ANN ARBOR, Mich. – It’s still early in the college basketball season, but five teams are already emerging as the clear front runners in a loaded Big Ten.
The first few games of conference play tipped off last week as teams prepare for the full Big Ten grind when the calendar turns. The conference as a whole looks to have as many as nine NCAA Tournament contenders, but the cream always rises to the top by the end of a 20-game slate.
As of Dec. 9, both the metrics and the individual resumes suggest the Big Ten has a clear top five teams: Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State, Maryland and Purdue. Any one of these teams could win the regular season title and it wouldn’t be a surprise.
All five sit among the top 12 teams in the early Kenpom rankings, with Ohio State at No. 1, Michigan State No. 4, Purdue No. 6, Maryland No. 8 and Michigan No. 12.
While Purdue and Michigan State each have three losses, the five teams are a combined 39-7. They each won their first Big Ten game over the weekend.
Ohio State is off to the fastest start, sitting at 9-0 with wins over No. 23 Villanova and No. 7 North Carolina by 25 points each. The Buckeyes drew a 7-1 Penn State team for their first conference game and had no problem, blasting the Nittany Lions by 32 points.
With wins over the teams ranked 19th, 22nd, 24th and 50th in Kenpom, it’s easy to see why Ohio State has taken over the top spot.
Maryland is the only other undefeated team in the conference, sitting at a perfect 10-0 and ranked in the top five nationally. The Terps have a much less impressive arsenal of wins, but they have knocked off possible NCAA Tournament teams in Temple, Harvard, Marquette and Illinois.
If not for a loss at No. 1 Louisville, Michigan would have the best resume in the entire country. The Wolverines also shelled North Carolina -- though OSU did so on the road while Michigan’s was in the Bahamas -- and boasts wins over No. 9 Gonzaga, Iowa State and Creighton.
Michigan was unranked for the first few weeks of the season, jumped up to No. 4 after winning the Battle 4 Atlantis and then suffered an ugly loss to Louisville. The Wolverines bounced back by dropping 103 points on Iowa, so their drop in the polls shouldn’t be overly dramatic.
Michigan State was the unanimous No. 1 team in the country before the season but has dropped games against No. 8 Kentucky, No. 10 Duke and Virginia Tech. The Spartans have a great win at No. 16 Seton Hall, but they have yet to really hit their stride.
Purdue began the season with three losses in its first seven games but owns wins over No. 5 Virginia and VCU. Last year, Matt Painter’s team started out 6-5 before winning the Big Ten regular season title and going to the Elite Eight.
Indiana, Iowa, Illinois and Penn State appear to be a solid second tier, and it’s never wise to count out Wisconsin. Those teams will knock off some of the conference title contenders and could end up in the mix for a double bye at the Big Ten Tournament.
Rutgers might not be bad this season. Minnesota, Northwestern and Nebraska look terrible -- those three teams have a combined 12-13 record despite playing mostly easy competition.
When the new rankings coming out Monday, Ohio State and Maryland should be in the top five, Michigan should be in the top 10, and Michigan and Purdue should be in the top 25. The conference is loaded at the top, so get ready to watch these teams duke it out all winter.