Hickey: Big Ten basketball midseason report card
We have reached the exact midpoint of one of the strangest Big Ten basketball seasons in memory.
Strange because there isn’t really a race for the title — Purdue is threatening to lap the field. The No. 1 Boilermakers are only joined by No. 21 Indiana in the AP Top 25, which marks another oddity.
Based on only having 2 ranked teams, it’s easy to ascribe this as a down year for the B1G. But the Big Ten is just middle-heavy. Most of the conference falls somewhere between 26th-40th nationally. There are 12 teams still capable of putting together worthy resumes for an NCAA Tournament berth, which would be a conference record.
Attrition is likely to whittle that number down, but it’s hard to think of a season with more parity from teams 2 through 12. The home stretch won’t be interesting because of the race to the top, but for the race to avoid the NCAA Tournament bubble.
Here are our Saturday Tradition superlatives for the first half of the Big Ten basketball season.
Best team: Purdue
No debate here. The Boilermakers are off to the best start in school history, and their lone loss is by a single point. This is threatening to become one of the all-time great seasons in Big Ten basketball history.
Worst team: Minnesota
Also no debate here, though the Gophers are clearly improving in Ben Johnson’s 2nd season even if they still aren’t very good.
Minnesota has an overtime loss to Nebraska, a 3-point loss to Wisconsin, and 4-point losses to Michigan and Indiana. They play hard, especially on defense. But this team is abysmal on offense, ranking 305th nationally in 3-point shooting and 363rd in free-throw shooting.
Biggest surprise: Northwestern
The most generous among us would have ranked the Wildcats 11th in the Big Ten preseason poll. Maybe some starry-eyed optimist put Northwestern 10th. But you can’t find the Cats anywhere near the bottom of the league standings.
They are, incredibly, alone in 2nd place. After losing last year’s best 2 players in the transfer portal. Northwestern is looking like an NCAA Tournament team for just the 2nd time in program history.
Biggest disappointment: Ohio State
The Buckeyes have the talent to be 7-3 in the B1G right now. Instead, they’re 3-7.
After taking Purdue down to the wire in a 71-69 loss, Ohio State looked like the B1G’s No. 2 team. Instead, that began a slide of 7 losses in 8 games.
The Buckeyes have the league’s best freshman in Brice Sensabaugh. But Chris Holtmann has to find a way to get his team out of this funk.
Best conference win: Rutgers over Purdue, 65-64, on Jan. 2
Steve Pikiell’s team is always tough to beat at Jersey Mike’s Arena. But fresh subs don’t always travel well.
This year, the Scarlet Knights are formidable both home and away. (Provided they aren’t playing Iowa.) Beating the Boilermakers at Mackey is the most impressive win of Pikiell’s impressive Rutgers tenure. And Rutgers fans have reason to believe more impressive wins could be on the horizon in March.
Worst conference loss: Minnesota over Ohio State, 70-67, on Jan. 12
It’s one thing to lose at The Barn, which is one of college basketball’s unique venues. But that’s not what happened here. Ohio State lost to Minnesota at home. And it remains the only Big Ten game the Golden Gophers have won to this point.
And though the score looks close, it really wasn’t. The only time Ohio State led was when it was 2-0. Just an inexcusable performance. If the Buckeyes don’t hear their name on Selection Sunday, they won’t have to wonder which loss got them in that position.
Coach of the Half-Year: Chris Collins, Northwestern
You can’t go wrong with Matt Painter, who has done a masterful job replacing Purdue’s highest draft pick in nearly 30 years. But I’m picking Chris Collins, because I owe him one.
This summer I deemed Collins to have the Big Ten’s hottest seat in either football or basketball (non-Scott Frost edition) and even wondered why he hadn’t been fired after last season.
This is why.
Despite losing Pete Nance to North Carolina and Ryan Young to Duke, the Wildcats are off to their best start since their lone NCAA Tourney appearance in 2017. Northwestern is 22nd nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency and 7th in defensive 2-point shooting percentage.
Midseason B1G Starting 5 (and 6th man)
Picking an all-conference team is basic. Picking an all-conference starting 5? That’s the advanced analysis you come to Saturday Tradition for.
This is the team I would build as general manager. Coached, of course, by Chris Collins.
Penn State PG Jalen Pickett: If Pickett wasn’t stuck in the same conference as Zach Edey and Trayce Jackson-Davis, he’d have some momentum as a conference player of the year candidate. Or maybe even a national player of the year candidate. This might also be true if his uniform bore the name of any Big Ten team other than Penn State. There are likely people on campus who don’t know the Bryce Jordan Center holds events other than graduation.
Pickett is 4th nationally with 7 assists per game and 7th with a 3.1 assist-to-turnover ratio. He’s averaging 17.6 points per game and shooting 51%, which is impressive for a guard in this era.
Illinois SG Terrence Shannon Jr.: Shannon moves all over the court for the Illini. He’s a wing when RJ Melendez is on the floor. He’s the point guard when Jayden Epps is getting a breather. When Matthew Mayer and Coleman Hawkins are in, Shannon is more a traditional shooting guard.
And since I want him on the team, we’re calling him a shooting guard. Shannon has been the most integral piece to Illinois bouncing back from an 0-3 start in B1G play. And if the Illini are to make the 2nd weekend of the Tournament for the first time since 2005, he’ll be the reason.
Northwestern SF Chase Audige: Audige might have a heck of a time making a positionless all-conference team. Like Pickett, he plays for a program that doesn’t demand outside attention. But he is the best true wing in the Big Ten right now.
In conference play, Audige ranks 9th with 16.2 points per game and is 5th in free-throw shooting (84.8%). Audige is also a key component to Northwestern’s defensive prowess, leading the B1G with 2.1 steals per game.
Indiana PF* Trayce Jackson-Davis: I’m breaking my own rule, because you can do that when you’re the person who makes the rules. Jackson-Davis is a center. But this is my team, so we’re calling him a power forward. Kind of like how the San Antonio Spurs called Tim Duncan a power forward when they put him on the floor with David Robinson.
Jackson-Davis is the 2nd-best player in the Big Ten, and possibly the entire country, at the moment. He’s averaging 25.4 points and 13.4 rebounds per game during Indiana’s current 5-game winning streak.
Purdue C Zach Edey: You can make people believe Jackson-Davis is a power forward when you start a 7-4 center, as we are on the Midseason Big Ten Starting 5.
Edey leads the Big Ten in scoring (22.1 ppg), rebounding (13 rpg) and field goal percentage (61.2%). He’s a runaway favorite to capture the Wooden Award as national player of the year, which would make him the first Boilermaker to do so since Glenn Robinson in 1994.
6th man — Iowa PF Kris Murray: As the Big Ten’s best actual power forward, we need to make room for Murray on the team. And on this imaginary team, he’d be a perfect sub for either Audige or Jackson-Davis. Or if Edey comes out and you want to move Jackson-Davis to the middle.
At any rate, Murray is 2nd in the B1G in scoring (20.8 ppg) and 4th in rebounding (8.6 rpg) while also ranking 4th with 2.3 made 3-pointers per game. It’s not a valid all-B1G team if he isn’t on it in some form.