By Kyle Beery
While you were busy stuffing your face, visiting with family, and watching football, it may have been easy to forget about the glory that we know as “Feast Week.”
Over the last 10 days, there were a lot of good college basketball teams in action, and a whole lot of good games. While there is nearly the entire season left to go, we learned a lot about where teams are at in the early going.
This is your home for a snapshot of what college basketball looks like following Feast Week. I’ll be grading each team in the power conferences, plus a handful of mid-major teams. Here’s a look at the Big Ten. Check back for more conferences soon.
Illinois Fighting Illini
Best win: vs. DePaul, 82-73
Worst loss: none
The Illini are off to a much better start this year as opposed to last season’s feast week when they hit a three-game losing streak, including a horrible home loss against Winthrop and a pair of blowouts in the NIT Season Tip-Off.
Five players are averaging double figures, led by junior Leron Black’s 14.8 PPG. A transition period is to be expected under new coach Brad Underwood, but a 6-0 start looks good for Illinois, even if they haven’t played a very tough schedule. The Illini still have a lot of things to improve on, which was evident in a home game they nearly lost against lowly UT-Martin.
Best win: vs. USF, 70-53
Worst loss: vs. Indiana State, 90-69
The Archie Miller era got off to a horrible start in Bloomington as the Hoosiers got blown out by in-state foe Indiana State in their season opener. They also struggled pretty badly in the Gavitt Games at Seton Hall, though the Pirates are a very good team.
This could be a rocky season for Miller’s Hoosiers, from losing OG Anunoby and their head coach, to an early start to conference play in a solid Big Ten. Indiana heads up to Ann Arbor to face Michigan for the Big Ten opener on Saturday, as conference play starts earlier than usual, due to the conference tourney being held at Madison Square Garden a week earlier this year.
Best win: vs. UAB, 95-85 (Cayman Islands Classic)
Worst loss: vs. Louisiana, 80-71
Much like the Hoosiers, the Hawkeyes are off to a pretty shaky start. The loss to Louisiana separates itself from the loss to South Dakota State, a team that could find itself in upset conversations come March.
With a pretty unimpressive schedule thus far, Iowa should have no more than one loss if it has any thoughts of being a tournament team, so it might be pretty tough for the Hawkeyes to recover and do so at this point. Sophomore Isaiah Morris has been a bright spot, averaging 15.8 PPG so far.
Best win: vs. Butler, 79-65
Worst loss: vs. St. Bonaventure, 63-61 (Emerald Coast Classic)
The Terrapins lost their two best players from last season in Melo Trimble and Damonte Dodd, but have had a pretty solid start to the season, thanks to perimeter prowess of sophomores Anthony Cowan and Kevin Huerter (17-for-38 from deep on the year).
Huerter and Cowan have established themselves as Maryland’s two best players, but freshman big man Bruno Fernando is emerging as a force in the post, averaging 2.4 blocks through the first eight games. The Terps are capable of being in the top four or five teams in the conference, but showed their vulnerability in the St. Bonaventure loss, though the Bonnies are a potential tournament team. Huerter went 7-for-9 in the loss to Syracuse Monday as the Terps missed on another opportunity at a good road win, which the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee will value even higher this year.
Best win: vs. VCU, 68-70 (Maui Invitational)
Worst loss: vs. LSU, 77-75 (Maui Invitational)
Michigan certainly hasn’t gotten off to a bad start to the season, but also hasn’t been overly impressive. The Wolverines struggled with Central Michigan at home and missed on a opportunity to improve their strength of schedule (potential games vs. Notre Dame and Wichita State) by losing the Maui opener to LSU.
Kentucky transfer Charles Matthews has been as good as billed for the Wolverines, averaging more than 16 points, five rebounds and four assists. He, along with Mo Wagner and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, have the Wolverines looking like a team that belongs in the top half of the Big Ten and near the NCAA Tournament bubble, probably in the 8-to-11-seed range at this point. Obviously, they have plenty of time to play their way up, but for right now that’s a fairly deceiving 6-1 record to start the year.
Michigan State Spartans
Best win: vs. UNC, 63-45 (PK80 Invitational)
Worst loss: vs. Duke, 88-81 (Champions Classic)
The hype train boarded in East Lansing this summer when Miles Bridges announced he was returning for his sophomore season. And largely, it’s been moving at a pretty steady pace. Aside from the loss to Duke in Chicago, the Spartans have looked pretty impressive. And that’s not to say they didn’t look good at times during the Duke game, they just looked like a team playing its second game of the season.
Since then, however, MSU has looked pretty much the part of an NCAA Tournament 1-seed. We all know Bridges is the cream of the crop, but Nick Ward, Joshua Langford and Cassisus Winston have looked pretty phenomenal at times, too. Langford went off for 23 points in the PK80 Victory Bracket championship game against UNC, and the Spartans absolutely shut down Luke Maye (3-for-13 from the field) along the way.
The Spartans are a few short steps away from being a truly dominant team, and you can bank on Tom Izzo to mold his guys into exactly that by the end of the season. There will be some bumps along the way, but right now, the Spartans are right on the verge of getting an A+
Minnesota Golden Gophers
Best win: vs. Alabama, 89-84 (Barclays Center Classic)
Worst loss: none
Sure, the Golden Gophers are probably best known so far this season for beating Alabama in what turned out to be a bizarre 5-on-3 situation. But you should get to know this team much deeper than that. They quickly rose from the cellar of the Big Ten to be a No. 5 seed in last year’s NCAA Tournament, and have continued to improve, reaching a No. 12 AP Top 25 ranking ahead of Wednesday’s matchup with No. 10 Miami.
Not many bought into the hype around Richard Pitino’s team a year ago, but Jordan Murphy, Nate Mason, Amir Coffey and Reggie Lynch (combined 59.4 PPG and 29.5 RPG) surely fit the bill this season. The Gophers have established themselves as the second best team in the conference and will be out to solidify that on Wednesday.
Best win: vs. North Dakota, 92-70
Worst loss: @ St. John’s, 79-56
The good news for Nebraska head coach Tim Miles: expectations aren’t nearly as high with the Huskers’ basketball team as they are for the football program. Just ask Bo Pelini and Mike Riley.
The bad news: This is going to be a long season. A year after going 6-12 in the conference, the Cornhuskers might not see much of an improvement, if any. To say beating North Dakota is your best win through seven games doesn’t mean much, but Nebraska missed a couple opportunities for a good win against St. John’s (not a bad team to lose to, just a very ugly game) and UCF (a team that will be trying to play it’s way into the tournament by the end of the year). Nowhere to go but up for the Huskers, but following Wednesday’s Big Ten/ACC Challenge game against Boston College, they get four straight ranked teams. Ouch.
Best win: vs. LaSalle, 82-74 (Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament)
Worst loss: vs. Texas Tech, 85-49 (Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament)
The honeymoon phase of Northwestern’s first ever trip to the NCAA Tournament officially came to an end when the Wildcats got stomped by Texas Tech last week. Chris Collins’ squad got a lot of love over the summer and expectations were high heading into this season. Suffice to say, a 34-point loss to a less-than-spectacular Red Raider team does not meet those expectations.
Now, I certainly think the Wildcats are still in the top half of the Big Ten, but that does not mean a second NCCA Tournament berth will be handed to them. Northwestern has a good core in Scottie Lindsey, Bryant McIntosh and Vic Law that should be able to carry them this season, but there will be some tough sledding all year for the Wildcats.
Ohio State Buckeyes
Best win: vs. Stanford, 79-71 (PK80 Invitational)
Worst loss: vs. Gonzaga, 86-59 (PK80 Invitational)
Following the oddly timed firing of longtime coach Thad Matta this summer, I wasn’t sure how good the Buckeyes would be under new coach Chris Holtmann. Don’t think I expected a 5-2 record, that’s for sure. Granted, beating Stanford doesn’t jump off the page when it’s a team’s best win, but the Buckeyes really have looked like a pretty sound team so far.
Keita Bates-Diop (16.9 PPG, 10.3 RPG) is a menace in the post and Jae’Sean Tate can hold his own as a driving stretch forward. OSU really looked to be in good shape late in Sunday’s loss to Butler, leading by 15 points with four minutes to play, but completely fell apart. Would be remiss to say Butler doesn’t deserve the majority of the credit in its comeback, but to lose a lead like that says a lot about a team. It says they are close, but still a work in progress. Holtmann should turn that into a pretty good program, but based on their first seven games, the Buckeyes will probably have a pretty up-and-down season that sees a few high quality wins that could put them on the bubble, but also a few bad losses that will keep them on the outside.
Penn State Nittany Lions
Best win: vs. Pitt, 85-54 (Progressive Legends Classic)
Worst loss: vs. Texas A&M, 98-87 (Progressive Legends Classic)
Pat Chambers has a work in progress out in State College. Not sure where this team will end up at the end of the year, but one thing is for sure: a 31-point beatdown of an in-state foe is a good look. Sophomore guard Tony Carr is averaging 20 points per game and is one of five Nittany Lions averaging double figures.
And to say scoring 87 points in a loss to an ever-improving Texas A&M team isn’t good enough is just plain wrong. Giving up 98 to that team, however, isn’t too far off. Obviously the Lions have put up some points, but Chambers will need to shore up his defense if he wants to have an outside shot at being a team in the top half of the league come March.
Best win: vs. Arizona, 89-64 (Battle 4 Atlantis)
Worst loss: vs. Western Kentucky, 77-73 (Battle 4 Atlantis)
It has been a frustrating start to the season for Matt Painter’s team. A pair of excruciatingly close losses against Tennessee and Western Kentucky spoiled what was supposed to be a resume-building trip to paradise. Now, most people see the WKU loss and think, really? Western Kentucky. And those thoughts aren’t unjustified. But it’s not horrible — the Hilltoppers’ freshman class ranked No. 14 in the country before losing Mitchell Robinson. But when you’re expected to compete for a Big Ten title, that’s a pretty bad loss.
The Boilers still have a lot to be excited about, though. They have five players averaging double figures and the Edwards “brothers,” along with big man Isaac Haas are as experienced and talented as any trio of guys in the conference. Throw in P.J. Edwards and Dakota Matthias, and they should be a really good team. Granted, they don’t have a lot of developed depth behind the starters, but Purdue is still a top-four team in the Big Ten. But the Boilers haven’t impressed too much yet.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Best win: vs. ECU, 61-47
Worst loss: none
Since entering the Big Ten in 2012, Rutgers has essentially been the doormat of the Big Ten. Aside from a handful of wins and close losses last year, that rang true last season. While the Scarlet Knights are off to a 6-0 start this year, they are about to be in for a rude awakening. After a matchup with a good-not-great Florida State team this week, Rutgers opens Big Ten play with Minnesota and Michigan State.
“Congrats on a good start, here’s an 0-2 start to conference play.”
Rutgers doesn’t really have a player that can take over in a game, but giving up 47.1 points per game to start the season has to be encouraging to second-year coach Steve Pikiell, no matter how easy the schedule has been.
Best win: vs. Yale, 89-61
Worst loss: vs. Baylor, 70-65 (Hall of Fame Classic)
Wisconsin has had a brutal schedule to start its season. The Badgers’ four losses have all been against ranked opponents. Losing Bronson Koenig, Nigel Hayes and Zak Showalter is also pretty brutal. Ethan Happ is really the only remaining player left from a team that was one fluky finish away from a trip to the Elite Eight.
Happ, a national player of the year candidate, has held his own by averaging 18 points and nine rebounds per game, but he hasn’t had the support to get his team over the hump. The offense looked pitiful in Monday’s 49-37 loss at Virginia, which honestly is just a product of the Cavaliers’ defense. This should still be a tournament team, but thus far in the season, Wisconsin has missed on several opportunities for a resume-building win. The Badgers will have to bank on turning things around in a big way in conference play to have a chance at a high seed come March.
Check back soon for more conference report cards. Big East report cards
All images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.