are also benefitted or penalized based on where their wins and losses occur, with road wins and home losses having a larger effect on their total number. Though there are 37 at-large tournament spots, it is not a certainty that at-large teams with RPI rankings within the top 68 will make it into the tournament. Generally speaking, any team with an RPI in the top 35 will be in - either by winning their conference or as an at-large (teams from some mid-major conferences with good RPIs have occasionally been excluded despite falling here, but this isn't really a concern for Big Ten teams). Beyond that things get dicier. Many teams in the 40s-50s-60s of the RPI ranks will see a tournament berth, but some will end up snubbed in favor of the occasional team in the 80s or even 100s that has simply impressed the selection committee more.

Before we get to the teams, a quick note on format. I've decided to switch things up a bit in the Digest with my game recommendations. Instead of one conference-wide game recommendation, I've made picks for each of the teams. My selections represent the games that will be the most exciting for fans and non-fans alike to tune into. In other words, I'm not picking easy wins. This also means that in some cases, the most exciting game for one team will not be the most exciting game for their opponent. It's all relative, people.


The Definites:

Ohio State (RPI Rank: 8):

When I said up there that the Buckeyes were playing like a juggernaut, I wasn't exaggerating. Ohio State has gone 12-0 in their last 12 games and now finds themselves with a No. 1 ranking in the polls and an RPI of .6566, good for 8th on the list (Kansas is highest at .6914). Right now they're projected to be a number one seed, perhaps the highest or second-highest of the top seeds. Their hot play of late has something to do with this of course. Recent victories against Minnesota and Penn State, as well as a trouncing of Iowa have helped send them soaring in the polls. And, oh, did I mention they're still undefeated at 19-0?

The Buckeyes' one knock has been their strength of schedule - ranked No. 101 overall (142 non-conference and 109 in-conference respectively) - which isn't exactly the most difficult in the world. They've only played (and beaten) two teams with RPI ranks in the 1-50 range, a level which is a decent comparison for the type of talent that is likely to be featured in the tournament in March. The rest of their victories have come against teams with RPIs rankings in 51-100 (six), 101-150 (six), and 150+ (five). Really, hard times won't start for the Buckeyes until a slate of games in mid-February when they see all of the Big Ten's other likely tourney teams over a two week period. It's possible that the Buckeyes could survive all these games and enter the tournament undefeated, but it's just as possible that they falter in that stretch.

Still, that caveat aside, Ohio State has been playing really, really well. In terms of statistics, they're No. 4 in the country in effective field goal percentage (a field goal percentage that weights 3-pt shots slightly more) at 56.8 in Ken Pomeroy's rankings. They've also been good at limiting turnovers while on offense - only 16.9 of their possessions have ended in a takeaway by the other team, good for 13th in the country. On defense they're similarly beastly - grabbing turnovers at a clip of 27.1% or 5th in the country. While the entire Buckeye team has been solid, the play of two of their freshman, forward Jared Sullinger, (17.4 PPG / 9.8 RPG) and guard Aaron Craft (seven steals in one game against Iowa) are making huge contributions. At this point, assuming no major injuries, the question for the Buckeyes isn't whether they'll go to the tournament or how well they'll be seeded, but whether they'll be undefeated when they get there.

Up This Week: January 22nd at Illinois (12:00 P.M.), January 25th vs. Purdue (9:00 P.M.)

Best Game to Watch: Both games will be good, and while Ohio State is the superior team in each match-up, neither team will be a pushover. Still, I'd take the Purdue game as the best to watch. Purdue, though faltering a bit lately, has had a solid defense all year and it will be fun to see them take on Ohio State's explosive offense.


Purdue (RPI Rank: 13):

Speaking of the Boilermakers... the team that was moving full steam-ahead only a week ago has looked a bit rough around the edges of late. Tight losses on the road at Minnesota and West Virginia have knocked them down a peg, while even surging Penn State gave them a run for their money at home. Purdue survived - but only by one point (63-62) which isn't exactly inspiring. Though they've had a bit harder road than Ohio State thus far with a strength of schedule ranked at 47 (80 and 83 non-conference and in-conference), they haven't performed as well as teams in the top 50 of the RPI rankings, going just 1-2. Fortunately, their only other loss, to Richmond, isn't all that embarrassing.

Right now Purdue is somewhere in the middle of the three seed pack, but their recent hiccups might have them falling if they don't get things back under control soon. On the season they have a respectable 51.6 effective field goal percentage, but their real strength on offense has been limiting turnovers to just 16.5% of possessions. Though none of their defensive stats are particularly eye-popping, they're solid in all facets - limiting shooting, offensive rebounds, fouls, and picking up takeaways of their own.

On the offensive side of the ball, JaJuan Johnson has been huge for Purdue - it was his jumper with just over 3 seconds left that kept Purdue from falling to the Nittany Lions. He's sitting at 20.5 PPG and has 80 points in his last three games. He kind of looks unstoppable at this point, and if he keeps this up, who knows how high the Boilermakers could travel.

Up This Week: January 22nd vs. Michigan State (9:00 P.M.), January 25th at Ohio State (9:00 P.M.)

Best Game to Watch: Though I said above that the tilt against the Boilermakers was the best Buckeye game to watch, I'm going to say the better Boilermaker game to watch will be the clash with the Spartans. Much like OSU above, both of these games are going to be good. But Purdue matches up a bit better against the Spartans, and I expect Mackey Arena to be absolutely rocking for this one.


The Likelies:

Fans of the teams below might quibble with my cut-off line, but really there's no need. These teams are still the class of the conference and any one of them could rise up and claim the automatic tourney bid with a surprise win in the conference tournament. Even without that, at-large bids are almost assured, along with seeds that could range as good as three and as meh as seven or eight.

Michigan State (RPI Rank: 21):

Oh Sparty... what has happened to you this year? Your season has been a model of inconsistency. After nearly taking down Duke and hanging in there with a very good Syracuse team, January losses to Penn State and Illinois have made me doubt you. True, both games were on the road. And, also true, Michigan State has had a brutal schedule - ranked 6th overall in difficulty (21 non-conference, 29 in-conference).

That gives Sparty a bit of lee-way on the losses, but it doesn't look good to be going 3-5 against RPI teams in the 1-50 range. Yes, Sparty you have dominated RPI 51-100 range teams to the tune of 4-1, but I want to see more fight out of you in your big games. The Spartans' main problems lately have been weak effective field goal percentages - 50.1% (119th), entirely too many offensive possessions ending in turnovers - 21.2% (199th) and not enough steals on the defensive side of the ball. The lackluster performance of senior guard Durrell Summers has something to do with the shooting woes. He's shooting 45.5% on 2-pts in January, not exactly a great stat. And while I'm singling him out, this is really a team issue, because the Spartans just aren't connecting at the rate you would expect from them. Though they managed to win in overtime against the Wildcats, the fact that they ended up in overtime against a team that might not make the tournament at all is an example of their inconsistency.

Fortunately, after one tough go against Purdue things get a bit easier with a stretch of three games against the Big Ten's three weakest teams. Then a date at the Kohl Center against Wisconsin. Perhaps those easier games will help the Spartans get some much needed recovery and make a strong run at the end of the season. Though they're sitting around the five seed level, I think they could easily be a four seed, and maybe even a three if they finish strong enough.

Up This Week: January 22nd at Purdue (9:00 P.M.), January 27th vs. Michigan (7:00 P.M.)

Best Game to Watch: I'm not one to discount the intensity of intra-state battles, but this one isn't even really a contest. The Purdue game will be more entertaining than what should be a relatively predictable beat down of Blue. The two teams are evenly matched, with the Boilermakers just edging the Spartans in key stats. But, if Sparty gets hot and actually shoots well for once, who knows what could happen...


Illinois (RPI Rank: 23):

The much needed 71-62 win over Michigan State on Tuesday night has finally let Illini fans exhale a bit. After a hot start to the season (okay, that embarrassing UIC loss aside) the Illini finally looked human in back-to-back losses at Penn State and at Wisconsin. The PSU game was close, but the Badger game? Not so much.

The Illini much like the Spartans, have had a rather tough road thus far. They're 28th in strength of schedule (56 non-conference, 61 in-conference).  The good news for Illini fans is that Illinois has not let up against tough opponents. They're 2-0 against teams ranked in the top 25 in RPI, though bizarrely only 1-3 in teams ranked 26-50. Still, 3-3 against tourney talent level teams isn't anything to sneeze at. Though guard Demetri McCamey has gotten much of the attention this season, and deservedly so, the last three games have seen an upswing in the play of another guard, Brandon Paul. Paul had a season high twenty points in the game against Michigan State and has tallied 45 over the course of the last three. If he continues playing with energy and making good shots he'll be a significant asset to the Illini down the stretch.

As a team, much of the Illini's success has come from their solid shooting. They boast a 54.6 effective field goal percentage, good for 21st in the country. They could use better offensive rebounding though, especially more consistency out of Mike Davis, because their lackluster numbers in that area aren't helping. Yes, their high EFG percentage means they're scoring points when they need to, but in the event they hit a shooting slump an improvement in offensive boards could be critical. The Illini are currently crunched in with Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Minnesota in the five to six seed area. But like Michigan State, they have the talent to better their seed, but it's going to take strong performances down the stretch, especially in games against Purdue, Ohio State, and the Spartans again.

Up This Week: January 22nd vs. Ohio State (12:00 P.M.), January 27th at Indiana (9:00 P.M.)

Best Game to Watch: Do I even need to answer this? It's not like it's football here. Yes, Ohio State has looked unstoppable and yes I think the Illini will have a tough time against the future number one seed even in the extremely friendly confines of Assembly Hall. Buuuuuut... every team can have a bad night, and with home court advantage on their side, I think the Illini might be able to pull one out here. Even if they lose, though, a close defeat won't look bad at all on their seeding resume come March.


Minnesota (RPI Rank: 24):

The Gophers have been kicking around the edges of Big Ten tourney caliber basketball for what seems like the entire season. Always dependable and good, but never quite great enough to challenge the teams at the top of the heap. Part of this is just the Gophers - but part is the fact that the top of the Big Ten is absolutely stacked this year.

Minnesota has a very lopsided strength of schedule this year. Ranked total at 43 (157 non-conference, 36 in-conference) their games got much more difficult as soon as in-conference play started. This has sort of born itself out to date, too. Of the three wins Minnesota has against teams with RPI ranks in the 1-25 range, two are out-of-conference opponents, with only one victory from a Big Ten team, a recent win against Purdue. By contrast, their three losses in that range have all come to the other top tier Big Ten teams - Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Michigan State. Stat wise, Minnesota has been doing a lot on offense thanks to their offensive rebounding skills, which outshine their shooting.

Lately the program has been touched by a bit of controversy however. Forward Trevor Mbakwe recently pled not guilty to charges of violating a restraining order against an ex-girlfriend. He'll be in court again in the first week of February and it's not entirely clear what the result in the case will be or what coach Tubby Smith will do. Mbakwe's 13.2 PPG and .608 FG percentage have been critical to Gopher success this season, and losing him would be a big blow to the team's tournament hopes. Oh, did I mention they've also recently lost another player, Devoe Jospeh, to a transfer? Joseph's 11.3 PPG this season and 2.3 RPG weren't exactly huge, but he was still a significant cog for the Gophers last year and this. They'll still likely end up in the dance barring more problems, but with Joseph gone and Mbakwe's fate uncertain, it's hard to see them sticking around for long.

Up This Week: January 22nd at Michigan (7:00 P.M.), January 26th vs. Northwestern (8:30 P.M.)

Best Game to Watch: Both Michigan and Northwestern were considered bubble teams only a short while ago, but lately it seems like Northwestern is the only one holding on by a thread to that designation. Given that, I'd say the game against the Wildcats is the one to try to catch. Minnesota is superior on paper, but if Mbakwe were to not play? Things get a bit trickier. The Wildcats are still looking for their signature win to try to find some way to make it into the tournament, so Minnesota should be careful to not look ahead to their next game against Purdue...


Wisconsin (RPI Rank: 30):

Well, it seems the Badgers might finally be making a comeback. After starting the season off with losses against UNLV and Notre Dame, Wisconsin plodded through a middling non-conference schedule (177th in difficulty) dropping out of the polls altogether for several weeks. Though they seem to have found their groove a bit - going 9-3 over their last 12 games, recent losses to Illinois and Michigan State have kept them towards the back of the tournament bound pack. Their most recent game, a victory that came while hosting Illinois in a re-match, looked promising, however.

Like the rest of the middle Big Ten teams, Wisconsin has had issues with top caliber opponents thus far this year, going 3-4 against teams with RPIs ranked 1-25. They've beaten up on teams in the 51-150 range, though, going 4-0.

Though Wisconsin often seems to play a ridiculously slow version of basketball, they've made success out of being methodical by compiling the nation's best turnover percentage in offensive possessions. Just 14% of Wisconsin's offensive possessions end in a takeaway. Though the Badgers' effective field goal percentage is mediocre at 51.7 (74th), their defense has been stifling, allowing opponents just a 44.3 EFG (29th). This makes sense, intuitively, considering that Wisconsin has never been known to win by being able to pour the points on. They win games by dragging the pace out and causing other teams to miss. In the recent game against the Illini, Wisconsin was able to hold Illinois to just 30.2% from the field. Forward Jon Leuer has been solid all season, but he's been especially good recently, putting up 26 and 20 points against Illinois and Indiana.

Wisconsin has an interesting set up ahead, with two games against bubble teams on the hunt for wins on the road at Northwestern and Penn State. The Badgers then return home to the Kohl Center to host both Purdue and Michigan State. While a loss could come in any of those games, I like the way the Badgers have been playing of late, and with the advantages of Kohl I think they might make it to their February 12th meeting with Ohio State (there's also a date with Iowa in there) relatively unscathed.

They're currently projected to seed in the bottom half of the five seeds, and I think that's about right. Perhaps they get a little higher or lower, but unless they completely collapse or pull off a major major upset, it should be relatively smooth from here until March.

Up This Week: January 23rd at Northwestern (12:30 P.M.), January 29th at Penn State (4:00 P.M.)

Best Game to Watch: Both of these teams are bubble teams that are trying to stay within striking range of a bid to the tournament. Penn State has shown a greater knack for being the upset team this season, though, so I think the game against the Nittany Lions is really the one to watch here.


The Bubble:

Northwestern (RPI Rank: 57):

Oh Northwestern. What started out as a promising beginning to the season has quickly looked like just any other in recent memory. While this may be one of the most talented Wildcat teams of late, it's looking less and less likely that they will be able to sneak themselves into the tournament for the first time in school history.

Why? Part of this has to do with strength of schedule. The Wildcats overall strength of schedule at 93 isn't really pleasing, but it's the non-conference schedule that really hurt - as the 216th hardest in the country, wins from there aren't impressing anyone. And they lost a game to boot. The real problem, though, is the lack of a signature win. Or multiple signature wins. All of the teams the ‘Cats have played in the RPI 1-50 range have beaten them. They're currently 0-5 against that bunch. They have one win against a team in the RPI 51-100 range, but all of their other victories come from even worse opposition.

Perhaps most frustrating for Wildcats fans is the fact that two of those meetings (against Michigan State) could have ended in W's were the Wildcats able to close. But, while close losses can sometimes help you in the eyes of the selection committee, you need the wins too. It's not completely over for Northwestern - they have a huge four game set coming up against Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio State, and Illinois. Claim one out of those games and they might still be in the discussion, though on life support. Claim two or more, and things will start looking better in a hurry.

Northwestern's main problems this year have come on the defensive side of the ball. They have a very impressive effective field goal percentage at 56.0 (6th in the country). They're also great at limiting turnovers on offensive possessions - just 16.7% of their possessions end in a turnover (10th in the country). These two stats are surprising for a team of Northwestern's caliber, but it gets bad from there on out in a hurry. They really suffer in the offensive rebounding game, which is masked a little bit by their high shooting percentage but which still hurts them in close games. On the defensive side of things, they're allowing opponents a pretty putrid 51.4% EFG (265th) and they don't seem to be capable of causing takeaways as frequently as I would like.

Some of the ‘Cats struggles of late have come because of John Shurna's ankle injury. An injury that has clearly limited him in games, and which has an uncertain time table. He's getting better with every game, but he's definitely not up to full health yet, and the ‘Cats desperately need him to be if they're going to make any kind of run at the tournament. It's still possible, but prospects are getting dimmer with every major loss...

Up This Week: January 23rd vs. Wisconsin (12:30 P.M.), January 26th at Minnesota (8:30 P.M.)

Best game to Watch: Realistically, the ‘Cats badly need a win out of one of these games. They have yet to play either team, so we don't really have anything to go on. In terms of seeing a victory, the Minnesota game is the most likely. Minnesota has been seriously struggling of late, and the problems with Trevor Mbakwe make the Gophers are prime target for an upset victory. The home court advantage could push the ‘Cats over the Badgers, but with the way Wisconsin has been playing lately I'm not as confident about that...


Penn State (RPI Rank: 56):

Penn State is the other team that is still sort of in the hunt for a tournament spot but who really needs to develop some consistency if they want to get there. The Nittany Lions have, admittedly, had a tough year with a strength of schedule ranked as the 10th hardest in the country (38 non-conference, 22 in-conference). They've made the best of this schedule, though. Well, sort of. The Nittany Lions have some nice signature upsets on their resume - upsets that Northwestern currently lacks. Recent victories against Michigan State and Illinois certainly help their case, and blunt the impact of expected losses to teams like Ohio State and Purdue. The problem for the Lions really hasn't been the teams in the RPI 1-50 range, since they're either losing predictably or grabbing an upset. Really it's been the teams in the RPI 51-100 range against whom they are 1-4. They also have a bad loss to Maine (RPI 150+) from their non-conference schedule.

To get to the tournament, those are the teams that Penn State really should be dominating. A single loss may be okay, but a significantly under .500 record is not. Penn State just hasn't been able to have much consistency this year. They'll get a victory or two and the reel off a couple of losses. Again, part of this is how their schedule shaped up, but part is just not great play.

The Lions have a not so great effective field goal percentage at 48.7% (184th). This is amplified by their poor offensive rebounding. If you're not making your shots at the first attempt and not getting a significant amount of rebounds it becomes very difficult to reliably score, especially on tougher opponents. Compounding this, they're letting opponents shoot at an abysmal 51.0% EFG (236th) and they aren't getting a significant number of takeaways on defense. If their defense was better at shutting down scoring on that side of the court, then the lackluster offensive numbers (which, to be fair, have gotten better in recent games) wouldn't be as much of a problem. But questionable play on that end means they need to be really good offensively to keep up with the more efficient offenses in the conference.

Still, optimists would be correct to point out that of late Penn State has also been a bit unlucky. Or the victim of questionable officiating - take your pick. The losses against Ohio State and Purdue were by a total margin of 4 points, which, while heartbreaking for Penn State fans, does suggest that the team has the talent to compete. If they keep this up, and actually grab some more upsets, they could sneak into the tournament. At the very least they'll once again be dangerous in the NIT.

Up This Week: January 26th vs. Iowa (6:30 P.M.), January 29th vs. Wisconsin (4:00 P.M.)

Best Game to Watch: Though the Wisconsin game will undoubtedly be more exciting - grabbing a third upset here could seriously help PSU out - it should be noted that Iowa is in the range of teams that Penn State seems to, perplexingly, have trouble with. What's this all mean? Well, they should win the Iowa game, but based on their season-long performance they might lose it. And they should lose the Wisconsin game, but based on their last four games, they might just win it.


On the Outs:

Michigan (RPI Rank: 76):

I really struggled with which group to put Michigan in this week. For a time heading into conference play they seemed like they, along with Northwestern and Penn State, might actually be a bubble team. That was surprising given the struggles of Michigan basketball lately, but welcome to fans of Blue. Then January started. A nice win against Penn State has been followed by five losses against good/mediocre competition. Yes, they managed to lose by only 7 to Kansas and by only four to Ohio State, but they also lost by 14 to Northwestern and a whopping 19 to Indiana. Defeats like that don't exactly look good on a tournament resume, folks.

Yes, Michigan's in-conference schedule has been kind of brutal (28th hardest in the country). And yes, this is a young team... buuuut it's going to really take a miracle for them to climb back into the bubble. Something on the order of winning out might do it (it's worth noting that doing so would somehow include 7 upsets of RPI 1-50 ranked teams). Or, you know, winning the Big Ten tournament. Quit your laughing. Crazier things have happened.

So what's been behind Michigan's struggles lately? Well they haven't been the best at shooting, with an effective field goal percentage of 50.2 (119th). Some of this has come against tough competition to be sure, but that only excuses so much. They have done a good job of limiting turnovers while on offense at 17.3% (24th), but they're really really bad at offensive rebounding. As we've seen with some of the other lesser teams in the conference above, poor shooting plus poor offensive rebounding = death. Or a loss. Yeah, let's go with a loss.

On the other side of the court they're having trouble limiting their opponents' shots, though again this has something to do with playing good teams lately and not just the Wolverines themselves. They also have problems getting turnovers on that side of the court, which, doesn't exactly help mitigate their offensive struggles. So, tournament? Probably not happening for them this year. But... they have been playing better in some respects than I would have expected going into the season, so I wouldn't write them off entirely over the next several seasons.

Up This Week: January 22nd vs. Minnesota (7:00 P.M.), January 27th at Michigan State (7:00 P.M.)

Best Game to Watch: Michigan hasn't played either of these teams this year, and, bizarrely enough, I'm going to put the Michigan State game as the best game to watch. Why? Because the teams Michigan has played the best against over their last several games have been the toughest - Kansas and Ohio State. While Minnesota and MSU are relatively close in quality, MSU is just a bit better enough that I think it could be the better game. Of course, the close games against the Jayhawks and Buckeyes were at home, and the Sparty game is in hostile territory. Which means it could just as likely be ugly. Maybe you should have a backup entertainment plan ready, just in case?


Iowa (RPI Rank: 138):

Oh Iowa. Can you say your season is a success if you aren't the worst team in the conference? Given what Hawkeye basketball is usually like, maybe? Iowa this year has been a victim both of a talent deficit and of a tough schedule (strength of schedule at 29). Predictably, they have lost every single conference game they have played thus far. It is worth noting, however, that the worst in-conference opponent they've seen to date has been Northwestern. A three game stretch against Indiana, Penn State, and Michigan will be a bit of a breather for this team.

I'm not really sure where to start when discussing the Hawkeye struggles. Partly this is because they're bad, uhm, pretty much everywhere, and partly this is because I feel bad picking on a team that just isn't very good. They have an icky effective field goal percentage at 48% (211th), problems limiting turnovers on offense at 22.2% (249th) and problems limiting opponent shooting at 49.7% (185th). The bright spot? They're surprisingly good (for a team of their level) at offensive rebounding and causing turnovers on defense, where they are ranked 69th and 54th in the Pomeroy rankings, respectively. These rankings surpass Wisconsin, Purdue, and Illinois in the first category and Michigan State and Minnesota in the second. Yeah, it's only two facets of the game, but hey, there has to be a silver lining somewhere, right?

Like many of the teams in this area of the conference, better days are on the horizon. Iowa only loses one player next year and has some interesting freshman coming in. This is good news not just for Hawkeye fans but for the conference as a whole - Big Ten basketball is only getting better.

Up This Week: January 23rd vs. Indiana (3:00 P.M.), January 26th at Penn State (6:30 P.M.)

Best Game to Watch: On paper, the game against Indiana is the most competitive for the Hawkeyes and the most likely to result in a victory. However, Indiana recently held Wisconsin close and Penn State has had odd troubles this year with teams in Iowa's range. So, I say check out the Penn State game. You might just be surprised by the result.


Indiana (RPI Rank: 144):

Rounding out the conference we have the Hoosiers. I think non-basketball watchers would be surprised to see the state of this program (*cough*Kelvin Sampson*cough*), but the best news for Hoosier fans is that this season isn't going to last for that much longer. Maybe that sounds cruel, but really, the best times for this school are in years to come. Tom Crean has been doing a fantastic job with recruiting lately, especially in-state. (Look! There goes Cody Zeller! Shit, I just lost all of my IU readers...)

Er, anyway, that recruiting is what's really going to bring this program back. In the meantime, Indiana fans just have to grit their teeth and bear it. While the season hasn't been kind to Indiana, there are a few bright spots. They're near tops in the country in effective field goal percentage at 55.3% (17th) (when you don't weight 3-pt shots extra, they're actually even better, at 6th in the country in just regular field goal percentage). And, they've been able to hang in there with some of the tourney bound teams in the conference, losing by just nine to Wisconsin and four to Minnesota. Just remember Hoosier fans - it can only get better from here.

Up This Week: January 23rd at Iowa (3:00 P.M.), January 27th vs. Illinois (9:00 P.M.)

Best Game to Watch: While Iowa is closest match-up on paper, the tough play of the Hoosiers against the Gophers and the Badgers makes me intrigued by the game against the Illini. Illinois is definitely the better team this year, and I honestly don't expect a win here. But, a close and exciting game isn't out of the question, especially since the Hoosiers are at home.