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B1G Hoops Power Rankings: Feb. 24th, 2015

We rank the Big Ten's best basketball teams while examining Maryland's good fortune in close games, the return of Tom Crean Face, and Spike Albrecht showing he's more than his first-half performance vs. Louisville.

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14. Rutgers (10-18, 2-13 B1G)

Last Week: at Iowa (L, 47-81); Indiana (L, 54-84)

Since stunning the nation by upsetting Wisconsin, Rutgers has been the team I expected to see all season. Rutgers has dropped 11 straight games, lost back-to-back games by at least 30 points, and has the worst Big Ten efficiency margin at minus-19.3 points per 100 possessions. For context, the next worst Big Ten efficiency margin is held by Nebraska at minus-9.1 points per 100 possessions. That difference is more than 10 points per 100 possessions! Simply, Rutgers is the worst team in the Big Ten, and it's not even close. With games against Purdue, Maryland and Michigan left on the schedule, it's more likely than not that Rutgers finishes the regular season with a 14-game losing streak.


This Week: at Purdue (2/26)

13. Nebraska (13-14, 5-10 B1G)

Last Week: at Maryland (L, 65-69); Iowa (W, 74-46)

It's been a frustrating season for Nebraska -- a team many believed would return to the NCAA Tournament after making a surprise appearance last season -- but things are so bad right now that Tim Miles just channeled his inner Coach Carter. After the Huskers lost their fifth straight game and seventh in their last eight when Iowa whooped them by 28 points on their home floor, Miles announced that he was going to ban his players from their plush locker room and players lounge by putting chains on the doors. Miles' decision made headlines because it's such an unorthodox attempt to motivate his players, but let's be honest: preventing his players from changing in the locker room will not help the offense that's 297th out of 351 D-I teams in adjusted efficiency score more points.

This Week: at Ohio State (2/26)

12. Penn State (15-13, 3-12 B1G)

Last Week: Wisconsin (L, 47-55); at Northwestern (L, 39-60)

Disregard Penn State's poor conference record for a minute. Before Saturday, Penn State had been playing solid basketball and been competitive against even some of the Big Ten's better teams. In fact, seven of Penn State's first 10 Big Ten losses were decided by no more than six points or in overtime. Unlike Rutgers, this was not a team that was being blown out of the water on a consistent basis. This was a team that would have at least two more Big Ten wins if it had been the beneficiary of the same bounces and breaks that propelled it to a 12-1 non-conference record. PSU didn't look like a 3-11 team.

And then Saturday happened.

Yes, it was in Evanston, but Penn State was taken to the shed by Northwestern. The Wildcats packed in their zone defense, shaded D.J. Newbill, and prayed Penn State would be cold from the field. It worked because Penn State was colder than the reception How Tub Time Machine 2 earned at the movie theater last weekend:

Penn State Shot Chart at Northwestern

(via Shot Analytics)

Final result: 39 points in 57 possessions (0.681 PPP) and an eFG% of 34.5 percent.

For one of the few times this Big Ten season, Penn State looked like a 3-12 team.

This Week: Iowa (2/28)

11. Minnesota (16-12, 5-10 B1G)

Last Week: Northwestern (L, 66-72); at Wisconsin (L, 53-63)

All season, I have been perplexed by Minnesota's troubles in the Big Ten. After the Gophers opened with an 11-2 record, they have proceeded to win only one-third of their Big Ten games thus far. And it made little sense because Minnesota had maintained a KenPom rank in the top 60 despite the losses adding up. I just attributed it to bad luck.

But, after doing some digging, I realized this wasn't a one-time thing for Minnesota. The Gophers have a habit of feasting on non-conference foes before flailing in the Big Ten:

Minnesota's Regular-Season Record Since 2006-07
Season Non-Conference Record Big Ten Record
2007-08 10-2 8-10
2008-09 12-0 9-9
2009-10 9-3 9-9
2010-11 11-1 6-12
2011-12 12-1 6-12
2012-13 12-1 8-10
2013-14 11-2 8-10
2014-15 11-2 5-10
Total 88-12 (88.0%) 59-82 (41.8%)

I didn't have time to do a full analysis, so I'm unsure from where this habit stems. Nothing odd stood out when I peeked at Minnesota's non-conference strength of schedule and luck according to KenPom the past eight seasons, so I wonder if there is something specific about Minnesota's style or philosophy that doesn't translate well to the Big Ten season. And maybe that can be attributed to coaching. The first six years listed above were under the direction of Tubby Smith with the last two under Richard Pitino. Maybe Smith had a vision for Minnesota that didn't pan out and Pitino either has a similar vision or has been unable to implement the blueprint he has. I don't know.

All I do know, though, is that this is an eight-year habit Minnesota must break soon.

This Week: at Michigan State (2/26)

10. Northwestern (13-14, 4-10 B1G)

Last Week: at Minnesota (W, 72-66); Penn State (W, 60-39)

For a 46-day span from December to February, Northwestern won zero times.

In the past 10 days, Northwestern has won three times. Makes sense.

Northwestern has followed its 10-game losing streak with three straight wins against Iowa, Minnesota, and Penn State. Though Iowa is the best of these opponents, the win that impressed me the most was Northwestern's win at Minnesota. The Gophers have a pressure-oriented defense that thrives on rattling ball-handlers and generating steals, particularly when it has the rowdy crowd of The Barn behind it. I thought this would be a nightmare for Northwestern -- a team that is 11th in offensive turnover rate in Big Ten play and for years has had a reputation of being flustered when under intense defensive pressure. Yet Northwestern handled itself well and controlled the pace of the game. The Wildcats turned over the basketball only 10 times -- an accomplishment given that Minnesota's prior five opponents had averaged 18.6 turnovers per game -- and proceeded to score at a rate of 120 points per 100 possessions, which was Northwestern's best offensive efficiency against a Big Ten school in two seasons, thanks to 15 three-pointers.

It was a fun week for Northwestern. Let's see if the Wildcats can make it two in a row.

This Week: Indiana (2/25); at Illinois (2/28)

9. Michigan (14-13, 7-8 B1G)

Last Week: Michigan State (L, 67-80); Ohio State (W, 64-57)

Spike Albrecht continues to demonstrate that he's more than the diminutive, unheralded point guard that once scored 17 points in a half of a national championship game and tweeted at Kate Upton. These past few weeks have been difficult for Michigan with Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton Jr. sidelined and winnable games slipping through its fingers, but, if there's been one bright spot, it's been Albrecht. In his past six games, he's averaged 13.5 points with a 2P/3P/FT shooting split of 52/42/95, 4.8 assists, and 2.7 rebounds in 38.2 minutes. He's scored in a variety of ways whether it's been three-pointers from Ypsilanti, scooping one-handed layups over outstretched big men, or free throws -- he's shot as many from the line in his past seven games as he did all of last season. And, when freshman phenom D'Angelo Russell and rival Ohio State came to Ann Arbor on Sunday, Albrecht (16 points on 10 shots, 5 assists, 4 rebounds, 0 turnovers) was the best player on the floor, not Russell (16 points on 15 shots, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, 5 turnovers). It also didn't hurt that Albrecht had this Trey Burkian steal to seal the win:

Albrecht always will have his first half against Louisville. But he wants more than that.

This Week: at Maryland (2/28)

8. Illinois (17-10, 7-7 B1G)

Last Week: Michigan State (L, 53-60)

Illinois and Michigan are eighth and ninth in the Big Ten, respectively. This isn't good for either school because such a finish in the standings would mean one of them would face Wisconsin in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals. Given the parity among Big Ten teams between second and sixth, the other side of the bracket is much more appealing.

However, the Fighting Illini permitted a golden opportunity to make a push for that No. 7 seed to go to waste. They hosted Michigan State on Sunday evening in what was one of the uglier games I've watched thanks to the 46 total fouls that were called. But what made it even worse not only to watch on television but also for Illinois fans hoping their team would make a jump in the Big Ten standings was Illinois' wretched outside shooting. According to Shot Analytics, the Illini made 5-of-7 shots at the rim (71.4 pct.) but only 10-of-45 shots outside five feet (22.2 pct.). Here's what that shot chart looks like:

Illinois Shot Chart vs. Michigan State

(via Shot Analytics)

So. Much. Red.

Illinois cannot afford another shooting night like that when it heads to Iowa tomorrow. The Hawkeyes are one spot ahead of the Illini in the standings. If the Illini win, they'll be in a seventh-place tie with Iowa. However, if the Illini lose and Ohio State beats Nebraska, they'll be two games out seventh with three games remaining on the schedule.

Say hello to Wisconsin.

This Week: at Iowa (2/25); Northwestern (2/28)

7. Iowa (17-10, 8-6 B1G)

Last Week: Rutgers (W, 81-47); at Nebraska (W, 74-46)

Last week, I discussed how, given the past two seasons, Iowa should consider filing a motion with the NCAA to shorten the regular season so it ends before January 20th:

Iowa's Record (Before and After January 20th)
Season Record Before January 20th Record On and After January 20th
2013-14 15-3 5-10
2014-15 13-5 2-5

You know what helps prevent a collapse? Playing the Big Ten's two worst teams. Iowa demolished Rutgers at home by 34 points before beating down Nebraska in Lincoln to the point where Tim Miles has decided to ban his players from their locker room and lounge. But Iowa can't backslide this week with Illinois and Penn State on deck.

This Week: Illinois (2/25); at Penn State (2/28)

6. Indiana (19-9, 9-6 B1G)

Last Week: Purdue (L, 63-67); at Rutgers (W, 84-54)

"Tom Crean Face" was born when this happened at last season's Big Ten Tournament:

Tom Crean Face - BTT

It returned in full force last week when this ...

... and this ...

... were captured and published to social media.

Long Live Tom Crean Face!

This Week: at Northwestern (2/25)

5. Ohio State (19-8, 8-6 B1G)

Last Week: at Michigan (L, 57-64)

Has freshman phenom D'Angelo Russell hit a wall?

Russell look gassed. He looked exhausted. He looked like an 18-year-old kid (he turns 19 today) who had just spent the last four months carrying a team on his back.

Nobody can fault him for looking that way, though. Because, in reality, Russell has carried this Buckeyes team almost single-handedly throughout the first 27 games of the season.

He's having a first-team All-American type season for Ohio State averaging 19 points, 5.8 rebounds and 5.4 assists. He's shooting nearly 43 percent from behind the 3-point line and over 46 percent from the field.

But since posting just the fourth triple-double in Ohio State history on Feb. 8 in a win over Rutgers, he has gone just 14 for 41 from the field over the last three games. The Buckeyes are just 1-2.

It's an interesting question, and one Ohio State fans hope doesn't have an affirmative answer. Though he posted 16 points, five rebounds, and two assists against Michigan, it's clear that Russell had an off game. Whether that was due to him hitting a freshman wall or ailing from an apparent knee injury he suffered in the first half, I'm not sure. What I am sure of, though, is that, with Russell not sharp, Ohio State's half-court offense was a mess, particularly in the first 20 minutes. There was little rhythm in Ohio State's sets as only nine of the Buckeyes' 22 field goals were assisted, and, if they didn't pound the offensive glass hard in the second half, they never would have sniffed a comeback attempt after trailing Michigan by 20 points in the first half. Shannon Scott may have the highest assist rate in the Big Ten, but Russell is the only Buckeye that really makes that offense go. If he's indeed hit a freshman wall, Ohio State's offense will be in trouble.

This Week: Nebraska (2/26); Purdue (3/1)

4. Michigan State (19-8, 10-4 B1G)

Last Week: at Michigan (W, 80-67); at Illinois (W, 60-53)

Travis Trice is one of Michigan State's best three players, but he was its super sub last week. Coming off the bench on the road against both Michigan and Illinois, Trice averaged 20 points, 5.5 assists, and 3.5 rebounds per game. Though he did knock down four threes against Michigan, the best part of Trice's offensive arsenal last week was his aggressiveness and willingness to draw fouls in order to get to the free-throw line, which is not something Trice always has done. He took 18 trips to the charity stripe and converted 16 of them (88.9 pct.), which was essential for a Michigan State team that has struggled from the free-throw line all season. Trice must continue to expand his game and be more willing to penetrate into the paint -- whether he starts or is the sixth man.

Oh and it never hurts when Branden Dawson is out there playing volleyball:

This Week: Minnesota (2/26); at Wisconsin (3/1)

3. Purdue (18-9, 10-4 B1G)

Last Week: at Indiana (W, 67-63)

For weeks, A.J. Hammons has looked like the 7-foot center we expected to see night in and night out when he came to Purdue as a four-star recruit two seasons ago. As a freshman and a sophomore, Hammons would show flashes of his limitless potential, but he was inconsistent and -- even worse -- seemed lethargic. But he's been a more focused player this year, especially during the Big Ten season. In his last 10 games, of which Purdue has won eight, Hammons has averaged 13.1 points on 69.4-percent shooting, 7.4 rebounds, and 3.8 blocks, and, last week, he was named Big Ten Player of the Week for his 20-point, four-rebound, four-block performance against instate rival Indiana at Assembly Hall. Hammons' improvement on offense is evident given his high field-goal percentage, but what's been even better is his assignment defense. This season, Hammons has been more responsible protecting the rim, not always leaving the backside put-back open in an attempt to swat shots, which is why Purdue has the Big Ten's best two-point defense. Accordingly, Hammons has been an All-Big Ten player this season and the catalyst for Purdue's potential jump from last to second in the standings.

This Week: Rutgers (2/26); at Ohio State (3/1)

2. Maryland (22-5, 10-4 B1G)

Last Week: Nebraska (W, 69-65)

I received this comment from "bobterp" in my power rankings last week:

I disagree with you ... that this year's Maryland team is "overrated." They've been top of the Big 10 all season, when they were expected to be 10th due to all the new players. And, they stayed at the top through injuries and other setbacks. Like your Michigan team, they are young, and it's hard to predict how the rest of the season will go. They could just keep getting better, or hit some rough patches. Maryland is the only team (other than Rutgers) to be playing in these Big 10 venues for the first time, and they have the toughest road schedule of all other Big 10 teams, but, again, are still on top. Not my definition of overrated.

First off, thank you, bobterp, for your comment. I always enjoy feedback on my power rankings and wish more readers would do the same. Now, here's my response:

There's no question that Maryland's record warrants the rank and attention it has received this season. The Terrapins are 22-5 overall, are 10-4 in the Big Ten, and have a fantastic neutral-site win over Iowa State. You are right that Maryland has exceeded almost everyone's expectations this season as most had the Terrapins as a middling Big Ten team and not one in position to finish in second place. You are right that Maryland overcame an injury to Dez Wells without skipping a beat thanks to the emergence of Melo Trimble and vast improvement by Jake Layman. By these parameters, you are right to question my opinion that Maryland is overrated. Heck, I have Maryland at No. 2.

But the Terrapins still are overrated in the sense that their record and resume do not reflect the caliber of their team. Despite owning a 10-4 Big Ten record and having played the third-easiest Big Ten schedule per KenPom, Maryland has a negative efficiency margin at minus-0.5 points per 100 possessions. This is because Maryland continues to win close game after close game. In fact, the Terrapins are 7-0 in Big Ten games decided by six points or fewer, which is a big reason why they are second nationally in KenPom's Luck metric. This is unsustainable. Close wins do not project future close wins, and, most likely sooner rather than later, the favorable breaks, bounces, and calls Maryland has received in the final minutes of these games will turn against them. I'd feel better about Maryland's potential postseason success if most of these close wins were against top-tier Big Ten teams, but that hasn't been the case. Rather, they have been against Penn State twice and Northwestern and Nebraska at home. That isn't comforting in the slightest.

Maryland is a good team, not a great team. That may be enough to get by in a down Big Ten, but, once the NCAA Tournament begins, I have a feeling that the Terrapins could be a perfect candidate to be upset. That doesn't mean that Maryland hasn't had a great season. It just means that I'm wary of what the next month has in store for them.

This Week: Wisconsin (2/24); Michigan (2/28)

1. Wisconsin (25-2, 13-1 B1G)

Last Week: at Penn State (W, 55-47); Minnesota (W, 63-53)

With four games left, Wisconsin's magic number to win the Big Ten is one. Seriously. That's it. If the Badgers beat Maryland tonight, they will clinch at least a share of the Big Ten regular-season championship and be the first to do so with at least 12 days remaining in the regular season since Minnesota clinched it with two full weeks left in 1996-97.


This Week: at Maryland (2/24); Michigan State (3/1)