Big Ten Power Rankings: Boilers, Badgers wrestle way to top

When I was in high school, we went to a 12-Man Battle Royale at the long-gone International Amphitheater, near the long-gone Stock Yards on the South Side of Chicago, which still standing but wobbly.

Gould Headshot square

I don’t remember all 12 combatants, but I believe Baron Von Raschke outlasted an all-star cast that included grapplers like Vern Gagne, the Crusher, Mad Dog Vachon, Cowboy Jack (later Blackjack) Lanza and two guys named Red (Lyons and Bastien). I think Dick the Bruiser had the night off. But it might have been the Crusher.

The object was to throw the other guys out of the ring. Last man standing was the winner.

Which brings me to this year’s Big Ten basketball race.

Please don’t get too exorcised about these Power Rankings. There’s going to be a lot of fluidity in this season’s Battle Royale. Some teams will get thrown out of the ring. Some may even climb back in, just as they did on that long-ago night at the Amphitheater.[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]

This week’s top six teams are starting to establish themselves as squads that will be resilient. Iowa and Nebraska also have shown signs of having that kind of potential. But the Hawkeyes are awfully young, And Nebraska still needs to show more.

The other guys? They’ll win some in this rough-and-tumble conference. But barring major turnarounds, they won’t win enough to feel satisfied.

THE HEAVYWEIGHT CONTENDERS

1, PURDUE (No. 3), 14-3, 3-1: As mentioned here last week, the Boilermakers have a big upside. Caleb Swanigan will be a very serious first-team All-America candidate if the voters are paying attention. Isaac Haas is a hoss. Dakota Mathias can shoot and dish. And the rest of the cast is attractive, too.

2, WISCONSIN (No. 1 in last ranking), 13-3, 2-1: Tough shooting night on the road at Purdue. I still like the Badgers’ all-around team—and I like their conference loss better than Purdue’s—at home vs. Minnesota. But we'll beat on the World's Largest Drum this week.

3, MICHIGAN STATE (No. 2), 11-6, 3-1: A toe stub at the historic Palestra in Philly vs. Penn State was not good. But I’m still a believer that the Spartans will have a satisfying year. I even like it that Tom Izzo questioned his team's ''effortless approach.'' It's always good when Izzo is getting into his players' heads.

4, MINNESOTA (No. 5), 15-2, 3-1: Check out the Gophers, if you haven’t yet, when they travel to Michigan State on Wednesday. Richard Pitino’s surprisingly potent squad can make a big statement here. This is a very balanced and talented team.

WELTER-WEIGHT AND SEE.

5, INDIANA (No. 4), 11-5, 1-2: Yup. They need to keep righting the ship. The Illinois blowout was a good sign. In hindsight, IU wasn’t up to tough matchups with Louisville and Wisconsin. Three winnable games next, although two are on the road.

6, NORTHWESTERN (No. 7), 13-4, 2-2: That was a really important win at Nebraska. NU, which is playing four of its first five Big Ten games on the road, can finish that stretch 3-2 with a win at Rutgers on Thursday. That would put the Wildcats in position to finish at least 10-8 in the Big Ten. That kind of conference record will give them a solid case for their first NCAA tournament bid.

7, IOWA (No. 8), 10-7, 2-2: Iowa is a lot more interesting, and competitive, than I expected. Peter Jok, who leads the Big Ten with 22.6 points a game, is a joy to watch. And rapidly-maturing freshmen Jordan Bohannon, Tyler Cook, Cordell Pemsl and Isaiah Moss give the Hawkeyes a chance to be competitive this year as well as solid beyond this year.

8, NEBRASKA (No. 6), 9-7, 3-1: Despite the setback vs. Northwestern, Tai Webster and Glynn Watson Jr. are tough, skilled winners. With trips to Michigan and Ohio State, plus a home date with Rutgers in their three, the Cornhuskers have some interesting opportunities coming up.

SPARRING PARTNERS

9, MARYLAND (No. 10), 14-2, 2-1: Enigmatic Terrapins will show us more about who they are with games against Indiana and at Illinois this week.

10, MICHIGAN (No. 9), 11-5, 1-2: The Wolverines’ defensive woes continued to dog them vs. Maryland. It’ll be tough to shoot their way past the defense problem.

SHADOW BOXING

11, ILLINOIS (No. 11), 11-5, 1-2: Their third blowout loss of the season at Indiana raises all kinds of questions in Champaign. This is a senior squad that already had been undressed by West Virginia and Maryland, and was surprised by Winthrop. The pressure is going to mount in Champaign. Illini Nation is losing patience with the losing on John Groce's watch. And this Big Ten has a lot of hungry teams that will pile on.

12, PENN STATE (No. 13), 10-7, 2-2: Kudos for a nice win vs. Michigan State in retro setting at Palestra. But young Nittany Lions figure to have a rough go, especially on the road.

HUMAN PUNCHING BAGS

13, OHIO STATE (No. 12), 10-6, 0-3: The Buckeyes can hang around. But they don’t have enough experienced talent to close deals. This is shaping up as an uncharacteristically rough year. Goodbye, Columbus.

14, RUTGERS (No. 14), 11-6, 0-4: Searching for the silver lining after the Scarlet Knights came up short at Iowa, coach Steve Pikiell said, ``We probably played 34 minutes of real good basketball. But it’s a 40-minute league.’’ . . . That pretty much sums it up.[/membership]

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