Photo courtesy of Iowa athletics

As the 2020-21 Big Ten men’s basketball season has progressed, there have been many uncertainties. One very clear fact is that the Big Ten is the best conference from top to bottom.

The conference can be expected to send a double-digit number of teams to the NCAA Tournament, and that alone should say enough about the conference as a whole. As far as the conference is concerned, it is doing something right with basketball.

These teams will all beat up on each other this season, with records not necessarily being the biggest determinant of how successful a Big Ten team is compared to an SEC team. A team in the Big Ten with a 7-4 conference record probably has a better tournament resume than a 8-2 SEC team due to the sheer strength of schedule in the conference. 

These teams can all be placed into tiers: the “Contenders” tier, the “Fringe Contenders” tier, the “Bubble” tier, and the “Cellar Dweller” tier. 

The Contenders Tier:

Michigan (4-0 Big Ten): The Wolverines ended 2020 strong with a dominating win at Maryland. This team is led by Franz Wagner and freshman center Hunter Dickinson. The Wolverines are well coached with Juwan Howard proving he is more than just a former star player, but he is an excellent recruiter. With the current No. 1 recruiting class coming in after this season, Michigan could find itself in this tier for a long time to come.

Rutgers (3-2 Big Ten): Ever since it has entered the conference, Rutgers has been seen as a team that is a doormat for the rest of the conference. The Scarlet Knights have quietly built a great program, and are ready to compete for some major hardware this season. The Scarlet Knights are a difficult match-up for any team. That being said, any team that can match up with them will have a tough time dealing with all the talent on this roster. Led by Ron Harper Jr., the uber-athletic junior, the sky’s the limit for Rutgers. For the first time in years, the Scarlet Knights are true contenders. 

Iowa (3-1 Big Ten): The Hawkeyes were the preseason favorite to win the conference, and they have not disappointed this year. The Wooden Award favorite, Luka Garza, has averaged around 30 points for the Hawkeyes, and coach Fran McCaffery has put together a roster perfectly suited to compliment his superstar big man. They play a very simple game plan offensively: play through Garza, wait for him to get double-teamed, and kick it out to one of many knock-down shooters. If a double team doesn’t come, and the opponent stays home on the shooters, they let Garza go to work. This game plan is very simple, yet very effective. This team is dangerous, and a tough match-up for anyone.

Illinois (4-1 Big Ten): Possibly the most talented team in the conference, the Fighting Illini have a roster that can make some serious noise in the Big Ten, and NCAA Tournaments. Ayo Dosumnu has been tremendous this season, and Kofi Cockburn has been just as advertised. The pinnacle of their season was when they faced Duke in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, and dominated. They showed depth, discipline, and star power against the Blue Devils that night. They demonstrated to the country just how good they are when playing at their highest level. If Illinois can channel just some of that come March, it will be one of the toughest teams to oust.

Wisconsin (3-1 Big Ten): The Badgers have a very solid team. They are unassuming, but for anyone that takes them lightly, beware. Led by D’Mitrik Trice and Nate Reuvers, two experienced players who are looking to prove that experience can win just as much as youth, Wisconsin has separated itself. There is nothing this team doesn’t do well. The Badgers have shooting up and down the roster, athleticism, and defensive prowess. There are concerns after the loss at home against Maryland, but going forward, they most likely will not have many of those nights.

The Fringe Contenders Tier:

Northwestern (3-2 Big Ten): The surprise team of the season, Northwestern is attempting to make its second-ever trip to the “big dance”. The Wildcats are a very dangerous team, with elite level three-point shooting, and very good coaching. Many people are concerned that they are merely on a hot streak, and not really a contender. The Wildcats are definitely on a hot streak, but it is less likely that they are going to fade. Expect to see the Wildcats playing tournament basketball in March. 

Minnesota (3-2 Big Ten): Another big-time surprise this season is the Minnesota Golden Gophers. They are led by their prolific scoring guard Marcus Carr. With his limitless range and ability to score at will against any defender, he makes a real case for Big Ten Player of the Year. Rich Pitino, Rick’s son, has done a great job with the program, and has gotten this team to fully buy into playing as hard as possible every game. They might have some trouble scoring if Carr is not in rhythm; if he has a tough night, the team might do the same. 

Ohio State (2-3 Big Ten): It feels like whenever people doubt the Buckeyes, they always exceed expectations. The Buckeyes have continued this narrative this season. Ohio State has been able to keep up with some of the big contenders in the conference to this point in a surprising turn of events for some. It has answered the call in a big way. EJ Liddell is fantastic, and one of the most underrated players in the conference — if not the nation. This team might not be strong enough overall to keep up with some top-tier teams come conference tournament time, but it should be able to rattle off some impressive wins nonetheless.

Michigan State (1-3 Big Ten): It is very unusual for a team to start 0-3 in conference play and still be considered a fringe contender. Michigan State is clearly the outlier in this case. Tom Izzo and the Spartans are clearly lacking some leadership. Guys like Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman, both of whom have graduated and left for the NBA, were those leaders. They expected players like Josh Langford and Rocket Watts to step up and shoulder the load. Sparty has not quite done so, and the transition has been rocky. They will have to find their “guy” going forward to become a bonafide contender in this league.

Bubble Tier:

Purdue (2-3 Big Ten): The Boilermakers are always going to be a solid team, and this season is no different. They are largely unassuming, but Matt Painter has a tough team that can shoot the lights out. Tevion Williams is incredible in the post, and this team can play when it counts. They might not have the most talent, but they are gritty and tough. Their main issue lies in their inability to win on the road. They are incredible at Mackey Arena, but not quite as good on the road. The NCAA Tournament is in their backyard in Indianapolis; they will need to learn how to play on the road to get there. 

Maryland (1-4 Big Ten): The Terrapins are a team with one conference win, but it was a big one. They beat the Wisconsin Badgers in Madison, becoming the first team to do so in 15 games. Led by Eric Ayala and Donta Scott, they do not have a true superstar, but many solid contributors. They are a team that plays one of two ways: a slow first half, and a strong second half, or a strong first, and weak second. The Terps will need to find some consistency going forward, and win some close games. Still, they are better than their record says and a couple big wins could vault them into the tournament.

Indiana (2-2 Big Ten): The Hoosiers are among the biggest disappointments early this season. Many expected them to be much better than they are currently. Even if they are not quite as good as forecast, they are still a team that can make some noise. Trayce Jackson-Davis is an absolute beast, and a game-wrecker. The problem is merely themselves, as they commit a lot of turnovers, and have a stagnant offense at times. Indiana did score a big win on Monday night against Maryland. 

The Cellar Dwellers:

Penn State (0-3 Big Ten): To call this team cellar dwellers is a bit unfair. The Nittany Lions aren’t necessarily a bad team, but merely victims of circumstance. They are in the best conference in America, and the Nittany Lions are one of the few teams not benefiting. Miles Dread is the top player for the Nittany Lions. Their biggest weakness is themselves, as they cannot close out games, having blown many big leads so far this season.

Nebraska (0-4 Big Ten): Nebraska, like Penn State, is without a win in conference play to this point. The Cornhuskers are poised to miss the NCAA Tournament this season. Hopefully, they have brighter days ahead. Their main goal is to recruit better to improve their overall talent level on the team. 

For each of the teams on this list, they all will be able to look back on the season and say that each win was against a quality team. The team that wins the conference will know that they not only played in the gauntlet, but came out of it alive.

The Big Ten has made it clear to everyone that it will dictate who wins the national championship this year. The conference is trying to win its first as a whole since 2000.

That streak seems like it is in jeopardy this season. The conference boasts some of the best teams in the nation, and has become the most entertaining conference in America.