College Basketball Power Rankings: How the Big Ten could make March difficult

ByJeff Borzello ESPN logo
Monday, January 27, 2020

The Big Ten is likely to be the NCAA tournament selection committee's toughest task come Selection Sunday, not just in terms of how many teams to include -- right now, there probably are 12 teams that harbor legitimate hopes of making the dance -- but seeding at the top of the bracket too. Because of the unbalanced schedule, conference records in the Big Ten aren't all created equal, which makes it difficult to truly compare conference performances.

Here's a perfect example:

Penn State is just 4-4 in the Big Ten and has a nonconference strength of schedule nearing 300, but it has five Quadrant 1 wins and an 8-4 record against Quadrants 1 and 2. The Nittany Lions have wins over Maryland, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio State, Georgetown and Alabama.

Rutgers is 6-3 in the league and has the best metrics of the trio -- best NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) ranking, best SOS -- but the Scarlet Knights have just one win away from home and two Quadrant 1 wins. They do have the best nonconference win of the group, though, beating Seton Hall. They also beat Penn State.

And then there is Illinois. The Fighting Illini are tied atop the Big Ten at 7-2 and have road wins at Wisconsin, Purdue and Michigan -- plus home wins over the latter two. They also beat Rutgers. Illinois' nonconference resume is poor, though, with a nonconference SOS in the mid-200s and losses to Miami and Missouri.

So how to differentiate the three? That is a microcosm of having to sift through the Big Ten pecking order.

Another factor in the Big Ten's influence on Selection Sunday is the number of Quadrant 1 and quality wins available every night -- which is undoubtedly going to help bubble teams and potential seeding of teams from the league. Twelve Big Ten teams sit inside the top 50 of the NET as of Sunday, and 12 Big Ten teams sit inside the top 40 at KenPom and in the BPI. It limits bad losses and increases the chances to boost résumés.

Only two Big Ten teams made it into the top 16 of these rankings this week, but at least four other teams -- including Iowa, Penn State, Illinois and Rutgers -- would be included if we extended the rankings to 25. Wisconsin isn't too far behind, either.

There's a lot to play out over the next seven weeks, but one thing is for certain: The Big Ten won't be easy for the selection committee.

1. Baylor Bears (17-1)

Previous ranking: 1

This week: at Iowa State (Wednesday), vs. TCU (Saturday)

The ability of the Bears' supporting cast to consistently have someone step up as a third option behind Jared Butler and MaCio Teague has been impressive all season. Davion Mitchell has done it of late, scoring in double figures in five of his past six games and in seven of his past nine. Freddie Gillespie had a four-game stretch this month in which he tallied double-figure scoring, and he also registered two double-doubles. And against Florida, it was senior sixth man Devonte Bandoo who stepped up; he had 16 points and three 3-pointers, the second time in the past three games he had put 16 points on the board. Bandoo is a very good 3-point shooter who is capable of heating up in a hurry from the perimeter.

2. Gonzaga Bulldogs (21-1)

Previous ranking: 2

This week: at Santa Clara (Thursday), at San Francisco (Saturday)

Five of Gonzaga's next seven games are on the road, meaning that if the Bulldogs are going to suffer a loss in West Coast Conference play, it is likely to come during that stretch. In fact, between Saturday's win over Pacific and the Feb. 20 meeting against San Francisco, the Zags will only play one home game. Including in that seven-game run are road trips to Saint Mary's, BYU and San Francisco -- all potential trouble spots for the Bulldogs. One rotation note for Mark Few's team: Freshman Anton Watson is out for the season after missing the past three games. Instead of replacing Watson in the rotation, Few has essentially just gone with a seven-man group. In blowouts, freshman Martynas Arlauskas has seen minutes, but Few is going to roll with a seven-man rotation moving forward.

3. San Diego State Aztecs (21-0)

Previous ranking: 3

This week: at New Mexico (Wednesday), vs. Utah State (Saturday)

We thought Sunday's game against UNLV might be tougher than it looked on paper, and it lived up to that. San Diego State held off the Runnin' Rebels to run its record to 21-0 and set up perhaps its toughest remaining week of the regular season. There will be tougher individual games than at New Mexico and home vs. Utah State, but it isn't an easy two-game stretch. Fortunately for San Diego State, Paul Weir's Lobos have imploded over the past few weeks. They lost by 33 to Colorado State, 21 to UNLV and 22 to Nevada -- with a 27-point win over San Jose State mixed in. And Utah State hasn't won a true road game since Dec. 4 over San Jose State. Neemias Queta is back and seemingly healthy for the Aggies, though, and they've won three of four.

4. Kansas Jayhawks (16-3)

Previous ranking: 4

This week: at Oklahoma State (Monday), vs. Texas Tech (Saturday)

Kansas' résumé looks fairly bulletproof for the foreseeable future. The Jayhawks have the No. 1 strength of schedule, the No. 1 nonconference strength of schedule, the nation's most Quadrant 1 wins and the most combined Quadrant 1 and 2 wins in the country. All of it is likely to keep them in the mix for a 1-seed throughout the season, even with another couple of losses. Since a hip injury that kept him out of a win over Oklahoma, Devon Dotson has been on a tear offensively. Over his past three games, Dotson is averaging 20.3 points, 4.3 assists and 2.0 steals. His outside shot has disappeared for most of the past few weeks, but Dotson has been impossible to stop off the bounce and is getting to the free throw line at a high rate.

5. Florida State Seminoles (17-2)

Previous ranking: 5

This week: at Virginia (Tuesday), at Virginia Tech (Saturday)

This is going to be a telling week for Florida State. Even though these upcoming opponents aren't the two best teams in the league or even two NCAA tournament locks, road trips to Virginia and Virginia Tech are potential slipup spots for the Seminoles in their quest for an ACC regular-season title. They survived against the Cavaliers a couple of weeks back by four points in Tallahassee, but the Seminoles really struggled on the offensive end. They'll have to be more efficient to get a win in Charlottesville. Florida State enters this week on a 10-game winning streak, but the past three victories have come by a combined nine points. On Saturday against Notre Dame, Wyatt Wilkes came out of nowhere to post 19 points off the bench. Wilkes had totaled eight points in his previous 12 games combined.

6. Louisville Cardinals (17-3)

Previous ranking: 6

This week: at Boston College (Wednesday), at NC State (Saturday)

Could the emergence of two freshmen be just what Louisville needed over the second half of the season? David Johnson has been terrific over the past four games, averaging 12.0 points and 4.5 assists off the bench, providing playmaking that the Cardinals have been missing for stretches this season. But on Saturday, Chris Mack's team also got a boost from freshman Samuell Williamson. Williamson was a gifted scorer at the high school level, earning a five-star rating and McDonald's All American honors, but he has had trouble carving out a role so far this season at Louisville. Against Clemson, Williamson came off the bench to score 14 points -- his first game of double-figure scoring since Nov. 13 against Indiana State.

7. Seton Hall Pirates (15-4)

Previous ranking: 7

This week: vs. DePaul (Wednesday), vs. Xavier (Saturday)

We have talked about Romaro Gill in this section before, but his breakout senior campaign has just been astonishing. This is a player who spent two seasons at a junior college before joining the Pirates, but his recent six-game stretch was something nobody could have seen coming. He had six games of double-figure scoring during his two seasons at junior college and one such game in his first 47 contests at Seton Hall. And he has now scored in double figures in six straight games, averaging 14.3 points over that stretch. Gill also is continuing his dominance on the defensive end, blocking 26 shots during those six games -- including 14 in his past two outings.

8. Villanova Wildcats (16-3)

Previous ranking: 8

This week: at St. John's (Tuesday), vs. Creighton (Saturday)

Villanova freshman Jeremiah Robinson-Earl entered college as one of the more immediate-impact guys out of the high school ranks. After going for 24 points and 13 rebounds in his debut, though, Robinson-Earl's production had been sporadic for the first two months of the season. He has turned it up during the past six games. Robinson-Earl has notched two double-doubles in his past five games, scoring in double figures in all of them. He had 17 points and three rebounds in the win at Providence on Saturday, following up a 12-point, 14-rebound effort in the 15-point home win over Butler. Consistency inside from Robinson-Earl is key going forward.

9. Dayton Flyers (18-2)

Previous ranking: 10

This week: at Duquesne (Wednesday), vs. Fordham (Saturday)

It was supposed to be one of the hardest conference games of the season for Dayton, but Saturday's win over Richmond was pretty much on cruise control for the second half. The Flyers went on a 16-2 run toward the end of the first half to take the lead heading into the break, then piled on a 12-0 run early in the second half to essentially put the game out of reach. Dayton is just operating at an extremely high rate on the offensive end. The Flyers have scored at least one point per possession in every single game so far this season, with the least efficient outing coming in the two-point road victory at Saint Louis on Jan. 17. TheFlyers can score in different ways: They make shots, and they have an elite go-to-guy in Obi Toppin.

10. West Virginia Mountaineers (16-3)

Previous ranking: 12

This week: at Texas Tech (Wednesday), vs. Kansas State (Saturday)

It is hard to find somebody who embodies the West Virginia ethos more than Gabe Osabuohien. After transferring from Arkansas last season and becoming eligible this season, Osabuohien has embraced his role off the bench and excelled. He is among the Big 12 leaders in both offensive rebounding and defensive rebounding percentage as well as assist rate, while also ranking near the top of the charts in steal percentage. Osabuohien is not a big-time scorer, but he is effective if he finds himself with the ball around the basket. He is versatile. He is aggressive defensively and on the offensive glass. And he has a motor. Sounds like the perfect Bob Huggins player.

11. Duke Blue Devils (16-3)

Previous ranking: 11

This week: vs. Pittsburgh (Tuesday), at Syracuse (Saturday)

We had heard the offseason talk about Tre Jones becoming a better outside shooter, and it really is coming to the forefront in ACC play. Jones is shooting nearly 38% from 3-point range through eight ACC games, becoming a more complete and dangerous offensive threat. Following a sprained left foot injury that kept him out of two games in late December and two games in which he played 46 total minutes, Jones has returned to being one of the better guards in the country. In the past five games, Jones is averaging 16.8 points, 5.8 assists and 2.4 steals -- while turning it over just 12 times during that stretch -- and he also is 9-for-20 from 3-point range.

12. Oregon Ducks (17-4)

Previous ranking: 13

This week: at California (Thursday), at Stanford (Saturday)

Not many people across the country had a better week than Chris Duarte. The junior college transfer pumped in 30 points against USC in the Ducks' double-overtime win on Thursday, while also grabbing 11 rebounds and eight steals and making three 3-pointers. He followed that up with 24 points, six rebounds, five assists and 4-for-7 3-point shooting in a blowout win over UCLA on Sunday.Payton Pritchard's exploits -- especially late in games -- have made him a Wooden Award candidate, but Duarte has been the consistent second option all season. And interestingly enough, Duarte has more 30-point performances (2) than Pritchard (0) this season.

13. Michigan State Spartans (15-5)

Previous ranking: 9

This week: vs. Northwestern (Wednesday), at Wisconsin (Saturday)

Coming off two losses in three games, Tom Izzo made two changes to his starting lineup Sunday. He took out Aaron Henry, who had started all but two games dating back to early January of last season, and Marcus Bingham Jr., who had started the past 14 games. In came freshmen Rocket Watts and Malik Hall. The Spartans responded with an impressive 18-point road win at Minnesota. Watts provided some scoring pop on the perimeter, hitting two 3s and scoring in double figures for the third time in four games. Hall had seven points and grabbed six rebounds. Henry played 25 minutes off the bench and made plays at both ends of the floor. We'll see if Izzo sticks with the new lineup.

14. Kentucky Wildcats (15-4)

Previous ranking: 15

This week: vs. Vanderbilt (Wednesday), at Auburn (Saturday)

Kentucky didn't play anything close to a perfect game on Saturday against Texas Tech, but the Wildcats showed toughness to come out of Lubbock with a win -- something no nonconference opponent of the Red Raiders has done since 2013. And as it has been more often than not lately, it was the Immanuel Quickley (21 points) and Nick Richards (25 points, 14 rebounds, four blocks) show. The one concerning element from that matchup, however, was Kentucky's lack of discipline late in the game. All three guards -- Quickley, Ashton Hagans and Tyrese Maxey -- made questionable decisions down the stretch. It didn't end up costing the Wildcats a W, but it is something that has popped up before -- and did again -- against the Red Raiders.

15. Maryland Terrapins (16-4)

Previous ranking: 16

This week: vs. Iowa (Thursday)

Maryland entered last week without a road win on the season, and it now exits the week with two under its belt after victories at Northwestern and Indiana. The key? Making shots. It sounds simple, but the Terrapins were just woeful on the offensive end during their four road losses this season. They scored 0.83 points per possession and shot 27.3% from 3-point range in those defeats. In the triumphs against the Wildcats and Hoosiers, Maryland turned it around: The Terps scored 1.26 points per possession and shot 40.3% from 3. They weren't very good defensively in either game, but this team has plenty of offensive talent -- especially when Jalen Smith comes to play. He averaged 27.0 points and 11.0 rebounds in the two wins.

16. Butler Bulldogs (16-4)

Previous ranking: 14

This week: at Georgetown (Tuesday), vs. Providence (Saturday)

Butler snapped its three-game losing streak with an overtime win against Marquette on Friday -- and the Bulldogs needed all ofKamar Baldwin's heroics to take down the Golden Eagles. The senior guard scored 19 points in the final 7 minutes (the last 2 minutes of regulation and the five minutes of overtime) and also helped guard Markus Howard -- who only had eight points in the second half after scoring 18 in the first -- during that stretch. Howard and Myles Powell get most of the Big East headlines, and deservedly so, for their ability to light up the scoreboard, but Baldwin isn't too far behind. And he is capable of carrying Butler a long way.

Dropped out: NONE

In the waiting room

Iowa Hawkeyes: A critical week looms for the Hawkeyes, with three contests in seven days -- starting with a home game against Wisconsin, followed by a trip to Maryland on Thursday and then a game at home on Super Bowl Sunday against Illinois. Iowa enters the week on a four-game winning streak; how will its résumé look seven days from now?

Auburn Tigers: Bruce Pearl's team bounced back from its two losses with a 2-0 week, and Auburn still is within striking distance of the top of the SEC. The Tigers have an upcoming schedule that can make or break their title hopes. After a trip to Ole Miss on Tuesday, they face Kentucky, Arkansas, LSU and Alabama in an 11-day span.

Colorado Buffaloes: The Buffs take Arizona's spot in the waiting room after the Wildcats lost at Arizona State for their sixth loss in the past nine games. The Big Ten group of Penn State, Illinois and Rutgers is knocking at the door, however, as is SEC leader LSU. But Colorado quietly has a NET of 20, a top-20 ranking at KenPom, six wins away from home and a Quadrant 1 and 2 record of 7-3.

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