It’s safe to say the Big Ten is surprisingly one of the strongest conferences in college basketball this season.
After having just three teams in the preseason Associated Press Top 25 poll, there were six teams from the conference ranked last week. There are just four top-25 teams this week, with two in the top six, and six other teams within the top seven of teams receiving votes. Andy Katz currently projects 10 Big Ten teams in the NCAA tournament field and there's a real chance Michigan or Michigan State could deliver the Big Ten its first national champion since 2000, when the Spartans won the NCAA tournament.
But before the tournament — even before hitting February when the tension and stakes are that much higher — we picked five Big Ten matchups for the rest of January as the ones you should watch and why.
Wisconsin at Maryland - Jan. 14
This one might not jump off the page but these are two teams that have likely positioned themselves to be in the NCAA tournament if it started today. But, a couple bad losses and both teams could be out, which makes this one all the more important.
Wisconsin was ranked 15th in the country before it suffered back-to-back losses at Western Kentucky and against Minnesota at home. Ethan Happ has made himself a Big Ten Player of the Year candidate with 19.3 points and 10.3 rebounds per game. Not only would a road win against a potential tournament team be huge, but this game is in between difficult home games against Purdue and Michigan.
Maryland had its first win over a ranked team since the 2016-17 season when it beat Nebraska on Jan. 2 and another major road win against Minnesota. Big man Bruno Fernando is the conference’s leading blocker with 2.4 per game and averages more than 10 rebounds per game. This is a chance for Maryland to get a good win on home court before road games against Ohio State and Michigan State.
Michigan State at Nebraska - Jan. 17
For those who don’t pay attention to the Big Ten as much, you might not know that Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, Nebraska, has become a premier venue in college basketball. It’ll be rocking for this one.
Any place Michigan State goes, the Spartans will receive that team’s best shot. Nick Ward, Joshua Langford and Cassius Winston can play with the best trios in college basketball and are worth watching every time they hit the floor. Michigan State is one of the best rebounding teams in the country and ranks third in offensive efficiency per KenPom.com. In its nine-point win against Ohio State, the Spartans shot 76.5 percent in the second half, showing why they should be a team that contends for a national title.
Nebraska is capable of winning a game or two in the NCAA tournament. With players like James Palmer, Jr. (20.1 ppg), Isaac Copeland, Jr. and Glynn Watson, Jr., the Cornhuskers can play with the best in the Big Ten. This is a can’t-miss opportunity for coach Tim Miles if they’re aiming to be a lock for the NCAA tournament before the Big Ten tournament begins.
Michigan at Indiana - Jan. 25
The Wolverines knocked off the Hoosiers at home on Jan. 6 behind Jordan Poole’s and Charles Matthews’ 18 points each. Michigan has great play all over the court and has really enjoyed one of the best surprises of the season in freshman big man Ignas Brazdeikis. The Wolverines allow just 55 points per game (third in the nation) and rank fourth in defensive efficiency per KenPom.
However, Indiana has the home court advantage in this one and the Hoosiers can make its biggest statement of the year with a win against a team that could be 19-0 when it travels to Bloomington. Romeo Langford and Juwan Morgan continue to star for the Hoosiers, but they need to get more out of freshman Rob Phinisee who is averaging just 7.2 points in 26 minutes per game.
This game takes place between a pair of road games against Purdue and Northwestern, then Rutgers and Michigan State. It could be a critical stretch for the Hoosiers in terms of determining NCAA tournament seeding. A 2-0 record against the Hoosiers would just be another notch in the belt for Michigan as it aims at a No. 1 seed.
Michigan State at Purdue - Jan. 27
Could Purdue really miss the NCAA tournament one season removed from winning the Big Ten outright? Well, if the Boilermakers beat Michigan State, there’s little chance that happens.
With Carsen Edwards leading the way with more than 25 points per game, the Boilermakers should be a contender for the second week of the tournament. Mackey Arena should be rocking for this one.
KenPom ranks Purdue as the sixth-most efficient offense, but its defense has been inconsistent at times, especially 3-point shooting, and Matt Painter is still looking for that second go-to scorer outside of Edwards. Michigan State won the first meeting on Jan. 8 in East Lansing, 77-59 when Edwards shot just 3 of 15 from the field. Two wins against Purdue will strengthen Michigan State’s case for a No. 1 seed.
Ohio State at Michigan - Jan. 29
The football rivalry Ohio State and Michigan have doesn’t nearly transcend sports, but this is always a fun game when the two teams are ranked. It’s just a shame they only play once this year.
The last two meetings on the court between the Buckeyes and Wolverines featured a 20-point comeback and a game that knocked Ohio State from the top of the Big Ten in late February. Michigan looks much like its team that made it to the NCAA championship game in 2018. Ohio State is a completely different team — yet, Chris Holtmann is getting more value for the sum of its parts.
Kaleb Wesson is solidified as Ohio State’s go-to player after posting 25 points against Michigan State. If Wesson doesn’t post big numbers, the Buckeyes struggle to score at times and it’s no secret Michigan has maybe the best defense in the country. Michigan is likely at least a No. 2 seed barring a major collapse. Ohio State could jump to the No. 3 line with a win of this caliber.