With college basketball just about at the midseason point, it’s time to further examine the relative strength of conferences. The ACC and Big 12 are in their usual lofty positions. The Big East is strong and balanced once again. The SEC has been a surprise, and a windfall of NCAA Tournament invitations await.
Then there is the Big Ten, which had seven NCAA bids last season and three teams that advanced to the Sweet 16. The conference this season is struggling with just three teams in the RPI top 30 and an overall ranking that fluctuates between fifth and sixth. It went 3-11 in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge and is 3-13 in non-conference play versus the top 25.
Purdue, Michigan State and fast-rising Ohio State are considered three solid candidates to advance to the NCAA Tournament, and Michigan is probable provided it can pick up a quality conference win or two. Maryland, which lost forwards Justin Jackson and Ivan Bender for the season, has a long road.
Northwestern, which played in its first NCAA tournament last season, and Minnesota have cooled off after being ranked in preseason. Wisconsin suffered heavy losses from the team that upset Villanova in the second round last year. All three are 2-3 in Big Ten play.
Penn State also is 2-3 in the conference with losses to Wisconsin, Maryland and Indiana by a total of 11 points. But a non-conference home defeat to Rider likely means that the Nittany Lions have a long way to go, and need a deep postseason tournament run, to gain their first NCAA bid since 2011.
Knights on the rise
One improving Big Ten team is Rutgers despite its 1-4 league record. In only his second season, head coach Steve Pikiell has built a team on defense and rebounding and maximum effort, areas that attracted the attention of Michigan State’s Tom Izzo.
“They play hard. They play tough,” Izzo said Wednesday night after his team needed overtime to beat the Scarlet Knights. “They play physical with a chip on their shoulder.”
Rutgers leads the Big Ten in scoring defense (61.7 points per game), three-point defense (30.5), turnover margin (plus-4.4) and offensive rebounds (14.6 per game). The team has limited opponents to 38.3 percent shooting.
The Scarlet Knights still struggle on offense, ranking last in the league in field-goal, three-point and free-throw percentage. But the administration is encouraged enough that Pikiell recently received a contract extension through the 2023-24 season.
“These guys have been great,” Pikiell said of his players. “They stay the course. They plug away. I like this team a lot.”
Martin’s bold move
Eyebrows were raised this week when Brian Bowen, the freshman caught up in the FBI’s investigation of the Louisville basketball program and its recruiting practices, surfaced at South Carolina.
Bowen’s father reportedly was investigated in Louisville’s role in money deals with his son, a probe that cost head coach Rick Pitino his job. The younger Bowen has been exonerated by the FBI, and Gamecocks coach Frank Martin said the university administration approved his admittance.
“Every single person I talked to that has had any dealing with that young man or that family speaks about what a great, great kid he is,” Martin told CBSSports.com. “He didn’t beat a girl up, hasn’t raped anybody, hasn’t flunked 10 different drug tests. He’s a good kid.”
South Carolina must file for Bowen’s reinstatement to the NCAA to regain his eligibility to play.
SEC’s hot, and not
Texas A&M (11-5) went from a No. 5 ranking to unranked in the span of two weeks, and is the only SEC team without a conference win (0-4) going into the weekend. The Aggies recently have been beset by bad luck, losing their last two games by one point – 69-68 to Louisiana State and 74-73 at Kentucky.
Auburn (15-1), meanwhile, has won 13 straight, its longest streak since the 1999-2000 season. The Tigers have won three straight SEC games by double digits, and that’s the first time they’ve won three in a row by any margin in more than two years. They will play three of their next four games on the road.
Sinking Sun Devils
Arizona State was a national darling as recently as last month after going 12-0 in its non-conference schedule with wins over Xavier and Kansas and rising to No. 3 in the AP poll. Pac-12 play, however, has been a different story for the Sun Devils. Their 76-72 loss Thursday night at home to Oregon dropped their conference record to 1-3. “We’re not in a great rhythm and we haven’t been,” Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley said. “We’ve just been kind of grinding it out, trying to find it.”
Expatriate of the week
Delaware sophomore Ryan Daly, a graduate of Archbishop Carroll High School, has continued his fine play that won him CAA rookie-of-the-year honors last season. The 6-foot-5 guard is averaging 17.3 points and 5.6 rebounds, and his 11 second-half points Thursday night helped the Blue Hens gain a 72-66 win over Drexel.
Games of the week
Michigan at Michigan State, Saturday at noon, Fox 29: The Spartans seem to be in a funk after winning 16 straight, losing to Ohio State and needing overtime to defeat Rutgers. The Wolverines would love to pick up their first win over a ranked team here in the only meeting of the intrastate rivals this season.
Texas Christian at Oklahoma, Saturday at 1 p.m., ESPNU: This could be an entertaining duel between the nation’s No. 2 (Sooners, 93.1 per game) and No. 10 (Horned Frogs, 87.6 per game) scoring teams. OU freshman Trae Young continues to lead the nation at 29.2 points and 10.2 assists per game.
Duke at Miami, Monday at 7 p.m., ESPN: The Hurricanes are looking for their third straight victory over the Blue Devils in South Florida. Duke, which entered the weekend at just 2-2 in the ACC, averages 93.5 points, most in the nation, while Miami is fourth in points allowed at 59.8.
Kansas at West Virginia, Monday at 9 p.m., ESPN: Big Monday always seems to find a way to get to Morgantown when the Jayhawks are there. The Mountaineers, the only unbeaten team in Big 12 play prior to Saturday, will use their press to try to keep Kansas from setting up for three-pointers.
St. Mary’s at Gonzaga, Thursday at 9 p.m., ESPN: The West Coast Conference’s top two teams get some national exposure. While the Gaels have been missing from the AP top 25 this season, they are No. 20 in the kenpom.com ratings. Both teams shoot better than 51 percent from the field.
Player to watch
Keita Bates-Diop, Ohio State, F, 6-7, R-Jr., Normal, Ill.
Bates-Diop led the Buckeyes with 32 points last Sunday in their upset win over Michigan State, and followed it up with 26, including 6-for-8 shooting on three-point attempts, in a victory Thursday night over Maryland. He leads the Big Ten in scoring with a 20.3-point average and his 8.8 rebounds per game rank third. He is shooting 53.3 percent from the field, 41.9 percent from the three-point arc, and 82.1 percent on free throws.