The opening weeks of the 2021-2022 college basketball season have already delivered in a major way. Three teams ranked in the preseason AP top five rankings have gone down, and fans in the stands are revitalizing the excitement surrounding the sport.
Early signs show the Big Ten might not be as talented from top to bottom as it has been in recent years, but the conference still claimed some big-time wins during Feast Week. Here’s the first edition of my weekly Big Ten power rankings. (stats updated through Nov. 28)
1. Purdue (6-0, 0-0)
Best win: 80-74 vs. No. 5 Villanova (neutral site)
Worst loss: N/A
Standout performer: Zach Edey (17.7 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 1.5 bpg)
Purdue has a case to be the No. 1 team in the country after defeating No. 5 Villanova and No. 18 North Carolina in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament. The 7-foot-4 Zach Edey has taken a sophomore step so large he’s now starting over preseason All-American candidate Trevion Williams.
Jaden Ivey has developed into a likely lottery pick in next year’s draft and will be in the conversation for the Big Ten’s best guard all season. Sasha Stefanovic is the perfect sharpshooter to complement Ivey and Purdue’s huge front court, and Caleb Furst is a versatile freshman who has made an immediate impact against talented opponents.
2. Wisconsin (5-1, 0-0)
Best win: 65-63 vs. No. 12 Houston (neutral site)
Worst loss: 63-58 vs. Providence
Standout performer: Johnny Davis (20.2 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 2.0 spg)
After a close loss at home to Providence (6-1), the Badgers won the Maui Invitational after defeating Texas A&M, No. 12 Houston and Saint Mary’s. Wisconsin lost a lot of production and senior leadership from last year’s squad – D’mitrik Trice, Aleem Ford, Nate Reuvers and Micah Potter are all gone – but Johnny Davis and Brad Davison are a steady backcourt duo that can win games in the Big Ten.
The biggest strength thus far, though, has been Wisconsin’s team defense. The Badgers haven’t allowed more than 63 points in a game this season and have held opponents below 60 four times. In order for Wisconsin to stay in the upper echelon of the Big Ten, a scorer besides Davis and Davison will need to step up on a consistent basis.
3. Michigan State (5-2, 0-0)
Best win: 64-60 vs. No. 22 UConn (neutral site)
Worst loss: 75-58 vs. No. 6 Baylor (neutral site)
Standout performer: Gabe Brown (13.4 ppg, 4.4 rpg)
Not many teams in the country have played the amount of high-caliber opponents as Michigan State. The Spartans opened the season against No. 3 Kansas and lost by 13 points at Madison Square Garden. But they bounced back by dominating Butler in the Gavitt Games and picking up two resume-boosting wins against Loyola-Chicago and No. 22 UConn in the Battle 4 Atlantis.
Head coach Tom Izzo and the Spartans trailed by two points at halftime against the defending national champion Baylor Bears only to lose by 17, but this looks like one of the more balanced Michigan State squads in recent years. Marcus Bingham Jr. (10.9 ppg, 7.1 rpg. 3.1 bpg) and Malik Hall (9.0 ppg, 4.9 rpg) have made obvious improvements with McDonald’s All-American Max Christie stepping in as a scoring threat to complement Gabe Brown.
4. Indiana (6-0, 0-0)
Best win: 76-74 vs. Saint John’s
Worst loss: N/A
Standout performer: Trayce Jackson-Davis (20.5 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 3.8 bpg)
First-year head coach Mike Woodson has the Hoosiers playing a more up-tempo and exciting brand of basketball through six games. Transfers Parker Stewart and Miller Kopp give Indiana capable shooters on the wing that it hasn’t had in a number of years.
Depth also appears to be a major improvement for Indiana with freshman Tamar Bates as a constant threat to score off the bench. Jordan Geronimo and Khristian Lander look much improved from a year ago, and 7-footer Michael Durr adds necessary size in the physical Big Ten. After a solid win over Saint John’s at Assembly Hall, Indiana’s biggest non-conference test awaits on Nov. 30 at Syracuse in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge.
5. Ohio State (4-2, 0-0)
Best win: 79-76 vs. No. 21 Seton Hall (neutral site)
Worst loss: 71-65 at Xavier
Standout performer: E.J. Lidell (22.5 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 3.8 bpg)
The Buckeyes lost in the championship game of the Fort Myers Tip-Off to No. 23 Florida on a buzzer beater in a game they probably should have won. Losing Duane Washington from last year’s team leaves a scoring hole in the backcourt, but E.J. Lidell looks like one of the Big Ten’s best players early on.
Ohio State struggled with Akron in a one-point win to start the year, but Lidell, Kyle Young (9.6 ppg, 6.4 rpg) and Zed Key (9.3 ppg, 5.0 rpg) form a tough frontline that will be hard to score on. Meechie Johnson Jr. hit the game winner against Seton Hall and will need to fill in that instant-offense role that Ohio State is missing in the backcourt.
6. Michigan (4-2, 0-0)
Best win: 74-61 at UNLV
Worst loss: 80-62 vs. Arizona
Standout performer: Eli Brooks (15.7 ppg, 42.9% 3-pt FG, 1.2 spg)
Michigan hasn’t done anything on the court in 2021 to deserve this ranking – it’s purely based on the third best recruiting class in the nation, head coach Juwan Howard and the return of Hunter Dickinson and Eli Brooks. The Wolverines fell to Seton Hall on their home floor, got manhandled by Arizona and won unconvincingly against Tarleton State (1-5).
Michigan seems to have a bit of an identity crisis after losing Mike Smith, Franz Wagner and Isaiah Livers. But there’s no shortage of talent on this roster – Dickinson is a Big Ten Player of the Year candidate and Caleb Houstan and Moussa Diabate are long and lengthy freshmen that can immediately impact games.
7. Illinois (4-2, 0-0)
Best win: 72-64 vs. Kansas State (neutral site)
Worst loss: 71-51 vs. Cincinnati, (neutral site)
Standout performer: Kofi Cockburn (26.3 ppg, 71.4% FG, 10.0 rpg)
Some said Illinois could be better this season than the Illini squad that claimed a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament last year, but they must have forgotten that its best player Ayo Dosumnu is no longer in Champaign. Andre Curbelo complemented Dosunmu well last year, but has had some growing pains in a more prominent role in 2021, turning the ball over four times per game.
Illinois crumbled in the final minutes at Marquette in the Gavitt Games and was dominated by Cincinnati in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off. Utah transfer Alfonso Plummer scored 30 points on Friday, but the Illini struggled to beat UT-Rio Grande Valley at home. Life without Dosunmu isn’t going as well as most thought.
8. Iowa (6-0, 0-0)
Best win: University of Missouri-Kansas City (?)
Worst loss: N/A
Standout performer: Keegan Murray (25.7 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 2.5 rpg)
Iowa hasn’t played anyone in the top 200 of KenPom’s rankings and has three opponents higher than No. 300. With that said, the Hawkeyes have easily taken care of business in each game – winning by 20 or more each game.
Keegan Murray looks ready to take over as Iowa’s go-to option and models the type of wing player becoming increasingly valuable in the NBA. Jordan Bohannon is back yet again and is averaging 10 points on 39.5 percent shooting from beyond the arc. Iowa lost Luka Garza, Joe Wieskamp and C.J. Frederick from last year’s squad, so we’ll learn soon just how good this Iowa team is.
9. Maryland (5-2, 0-0)
Best win: 86-80 vs. Richmond (neutral site)
Worst loss: 71-66 vs. George Mason
Standout performer: Eric Ayala (15.1 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 2.6 apg)
Maryland was as successful as any Big Ten team working the transfer portal this offseason, adding Fatts Russell (12.9 ppg, 3.6 apg) and Qudus Wahab (10.7 ppg, 7.1 rpg). The Terrapins can score in a variety of ways, with four players averaging more than 10 points per game, but the loss to George Mason and other narrow wins are concerning.
Maryland hung tough with Louisville in the Bahamas Championship, getting 14 points and six rebounds from Donta Scott, but ultimately fell by eight points. Mark Turgeon has a talented starting five, but his bench players are largely inexperienced. It could take some time for this team to gel together.
10. Minnesota (5-0, 0-0)
Best win: 73-69 vs. Western Kentucky
Worst loss: N/A
Standout performer: Jamison Battle (17.8 ppg, 6.2 rpg)
Minnesota hasn’t played a Power Five opponent yet, but is one of four Big Ten teams that is still undefeated. The Golden Gophers fired Richard Pitino after last season, and with that came a huge exodus of talent. Marcus Carr transferred to Texas, Liam Robbins transferred to Vanderbilt and Jamal Mashburn Jr. followed Pitino to New Mexico, to name a few.
But so far, it seems first-year head coach Ben Johnson has brought in a nice crop of talent. George Washington transfer Jamison Battle is averaging 18.9 points, and Payton Willis transferred back to Minnesota after a year at College of Charleston and is averaging 16.6 points on 44.4 percent shooting from 3.
11. Northwestern (5-1, 0-0)
Best win: 78-62 vs. Georgia (neutral site)
Worst loss: 77-72 vs. Providence (neutral site)
Standout performer: Pete Nance (17.7 ppg, 47.1% 3-pt FG, 8.0 rpg)
Northwestern returns four of five starters from last year’s squad and is off to a solid start. Pete Nance and Boo Buie are averaging over 17 points per game apiece and powered Northwestern to a 20-point halftime lead over Georgia.
This also appears to be one of Northwestern’s deeper teams in recent years, with Ryan Young scoring 13 points per game off the bench and Ryan Greer shooting 50 percent from 3-point land. This could be a make-or-break season for Chris Collins.
12. Penn State (4-2, 0-0)
Best win: 60-45 vs. Oregon State (neutral site)
Worst loss: 81-56 at UMass
Standout performer: Sam Sessoms (15.3 ppg, 47.1% 3-pt FG, 5.2 rpg, 3.7 apg)
Head coach Micah Shrewsberry is dealing with a lot of roster turnover in his first season. But Sam Sessoms (15.3 ppg) and Seth Lundy (15.3) are two returners with plenty of experience and scoring ability.
The question, though, is who can contribute past that duo. John Harrar is back for his senior year and is nearly averaging a double double with 9.7 points and 10.7 rebounds, but past him lie a lot of questions regarding consistent production. It’s definitely a rebuilding year in Happy Valley.
13. Nebraska (5-2, 0-0)
Best win: 74-65 vs. Sam Houston
Worst loss: 75-74 vs. Western Illinois
Standout performer: Bryce McGowens (17.7 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 2.3 apg)
Fred Hoiberg brought in Bryce McGowens this offseason, making him Nebraska’s top recruit of all time. And so far, McGowens has lived up to the hype by averaging 17.7 points per game. The 6-foot-7 freshman is tough in the lane, but has struggled to shoot from beyond the arc with a 25.8 3-point percentage.
Nebraska lost by eight points to Creighton in one of its stronger games of the season, and has followed that up with four wins – albeit to opponents all ranked 200 or higher, according to KenPom. This could be Hoiberg’s most talented team.
14. Rutgers (3-3, 0-0)
Best win: 48-35 vs. Merrimack
Worst loss: 53-51 vs. Lafayette
Standout performer: Ron Harper Jr. (15.0 ppg, 9.0 rpg)
Rutgers has lost three straight games to DePaul, Lafayette and UMass. The Scarlet Knights made the tournament for the first time since 1991 and returned the majority of their contributors, but are 3-3 this year with no games against Power Five schools.
Ron Harper Jr. and Geo Baker have been All-Big Ten candidates throughout their careers and could turn things around, but something has to change fast. Rutgers is shooting 40.6 percent from the field and 24.1 percent from 3-point land.