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Big Ten looks like it might be headed for another disappointing March

Plus, Creighton’s rebound, mid-major spotlight and games to watch this weekend

Trayce Jackson-Davis (left) led Indiana past Illinois and Dain Dainja on Jan. 19, in Champaign, Ill. The Hoosiers and Fighting Illini are part of a pack of Big Ten teams fighting for second place behind Purdue. (Michael Allio/AP)
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It was clear more than a month ago Purdue is the Big Ten’s best team, and the Boilermakers appear headed for a regular season conference title.

And the league’s second-best team is?

Well, who is it?

Truth is, it’s hard to tell. Maybe it’s Illinois, which seemed like a candidate until it stumbled to an 0-3 start to conference play (the Illini have since won seven of eight).

Perhaps it’s Rutgers, which is a candidate thanks to its reliable defense.

It was tempting for a minute to think it was Indiana, which was hyped in the preseason in part because it brought back an elite big man (Trayce Jackson-Davis).

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Also a factor: There are a lot of people who can’t resist pumping up a blue blood on the cusp of a comeback. Indiana, which last season won an NCAA tournament game for the first time since 2016 and hasn’t finished above .500 in the Big Ten since that same season, splendidly fit that narrative.

A 7-0 start gave way to a 3-6 slide, but the Hoosiers then ripped off five wins in a row before Tuesday’s visit to Maryland. They were offensively inept beyond Jackson-Davis and suffered a 66-55 loss to fall to 15-7 (6-5 Big Ten).

“We didn’t execute, and we didn’t make shots,” Coach Mike Woodson told reporters. “That’s a bad combination.”

It leaves Indiana squarely in the center of the muddled mire that is the Big Ten’s midpack. Just two games separate second place and 11th entering the weekend, and there is a six-team logjam tied for fourth place at 6-5.

There does not seem to be the same chorus as the last two seasons heralding the league’s greatness, and for that the college basketball world should be grateful.

Chalk some of it up to recent March disappointments. The league went 8-9 in the 2021 NCAA tournament, and only Michigan (an Elite Eight team) escaped the opening weekend. Last season, Michigan and Purdue were the only members of the conference’s nine-team contingent to get to the Sweet 16, and the league posted a 9-9 mark.

A similar fate seems possible — even likely — for a league that has plenty of good teams, few places to hide but only one juggernaut. At the start of play Friday, Purdue ranked No. 3 in the NCAA’s NET ranking system. Six other Big Ten teams checked in between No. 19 and No. 36. Three more were between 47th and 57th.

Predictive metrics like provide a similar evaluation. Purdue (No. 3) and Rutgers (No. 17) lead the way. Five teams are ranked between 21st and 33rd. Four more land between No. 42 and No. 58.

Because of the limited dead weight at the bottom of the Big Ten, nearly every conference game provides an opportunity for both teams to collect a useful victory. Those seemingly endless chances will help the league’s midpack look better on paper and probably enjoy a fruitful Selection Sunday.

Beyond that? Figuring out who could stitch together a deep run is just about as challenging as picking out the Big Ten’s second-best team — a difficult-to-discern quandary nearly three months into the season.

Bluejays bounce back

The in-season comeback of the season belongs to Creighton, which capped a 6-0 start with a wild victory over Arkansas in the Maui Invitational semifinals before dropping its next six.

There was an obvious mitigating factor: An illness that cost 7-foot-1 center Ryan Kalkbrenner (15.2 points, 7 rebounds , 2.4 blocks per game) three games at the tail end of the losing streak.

For a team that ranks 346th nationally in bench minutes used, according to KenPom, Kalkbrenner’s absence was especially notable. He returned for a Christmas Day defeat of DePaul, and the Bluejays (14-8, 8-3 Big East) have since won eight of 10.

“It wasn’t much fun when it was happening, I know that,” Creighton Coach Greg McDermott said. “But Fredrick King got some valuable experience during that stretch. Our guys continued to work and continued to improve. Nobody pointed any fingers. We were married to the process of getting better and talked about this season being a marathon, not a sprint. And we dug ourselves out of it.”

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McDermott’s best teams at Creighton have traditionally won with plenty of offense, particularly from the perimeter. These Bluejays aren’t as slick from the outside, though the addition of former Summit League player of the year Baylor Scheierman (13.4 ppg, 8.5 rpg) from South Dakota State provides a boost.

The other three starters — guards Trey Alexander (12.9 ppg) and Ryan Nembhard (11.5 ppg) and forward Arthur Kaluma (12.7 ppg) — each play pivotal roles in an impressively balanced and complete offense.

Yet as Wednesday’s 63-53 victory at Georgetown illustrated, Creighton’s greatest strength is a defense that leads the Big East in efficiency during conference play. According to College Basketball Reference, it was the first time in McDermott’s 13-year tenure the Bluejays won by double-digits on the road despite shooting less than 40 percent (in this case, 38.3 percent).

“Defense travels, so defense can keep you in games when other parts of your game aren’t as sharp,” McDermott said. “You’re not going to be at the top of your game every single game. You’ve seen it in college basketball, especially this year. The fact we were able to defend and rebound gave us a chance to win this game when we had an atypical offensive performance for us.”

Mid-major spotlight: Southern Mississippi

Not everything was new when Southern Mississippi Coach Jay Ladner walked into his team’s first workout last summer. It just seemed like it.

The Golden Eagles brought in nine transfers and revamped their entire coaching staff. They were coming off a 7-26 season and heading from their longtime home in Conference USA to the Sun Belt.

And thanks to an influx of talent and experience, Ladner was sure things would be different.

“I just immediately knew we would be improved, but I would be disingenuous if I’d have told you we would be 19-4,” Ladner said this week. “I’d have never predicted that.”

The Golden Eagles improved to 20-4 on Thursday with a 74-65 victory at Troy. They share the Sun Belt lead with Louisiana-Lafayette at 9-2 in conference play. They’re off to their best start since 2013-14.

Remarkably, they’ve done much of it without their projected point guard. Neftali Alvarez, who began his career at Fairfield before a stop at Mercer, suffered a foot injury in the third game of the season and didn’t return until Jan. 19.

Alvarez played in an eye-opening victory at Vanderbilt on Nov. 11, but the Golden Eagles managed to pick off a victory at Liberty a week later without him. They kept rolling from there, beating both Winthrop and Purdue Fort Wayne in Cancún later in November as part of an 8-0 start.

Ladner acknowledged the hire of assistant coach Juan Cardona, who coached both Alvarez and forward Felipe Haase (14.3 ppg, 6.6 rpg) in high school, was vital in attracting players last offseason. But he also made a key in-state pickup, adding guard Austin Crowley from Ole Miss.

Crowley averaged 4.9 points and 17.9 minutes in his third year with the Rebels last season. He has blossomed at Southern Miss, ranking fifth in the Sun Belt in scoring (17.8 per game) and first in steals (2.3).

“He’s one of the most dedicated players I’ve ever been around,” Ladner said. “I worry with him that he works too hard. He constantly wants our assistant coaches to work him outside of practice time. Of course, the season’s long and he’s played a lot of minutes. I worry about the overwork, but that’s how motivated he is.”

With holdover DeAndre Pinckney (13.5 ppg, 6.8 rpg) anchoring the post, the Golden Eagles are in the mix for their first NCAA tournament berth since 2012. It’s just what Ladner — who grew up in Hattiesburg as a Southern Miss fan and played on the school’s 1987 NIT title team — envisioned when he returned to his hometown four years ago.

“It’s been there,” Ladner said. “We just want to get it back to that point and try to establish some consistency every year so that Southern Miss is looked at not only as a football and a baseball school but a basketball school as well.”

Weekend highlights

Boise State at No. 22 San Diego State (9 p.m. Friday, Fox Sports 1): The Mountain West co-leaders meet for the first time this season as Marcus Shaver Jr. and the Broncos (18-5, 8-2) visit the Aztecs (17-5, 8-2), who are coming off a loss at Nevada on Tuesday. San Diego State has lost consecutive conference games just once in the last four years, a two-in-three-days sweep at Utah State in January 2021.

No. 8 Kansas at No. 13 Iowa State (noon Saturday, ESPN): From the 2014 Big 12 semifinals to the 2019 Big 12 final, the Cyclones took seven of 13 from Kansas. They’ve lost seven in a row in the series since, including a 62-60 loss last month at Allen Fieldhouse. After Monday night’s meltdown at Texas Tech, Iowa State (15-6, 6-3) could use a little Hilton Magic as the Jayhawks (18-4, 6-3) arrive in Ames.

No. 25 Auburn at No. 2 Tennessee (2 p.m. Saturday, ESPN): Bruce Pearl-returns-to-Knoxville isn’t a big subplot anymore, but Auburn (17-5, 7-2 SEC) could stand to add some heft to its profile. The Tigers might be catching Tennessee at the wrong time. The Volunteers (18-4, 7-2) are coming off scoring a season-low 54 points in a loss at Florida on Wednesday.

No. 10 Texas at No. 7 Kansas State (4 p.m. Saturday, ESPN2): Chances are, K-State won’t drop 116 points on the Longhorns (18-4, 7-2 Big 12) like it did Jan. 3 in Austin. The Wildcats (18-4, 6-3) have played some spotty defense since then, and are coming off a 90-78 loss at Kansas on Tuesday.

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North Carolina at Duke (6:30 p.m. Saturday, ESPN): Yes, there’s a little lost in the rivalry when the Tar Heels (15-7, 7-4) and Blue Devils (16-6, 7-4) enter their first meeting of the season tied for sixth in the ACC. It’s also the first time Carolina’s Hubert Davis and Duke’s Jon Scheyer have met as head coaches, and the first times the Tobacco Road rivals have played since the Tar Heels sent Mike Krzyzewski into retirement with a victory in last season’s Final Four.

No. 12 Gonzaga at No. 18 Saint Mary’s (10:30 p.m. Saturday, ESPN): Maybe the best game on paper for the entire weekend is the showdown of West Coast Conference powers. Drew Timme and Gonzaga (19-4, 8-1) have won 14 of 15 since a Dec. 2 loss to Baylor, while the Gaels (20-4, 9-0) lean on a defense that’s stingy even by their remarkable recent standards. The home-and-home between these two (including Feb. 25 at Gonzaga) are games to savor.