Going into the season, the common thought surrounding the Big Ten was that Michigan State was the heavy favorite and the only questions were who was second-best, and were there more than three legitimately good teams in the league.
The first question is still up for debate, although the candidates are different a month into the season, but the second question has been answered. And now the biggest talking point around the league is clear: The Big Ten has been the best league in the country through the first month-plus of the season.
The list of high-quality teams the league has defeated is long: Gonzaga, Virginia, Villanova, North Carolina (twice), Seton Hall, Marquette (twice), Florida State, VCU, Texas Tech (debatable whether that’s still a great win). The ACC was considered the best league in the country entering the season, but the Big Ten took them down last week in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
There are three Big Ten teams in the top nine of the Power Rankings, five Big Ten teams in the top 12 at KenPom and six teams in the top 20 of the BPI. The top of the league is better and deeper than expected, the middle of the pack is more competitive than expected and the bottom of the league — besides Nebraska — has shown some flashes.
So maybe now the biggest question in the Big Ten is which team should be the favorite? Michigan State entered the season as the preseason No. 1 team, but the Spartans now have three losses and have fallen out of the Power Rankings. Ohio State has been arguably the most impressive team in the country to watch, while Maryland is rolling and has talent throughout the rotation. Michigan might have the best collection of wins of anyone and Purdue just throttled Virginia by 29 points.
We’ll go with Ohio State for now, as Chris Holtmann’s team has everything needed to make a deep run in March: The Buckeyes are deep and have a nice blend of youth and experience. They have a legitimate star and go-to-guy in Kaleb Wesson and really defend — only one team has scored more than 57 points against them this season and the Buckeyes won that game by 32. Moreover, they’ve been consistently good without too many drop-offs; no team has stayed within 19 points since the season-opener.
Not to get ahead of myself, but we’re less than a month away from Ohio State’s trip to Maryland on Jan. 7.
1. Louisville Cardinals (9-0)
Previous ranking: 1
This week: vs. Texas Tech in New York (Tuesday), vs. Eastern Kentucky (Saturday)
Chris Mack’s Cardinals hadn’t really been tested for the first month of the season, and then Michigan came to town — and Louisville left that game looking like the No. 1 team in the country. The Cardinals played outstanding defense against the Wolverines, holding them to 3-for-19 shooting from 3-point range and just 0.65 points per possession. Louisville is defending at a high level right now, holding its last three opponents to 143 points total and a combined 7-for-48 from 3-point range. The Cardinals face Texas Tech on Tuesday in a game that should be a defensive struggle — it might be a first-to-50-wins type of game, and the way the Red Raiders are (not) scoring, Louisville has the edge. >
2. Ohio State Buckeyes (9-0)
Previous ranking: 4
This week: at Minnesota (Sunday)
This stat, from Hoop Vision’s Jordan Sperber on Twitter, sums up how good Ohio State has been so far this season: Ohio State has three 20-point wins against top-50 KenPom teams; the rest of the country has three total. (Penn State dropped to No. 26 on Sunday morning, but the point still stands.) The Buckeyes have been dominating teams this season, beating North Carolina by 25 in Chapel Hill, followed up by a 32-point home win over the Nittany Lions. Chris Holtmann has settled into mostly an eight-man rotation where everybody seems to understand their role; the Buckeyes have a little bit of everything, and might be the most impressive team in college basketball this season.
3. Kansas Jayhawks (7-1)
Previous ranking: 3
This week: vs. Milwaukee (Tuesday), vs. UMKC (Saturday)
With Devon Dotson and Udoka Azubuike establishing themselves as one of the premier inside-outside tandems in the country, Ochai Agbaji has been quietly stepping up as a third option for the Jayhawks. Agbaji went for 20 points and 12 rebounds against Colorado, his fourth game this season in double figures. Agbaji is a difficult matchup for most opponents because he’s a good outside shooter but is strong enough to finish around the rim. He even spent plenty of time at the 4 last season when the Jayhawks were dealing with injuries. As Bill Self goes away from the two-big lineups more often, Agbaji’s versatility will be an asset.
4. Maryland Terrapins (10-0)
Previous ranking: 5
This week: at Penn State (Tuesday)
Anthony Cowan is putting himself in the conversation for best point guard in the country this season. His scoring and shooting numbers are up across the board, but more importantly, he has been coming up big when the Terps need it. He has scored at least 20 points in four of his past five games, with a 21-to-11 assist-to-turnover ratio over that stretch. He also had one of the best finishing sequences we’ve seen from a player this season in Maryland’s comeback win over Illinois on Saturday. He hit a deep, deep 3 to tie the game, then stole the ball on the ensuing possession and got fouled with two seconds left. Cowan hit the game-winning free throw then purposely missed the second and Illinois didn’t get a shot off.
5. Gonzaga Bulldogs (10-1)
Previous ranking: 8
This week: at Arizona (Saturday)
Gonzaga won the intrastate battle at Washington on Sunday, with Joel Ayayi hitting a deep dagger 3 with 24 seconds left to clinch the win for the Bulldogs. Ayayi’s emergence has been a major boost for Mark Few’s team, as he has hit double figures in five of his past six games, moving into the starting lineup for the past two. The native of France was a non-factor last season, but he has provided perimeter punch for the ‘Zags. Gonzaga is now two-thirds of the way through a brutal six-game, 20-day stretch that has also included games against Oregon and Michigan, and still has games against Arizona and North Carolina remaining. The Bulldogs will be heavily tested before the start of West Coast Conference play.
6. Michigan Wolverines (8-1)
Previous ranking: 2
This week: at Illinois (Wednesday), vs. Oregon (Saturday)
Michigan had a wakeup call against Louisville after winning the Battle 4 Atlantis, but a lot of teams are going to struggle against the Cardinals this season, especially at the KFC Yum! Center. But after scoring just 43 points at Louisville, the Wolverines bounced back with 103 points in a win over Iowa. Six players scored at least 12 points and it was Michigan’s most efficient offensive performance of the season (it was also the Wolverines’ worst defensive performance). Juwan Howard’s team has a difficult week coming up, with a road trip to Illinois followed by a home tilt against Oregon. The Fighting Illini have lost two games in a row by a combined three points and will be hungry for a home win.
7. Duke Blue Devils (9-1)
Previous ranking: 9
This week: NONE
One week after suffering a stunning home defeat to Stephen F. Austin, the Blue Devils had an impressive week on all fronts. They dominated Michigan State in East Lansing, then beat Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. Moreover, they got freshman guard Cassius Stanley back from injury, even though he only managed seven minutes against the Hokies. The one positive for his two-game absence was Duke being forced to find bench guys to step up, and Joey Baker and Jordan Goldwire answered the bell. Baker hit double figures in two of the past three games, while Goldwire added a different dimension defensively, racking up eight steals in three games.
8. Kentucky Wildcats (7-1)
Previous ranking: 10
This week: vs. Georgia Tech (Saturday)
John Calipari has done some tinkering with his lineup and rotation the past few games, flipping Tyrese Maxey and Immanuel Quickley in mid-November and then slotting Johnny Juzang into the starting lineup on Saturday and moving Kahlil Whitney to the bench. Juzang brings some shooting and floor-spacing, especially with Nate Sestina injured. But the one big plus on Saturday against Fairleigh Dickinson came from EJ Montgomery, who went for 25 points and nine rebounds. Calipari has been looking for some consistency from his frontcourt besides Nick Richards, and Montgomery has now totaled 41 points and 17 rebounds in his past two games.
9. Baylor Bears (7-1)
Previous ranking: In the waiting room
This week: vs. Butler (Tuesday)
This might be a little high for Baylor, considering the Bears were on the outside looking in last week, but I feel comfortable being bullish on Scott Drew’s team this season. They have one of the best backcourt trios in the country in Jared Butler, MaCio Teague and Davion Mitchell, who all bring something different to the perimeter. Tristan Clark has struggled so far this season, but if he can regain his form of last season, he’s a force down low. In his place, Freddie Gillespie has been a factor. Gillespie had 17 points, 13 rebounds and five blocks against Arizona and freshman big man Zeke Nnaji. Then there’s Mark Vital, a glue guy who had seven rebounds, three assists, two steals and five fouls against the Wildcats — in just 14 minutes.
10. Auburn Tigers (8-0)
Previous ranking: 13
This week: vs. Saint Louis (Saturday)
The Tigers needed overtime to beat Furman last week, and the close win showed the recipe to beat Auburn this season. The Tigers really struggled from behind the arc, making just 4-for-25 from 3-point range, and allowed 13 3-pointers at the other end. Auburn also didn’t force turnovers at a high rate, with the Tigers’ perimeter group not as effective defensively as they’ve been so far this season. Fortunately for Bruce Pearl’s team, they continued to dominate the offensive glass and got another stellar performance from freshman Isaac Okoro. Okoro had 18 points, nine rebounds and three assists — his seventh double-figure game this season.
11. Virginia Cavaliers (7-1)
Previous ranking: 6
This week: NONE
The Cavaliers had a mixed week, getting hammered by Purdue and only scoring 40 points in the process. It was the third straight game in which Virginia scored fewer than 50 points. But the Cavaliers bounced back with a nine-point home win over North Carolina, a win that looks better on paper than in reality given the Tar Heels’ recent struggles. Tony Bennett received some scoring pop from unexpected pieces against Carolina, with Tomas Woldetensae scoring 11 points off the bench and Francisco Caffaro — who had three points and two rebounds in 24 minutes all season prior to Sunday — going for 10 points and seven rebounds.
12. Dayton Flyers (6-1)
Previous ranking: 14
This week: vs. Drake (Saturday)
Dayton proved its Maui Invitational performance wasn’t a fluke on Sunday, beating a good Saint Mary’s team by 10 in Phoenix. Obi Toppin did his thing with 16 points and six boards, but it was Jalen Crutcher who led the way with 21 points and six assists. The Flyers also held Gaels’ star guard Jordan Ford to 11 points on 11 shots. The next big test for Anthony Grant’s team — although Drake and North Texas have both looked good at times this season — comes on Dec. 21 against Colorado in Chicago. The Flyers have a chance to enter Atlantic 10 play with an impressive résumé filled with a handful of decent wins that could be useful come NCAA tournament selection time.
13. Arizona Wildcats (9-1)
Previous ranking: 12
This week: vs. Nebraska Omaha (Wednesday), vs. Gonzaga (Saturday)
Arizona suffered its first loss of the season on Saturday, a five-point defeat at Baylor — but there were some positives to take from the loss. First, the Wildcats can’t shoot much worse (2-for-18 from 3). They’ve turned it over more than they did on Saturday just one time all season. And star point guard Nico Mannion was just 3-for-14 from the field. All that happened, and the Wildcats still had a chance to tie the game in the final minute on the road against one of the best teams in the Big 12. Sean Miller’s team will have another chance at a marquee win (they don’t have one yet this season) at home against Gonzaga this weekend. Gonzaga has the edge in experience, but the free throw battle will be interesting.
14. Oregon Ducks (7-2)
Previous ranking: 16
This week: at Michigan (Saturday)
CJ Walker came out of high school as a five-star forward, expected to make an immediate impact for the Ducks. It didn’t quite happen that way, as Walker played just 27 minutes in his first three games, totaling four points in his first five games. The light flipped before the Battle 4 Atlantis, though, as Walker has averaged 12.0 points, 3.5 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in Oregon’s past four games. He’s athletic, versatile, brings some perimeter touch and can make an impact at both ends of the floor. Dana Altman will add another key piece to his rotation sometime this month, when five-star recruit N’Faly Dante becomes eligible to hit the floor. He was a dominant shot-blocker and rebounder at the high school level.
15. Butler Bulldogs (9-0)
Previous ranking: Unranked
This week: at Baylor (Tuesday), vs. Southern (Saturday)
I’m not the only one to underestimate the Bulldogs entering the season, but I was way off on LaVall Jordan’s team in the preseason. A 14-point win over Florida on Saturday brought Butler to 9-0 this season, with wins over an assortment of power-conference teams: Minnesota, Missouri, Stanford, Ole Miss and Florida. Outside of the Gators, none of those opponents is projected to end up in the NCAA tournament, but it’s a quality résumé nonetheless. Kamar Baldwin has been one of the most productive players in the country so far, scoring at least 22 points in four of his past seven games. Baldwin has taken a huge step forward in his perimeter shooting, hitting 41.7% through nine games after making 31.1% last season.
16. Xavier Musketeers (9-1)
Previous ranking: Unranked
This week: at Wake Forest (Saturday)
The Musketeers are back in the rankings after handling Cincinnati in a rivalry game on Saturday, giving Travis Steele’s team another solid win on the ledger. The only loss so far came on a neutral court against Florida. Before the calendar turns to 2020, however, things get interesting for Xavier. Three of its next four games are on the road, including the Big East opener at Villanova on Dec. 30. Naji Marshall has been one of the most all-around productive players in the league this season, highlighted by his effort against the Bearcats: 31 points, eight rebounds, three assists, five steals.
Dropped out: North Carolina (7), Michigan State (11), Florida State (15)
In the waiting room
Tennessee: Memphis vs. Tennessee has become one of the more-heated rivalry games since Penny Hardaway took over the Tigers, and that game takes place on Saturday. The Volunteers have the homecourt advantage, and it’s a chance for both teams to get a quality win.
San Diego State: The Aztecs had more trouble than expected with San Jose State, but previous wins over Iowa, Creighton and BYU — all away from home — get them into the conversation. Brian Dutcher is starting three transfers, led by former Washington State guard Malachi Flynn, one of the most impactful newcomers in the country.
Memphis: The Tigers improved to 6-0 without James Wiseman but the big test comes this weekend against Tennessee. If Memphis can keep Tennessee off the offensive glass and force turnovers at the other, it will have a chance to get the road win. Precious Achiuwa has to continue his stellar play, too.