The No. 15 Boilers, the No. 16 Hoosiers and No. 14 Wisconsin are playing the best of any conference team, but don’t be surprised if the Badgers finish behind these in-state rivals in a race that figures to be dominated by parity.
Conference play begins Tuesday night with four games. On Wednesday night, Indiana hosts Nebraska and Purdue hosts Iowa.
IU (10-2) and Purdue (11-2) are loaded for championship runs. They have experience, talent, good shooting (they are the conference’s top three-point shooting teams) and toughness. They have quality wins and losses, and coaches who know how to win championships.
Wisconsin, 11-2 under second-year coach Greg Gard, can’t say that last part.
When was the last time Purdue and Indiana finished as the top two Big Ten teams?
That was in 1987, when they shared the title with 15-3 records. IU went on to win its fifth and final national championship that season.
It’s happened five other times — 1983, 1940, 1936, 1928 and 1926. They shared titles in 1936, ’28 and ’26. In 1940, Purdue won with a 10-2 record. IU was second at 9-3. In 1983, the Hoosiers won with a 13-5 record. The Boilers were behind them at 11-7.
Let’s start with Purdue, which last won a Big Ten championship in 2010, the year after winning its only conference tourney title, all under coach Matt Painter.
The Boilers have the early Big Ten MVP favorite in sophomore forward Caleb Swanigan, who has taken ownership of the conference’s weekly honors. The former Homestead standout has won the last two, and three this season. The school record for most Big Ten weekly awards in a season goes to Glenn Robinson, with five. The conference record is seven by Ohio State’s Evan Turner.
Swanigan also just won national player of the week honors after averaging 26.5 points and 20.5 rebounds in wins over Western Illinois and Norfolk State. For the season he averages 18.3 points, 12.5 rebounds and 3.0 assists. His 10 double doubles lead the nation.
Purdue also has plenty of firepower with Vince Edwards, Isaac Haas, Carsen Edwards, Dakota Mathias and P.J. Thompson (the conference assist-to-turnover ratio leader).
IU is the defending Big Ten champ, and has won two titles in the last four years under coach Tom Crean. It has its own Fort Wayne-area standout in James Blackmon, the former Bishop Luers player who leads the team in scoring (a career-high 18.5 points) and three-point shooting (45.7 percent). The Hoosiers also have game changers in Thomas Bryant, Robert Johnson, OG Anunoby and Juwan Morgan.
They lead the league in scoring (88.8 points) and rebounding margin (14.7), and have the Big Ten’s most impressive victories against Kansas and North Carolina. Despite that, and based on kenpom.com ratings, they also had the conference’s easiest non-conference schedule at 348 out of 351 teams. Rutgers was next at 347.
Wisconsin was the preseason favorite after returning all five starters from a Sweet 16 squad, and has three of the Big Ten’s best players in Nigel Hayes, Ethan Happ and Bronson Koenig. It has lost to two top-10 teams — Creighton and North Carolina — and has won seven straight with the conference’s stingiest defense (59.3 points allowed).
It has a brutal Big Ten opening, with trips to IU and Purdue after starting with Rutgers.
Maryland has one of the Big Ten’s best players in guard Melo Trimble and is tied with Minnesota for the best conference record at 12-1. The Terrapins don’t have any wins over a ranked team, but have beaten Georgetown, Kansas State and Oklahoma State. They’ve won five straight since a home loss to Pitt.
Ohio State (10-3) has six players scoring in double figures, Northwestern (11-2) is pushing hard for its first NCAA tourney berth, and lost to Butler and Notre Dame by a combined six points. Michigan (10-3) has cruised under the radar with Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton Jr. Illinois (10-3) has a six-game winning streak and one of the conference’s top players in Malcolm Hill, who is among the league leaders in scoring and rebounding.
Iowa (8-5) and Minnesota (12-1) begin league play with five-game winning streaks, but Iowa is one of the nation’s youngest teams, so is probably a year away, and Minnesota has zero impressive victories.
Michigan State (8-5) is always a Big Ten force, but youth, a series of injuries and a ridiculously brutal early schedule (Arizona, Kentucky, Duke and Baylor) have the Spartans in postseason trouble, especially after a surprising home loss to lowly Northeastern.
Still, count out a coach Tom Izzo team at your own risk.
Penn State (8-5) and Nebraska (6-6) figure to challenge Rutgers (11-2) for the Big Ten basement.
What does it all mean?
“I think we have some good balance,” Painter said. “Some teams have improved. A team like Illinois has gotten healthy. That helps. Minnesota is a year older. Northwestern has improved and is more experienced.
“Having teams with guys who have been together for a couple of years definitely helps.
“Once you get into February and get to the halfway point, that’s when it comes out.”