The Big Ten has been perhaps the most perplexing conference in college basketball this season – just when a team proves itself with a big win, it’ll lose by 30 in the next game at home. Currently, 10 of 14 Big Ten teams either have two or three conference losses – only Maryland and Wisconsin have been able to escape the first few games with only one loss, while Ohio State and Rutgers lie at the bottom of the pack.

As we turn a corner into the true competitive part of the NCAA basketball season, it’s time to look at who is for real and who is pretending in the Big Ten.

Contenders

Wisconsin. Let’s just get this out of the way right now. Despite a loss at Purdue, it seems as though, at least at the moment, the Badgers are the team to beat in the Big Ten. Sure, they have early season losses to North Carolina (in Hawaii) and Creighton (at Creighton). But the Badgers are yet to lose a game at home this season, and have shone in recent games. The “Big Three” of Happ, Hayes and Koenig is forming a rhythm unmatched with previous Wisconsin teams, and as a product, the offense is producing far more than it usually does. The Badgers, known for defense, are currently a top-10 team in the country in that aspect, allowing only 60.2 points per game. Purdue might be the only team in the Big Ten the Badgers don’t match up well against (hello, Caleb Swanigan), and they don’t have to face the Boilermakers again. Look for a few more losses here and there, but mostly wins, on the way to a regular season conference title.

Games to Watch: 1/21 @ Minnesota, 2/5 vs. Indiana, 2/26 @ Michigan State

Purdue. Despite some truly confounding Big Ten losses thus far, it’s clear that Purdue, along with Wisconsin, is just a touch above the rest of the Big Ten this year. That’s largely thanks to star center Caleb Swanigan, who’s averaging a ludicrous 18.2 PPG and 12.6 RPG. The Boilermakers, like the Badgers, lost two non-conference games to formidable opponents (Villanova and Louisville), but recently took the L against Minnesota at home and Iowa on the road. If they can keep their centers (Swanigan along with Isaac Haas) out of foul trouble, they should be favored in most matchups. So long as their key players remain healthy, expect a top-three finish in the Big Ten for Purdue.

Games to Watch: 1/24 @ Michigan State, 2/9 @ Indiana, 3/5 @ Northwestern

Michigan State. Many pundits were counting the Spartans out after a really disappointing non-conference schedule, which featured losses against Arizona, Kentucky, Baylor, Duke and…Northeastern. The Spartans also have conference losses at home against Ohio State (yikes) and at Penn State (double yikes). So, yes, this team sure does have some problems. But boy, do they seem poised for a late season turnaround. Led by oft-injured freshman Miles Bridges (15.3 PPG, 8.1 RPG in 12 games), the Spartans are still figuring out their identity as a team. However, they’re 4-2 in conference, good for 3rd (tied), with key wins both at home and on the road against Minnesota. They’ve got dangerously good freshman in Bridges and Nick Ward to go along with experienced seniors like Eron Harris. In short, the Spartans aren’t there yet, but with Izzo and talent, they should be watched for a late season turnaround. A deep conference tournament run wouldn’t be stunning.

Games to Watch: 1/21 @ Indiana, 1/24 vs. Purdue, 1/29 vs. Michigan

Northwestern. Yeah, you read that right. This is the year that the Northwestern Wildcats finally – finally! – make March Madness. Sitting at 15-4, they’re already approaching some of their best win totals in program history. And while they may not dazzle, this is the season to be semi-mediocre in the Big Ten and still make the tournament. Their only non-conference losses were by two to Butler in Indianapolis and by four to an ACC-leading Notre Dame. Finally, with the trio of Scottie Lindsey, Vic Law and Bryant MacIntosh leading the charge, they’ve got reliable, consistent players. What the Wildcats need now is to prove they’re the real deal, and that will come by picking up big wins in the Big Ten. Some big games loom.

Games to Watch: 1/29 vs. Indiana, 2/1 @ Purdue, 2/12 @ Wisconsin

Pretenders

Minnesota. Despite what looks nice in a 15-4 record, Minnesota has one quality win, somehow a 91-82 question mark at Purdue. Otherwise, after being ranked at No. 24 for just a week, they’ve lost two in a row at Michigan State and Penn State, failing to score more than 50 either time. The Golden Gophers were blessed with an incredibly easy non-conference schedule which featured just three Power Five teams (Arkansas, Florida State, Vanderbilt), and the Gophers lost the only test of the three at Florida State. Their leading scorer, Nate Mason, isn’t shooting even 40% from the field, and none of their top four scorers shoot more than 46%. Unless Minnesota can build a resume, a bland, .500 finish in the Big Ten seems to be in their future.

Games to Watch: 1/21 vs. Wisconsin, 1/28 vs. Maryland, 2/15 vs. Indiana

Maryland. Despite leading the Big Ten at 4-1 and having the best overall record of any team in the Big Ten (16-2), similar to Minnesota, Maryland has zero quality wins to their name. Their 12-1 non-conference record featured a drenching by Pitt (currently 12th in the ACC), one-point wins over mediocre Kansas State and Oklahoma State teams, and zero ranked teams. Maryland’s 4-1 in the Big Ten is comprised of four wins against three of the bottom five teams and a home loss to 9-8 Nebraska. Melo Trimble, who’s averaging 17.2 PPG and was named to the Wooden Midseason Top 25, is absolutely a bright spot, but with the departure of key pieces from last year, he doesn’t have much support. Again, until the Terps can build up some key conference wins, it’s hard to see them finishing far above .500.

Games to Watch: 1/28 @ Minnesota, 2/4 vs. Purdue, 2/19 @ Wisconsin

Indiana. Perhaps the most confusing team in the Big Ten, Indiana owns arguably the two best non-conference wins of any Big Ten team this season – against Kansas and North Carolina, two teams that could seriously contend for the NCAA Championship. Outside of those two wins, the team has been downright awful. They lost 71-68 at IPFW (?) and are 2-3 in conference, with wins against only Illinois and Rutgers (combined conference record of 2-9). You’d think that a team with talent like James Blackmon Jr. (17.5 PPG, 5.1 RPG), Thomas Bryant (11.6 PPG, 6.9 RPG) and OG Anunoby (11.4 PPG, 5.6 RPG) might be able to figure things out, but they now have four losses in their last six games, including at Maryland and at home against Nebraska. Tom Crean has a lot of work to do with this team, and with the two impressive wins and a slightly-above-.500 Big Ten record they could very well make the tournament. But something is clearly off.

Games to watch: 1/21 vs. Michigan State, 2/5 @ Wisconsin, 2/9 vs. Purdue

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