After Northwestern fell (and using that word is probably being overly kind to what happened to the Wildcats in Evanston to be honest) to Ohio State last Friday night, all Big Ten teams had officially completed at least half their regular season. This means that things are starting to take some semblance of solidified shape. For one, we know the team that always belongs at the top of this list (aforementioned Buckeyes) and we know the team that always belongs at the bottom of the list (Rutgers). But college football always finds a way to throw you a curve ball... Enter Wisconsin losing to Illinois. The Badgers had solidified a spot as the distance number two in these rankings for the first seven weeks of the season. Now, the next tier (or tiers) of teams below Ohio State becomes slightly harder to analyze without more head-to-head information. And because a lot of the schedules are back-loaded with these match-ups, things aren’t quite as easy as one would hope with a 7-game sample size.
This brings us to our tiers topic of the week. Yesterday evening, the 2019-2020 NBA Season kicked off with much fanfare and some very entertaining games. The defending champion Toronto Raptors received their massive championship rings and played an excellent game against the visiting New Orleans Pelicans (without rookie phenom Zion Williamson) that went into over time and ended in a Raptors’ victory. Then, the two Los Angeles franchises debuted their new high-level talents (Anthony Davis for the Lakers, Kawhi Leonard for the Clippers) in a Western Conference clash that could become a possible Western Conference Finals match-up.
So, for sake of simplicity and lack of imagination, today’s tiers will be based on current NBA players and their status in the league. As always, the tiers are created very subjectively and the criteria are completely non-formulaic in their creation. However, the ranking of the teams incorporates the known data about the teams as well as actual on-field performance.
(Do with these rankings what you will. SP+ rank and FEI (Fremeau Efficiency Index) rank is provided next to each team. Click these links for more information on SP+ and FEI.)
The LeBron James Tier
#1 - Ohio State Buckeyes (1st, 1st)
A bit too on the nose here since The King is from the state of Ohio but the comparison fits all too nicely. Ohio State has run every team it has faced off the field. LBJ has very few current (or historical) peers when it comes to his entire resume. Both use a combination of sheer talent, athleticism, and other worldly sports IQ to dominate their opponents. Both are the biggest brands in their respective sport (the Big Ten Conference and the NBA). Both have been shrouded in controversy for mistimed statements (Urban Meyer related for the Buckeyes, China related for Lebron). But when it’s all said and done, these two stand atop their respective realms and rule with an iron fist.
The Kawhi Leonard Tier
#2 - Penn State Nittany Lions (8th, 8th)
Penn State stands alone in this tier because thus far they have taken care of business and also have accumulated some respectable wins. While both the Iowa and Michigan games were close, no other Big Ten team has two conference wins of that quality while still be undefeated (Ohio State excluded). The Nittany Lions have been methodical in their defeating their opponents thus far, a subtle nod to the methodical decimation that Kawhi Leonard spreads across the league. As Kawhi threatens LBJ’s perch atop the league, so do the Nittany Lions threaten the Buckeyes as long as they can stay undefeated. While there are some tricky road blocks on the schedule before the fateful trip to Columbus on November 23rd, for the time being the advanced metrics and the on-field results suggest Penn State is by itself in a tier just below the juggernaut Buckeyes.
The Anthony Davis Tier
#3 - Wisconsin Badgers (7th, 4th)
#4 - Minnesota Golden Gophers (15th, 17th)
No, Davis isn’t the third best player in the NBA per say, but he’s a significant threat on offensive and defensive sides of the floor and hence encapsulates the duality of the two teams in this tier. Wisconsin is ranked 2nd in the nation in SP+ defensive rating. Minnesota is ranked 10th in the nation in SP+ offensive rating. And while the Badgers took a massive step back with a loss to Illinois last Saturday, is there any doubt that they could compete with Penn State or Ohio State on a neutral field (say, in the conference championship game)? Furthermore, many believe Davis still hasn’t reached his possible ceiling. Could the same be said about these squads? Wisconsin’s ceiling seems to be just on the fringe of the playoff discussion (though the defeat to Illinois has submarined this talk). Minnesota’s ceiling is unclear due to a back-loaded schedule. Much like Davis possibly being unleashed on the league this year, are the Gophers about to be unleashed on the contenders of the Big Ten?
The Giannis Antetokounmpo Tier
#5 - Michigan Wolverines (14th, 29th)
#6 - Michigan State Spartans (28th, 27th)
#7 - Iowa Hawkeyes (24th, 21st)
#8 - Indiana Hoosiers (22nd, 39th)
There’s no clever tie-in with Giannis and these teams. I just thought I was doing a disservice to the reigning league MVP by going any further and not including him as a tier name. This is a messy tier. These teams are pretty good according to the advanced metrics but have a lot of issues to work out on the offensive side of the ball (excluding Indiana). This is actually a decent metaphor for the Greek Freak not that I think of it. He has dominated the league without having an above average outside shot, a staple in today’s NBA. While these teams struggle on the offensive side of the ball, they will be held back in their game results much like Giannis not being able to break through to the Conference Finals while his outside shot is still being fine-tuned.
The Stephen Curry Tier
#9 - Nebraska Cornhuskers (46th, 81st)
#10 - Purdue Boilermakers (50th, 56th)
#11 - Illinois Fighting Illini (70th, 71st)
#12 - Maryland Terrapins (47th, 86th)
#13 - Northwestern Wildcats (74th, 65th)
Again, I would be remiss if the two-time MVP and three-time NBA champion wasn’t on the list of current day relevant NBA players. So Curry gets to represent the teams that could probably beat most of the teams in the conference on any given day (oh hai Illinois) but are generally out of divisional title pictures and are just attempting to scramble for bowl eligibility. I finally had to drop Northwestern to better reflect their winless conference record despite their opening conference schedule being a bear. Eventually, you are what your record says you are and their offense is so anti-Curry in its aesthetic that it seems cruel to include the two in the same paragraph but here we are. Illinois gets a little bump for their defeat of Wisconsin, Purdue gets bumped for their tenacity despite the piling up of injuries on both sides of the ball, and I’m still not entirely sure what to make of Maryland. For now they are dropped because there is such a discrepancy in the two advanced rating systems that makes me believe they are confusing to both humans and computers.
The Kevin Knox Tier
#14 - Rutgers Scarlet Knights (107th, 127th)
The methodology was simple here. Scroll to the bottom of ESPN’s real plus-minus list for the 2018-2019 season and see who was in last place. Easy peasy lemon squeezy. Also fitting it was a New York Knicks player because the franchise has been a tire fire for quite some time now and is driving fans to give up the sport.