The Journal Gazette
Sunday, January 02, 2022 1:00 am

Big Ten Preview

No. 3 Boilermakers emerge as league's true super team

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

The Big Ten has spent most of the last several seasons widely regarded as the top basketball conference in the country. Last season was one of the league's best, culminating in it earning half of the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in the NCAA Tournament.

Then came the tournament, played entirely in Indianapolis, the heart of Big Ten country, and the conference fell flat. Several of high-ranked teams lost early, and the Big Ten failed to earn any spots in the Final Four, let alone the conference's first national championship since Michigan State's title in 2000.

A year later, the league does not appear to be as top-to-bottom strong as it was in 2020-21. As Big Ten play gets set to begin in earnest today – all of the league's 14 teams played two conference games in early December before returning to nonconference play – it appears Purdue is the league's one great team, and it's followed by a handful of good teams and a relatively weak bottom half of the league, at least compared with previous years.

Even the Boilermakers, who enter the bulk of the conference slate 12-1 and ranked No. 3, have looked out of sorts at times defensively and are coming off a surprisingly close 104-90 win over Nicholls State on Wednesday.

“You're never ready (for conference play), obviously we just gave up 90 points,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “But I think you can grab a silver lining with that. Sometimes you dominate a team and you win by 50 points and you shut them out and you think you've arrived and it's kind of fool's gold. Now, it shows that we need some work on the defensive end. We need to give more attention to detail and stick to our rules.

“We've had a great nonconference, going undefeated (in nonconference play), done a really good job there, but you're still trying to make that quest and have the improvement to be a better team.”

Indiana, Purdue's in-state rival to the south, enters Big Ten play 10-2 and with the jury far from returning a verdict on whether Indiana, one of four teams in the conference with a new coach this season, is capable of earning its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2016.

“The fans wanna see wins and we wanna see wins, too,” Indiana All-American forward Trayce Jackson-Davis said. “We bust our chops to get in the position where we are. We're 10-2 right now, we've dropped two eggs, but at the same time there's a lot of eggs in the future to get. We have to play as a team, and if we do that, we'll have a real shot and be in a really good position in March.”

As Indiana prepares to reopen conference play against Penn State today and Purdue readies for a matchup with No. 24 Wisconsin on Monday, here is a look at how the conference stacks up.

The contenders: Purdue, Ohio State, Michigan State, Illinois

Of these four teams, only Michigan State is really a surprise. After a down season in 2020-21 ended in an NCAA Tournament play-in game loss to UCLA, an eventual Final Four team, the Spartans were unranked in the preseason for the first time in a decade. 

They've upended preseason expectations with an 11-2 start, including six straight victories entering conference play. Their only losses are to top 5 opponents (Kansas and now-No. 1 Baylor), and the pieces seem to fit together much better with Marcus Bingham holding down the center slot, which was troublesome all last season.

Each of the other three teams on this list has at least one superstar capable of willing his team to wins it would otherwise not earn. The individual battles among that trio could decide the conference title.

Player of the Year contenders: EJ Liddell, Ohio State; Jaden Ivey, Purdue; Kofi Cockburn, Illinois

Liddell, Ivey and Cockburn were the three favorites for the award before the season began, and nothing has really changed. Purdue's individual success thus far makes Ivey a slight favorite, and he has the stats to back it up with 16.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.3 steals per contest while shooting nearly 53% from the floor and 45% from 3-point range. 

But Ivey also has the most help of any of the three, with Trevion Williams and Zach Edey also capable of carrying the load for the Boilers. Liddell (20.6 points, 7.2 rebounds per game, 56% shooting) and Cockburn (21.8 points, 12.1 rebounds per game, 62% shooting) have much higher usage rates and are more important individually to their teams. If either of them turns in a string of dominant performances, they could take the award even if Ivey plays well and Purdue wins the conference title.

League favorite: Purdue

At season's outset, Purdue and Michigan looked destined to fight for the conference crown, with Illinois potentially in the mix, as well. But the Illini have been mildly disappointing, the Wolverines have been a major disappointment, and both have fallen out of the top 25. 

Purdue, with wins over Villanova, North Carolina and Florida State already banked, is the clear favorite, with Michigan State and Ohio State likely to nip at its heels. The Boilers have a team capable of earning the program's record 25th Big Ten title and even ending its four-decade Final Four drought.

Indiana at Penn State

When: 4 p.m. today

Where: Bryce Jordan Center, University Park, Pa.

Records: Indiana (10-2, 1-1 Big Ten), Penn State (5-5, 0-2)

TV: Big Ten Network

Radio: 92.3 FM

Purdue vs. Wisconsin

When: 7 p.m. Monday

Where: Mackey Arena, West Lafayette

Records: No. 3 Purdue (12-1, 1-1 Big Ten), No. 24 Wisconsin (10-2, 1-1)

TV: Big Ten Network

Radio: 1380 AM, 100.9 FM

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