College Basketball State of the Big Ten Betting Report: Wisconsin Over Illinois? Penn State to Make Tournament?

College Basketball State of the Big Ten Betting Report: Wisconsin Over Illinois? Penn State to Make Tournament? article feature image

Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images. Pictured: Greg Lee (Penn State)

Every two weeks, The Action Network is providing its loyal readers with updates on the state of each major conference.

I’ve been tasked with covering the Big Ten, which is a total doozy.

There have been some major wins and some major losses for each conference team since the previous update.

So, I’ve created four made-up tiers and placed all 14 teams in them.

Let’s break down each tier and discuss the major storylines and trends happening in the best conference in college basketball.

Author’s note: Odds to win the conference are provided by BetMGM.

Tier 1: The Favorites

Illinois Fighting Illini+260
Purdue Boilermakers+275
Wisconsin Badgers+400
Ohio State Buckeyes+500
Michigan State Spartans+500

Wisconsin Badgers

While Wisconsin still isn’t favored over Illinois or Purdue, the Badgers are the biggest story in the conference — and maybe the nation.

Johnny Davis is amazing. He just dropped 27 points and grabbed eight rebounds in a gutsy eight-point road win over Northwestern. He’s top-15 nationally in both possession percentage and shot percentage, yet he’s scoring without losing any efficiency.

He's had 3 national player of the year games: 30 in a win over Houston. 37 in a win at Purdue. 27 tonight in a win at Northwestern. Hey, men's college basketball fans/teams/stakeholders, your current favorite for the @NaismithTrophy is @BadgerMBB Johnny Davis.

— Andy Katz (@TheAndyKatz) January 19, 2022

Believe it or not, Davis is currently the favorite to win the Wooden Award on DraftKings (+750). I’m not here to tell you it’s a bad bet.

But Davis’ effect goes beyond just his astounding scoring ability. Davis gives Wisconsin a true, reliable No. 1 option on every offensive possession. That’s huge for a team that lacks scorers and currently ranks 240th nationally in eFG%.

Plus, Wisconsin does two other things very well. The Badgers take care of the ball (third nationally in offensive turnover rate) and play solid defense (30th nationally in defensive efficiency). A lot of that is thanks to an above-average backcourt led by the veteran Brad Davison.

All-in-all, good guard play + solid defense + elite first-option scorer = Final Four appearance?

I’m not going to argue against it.

But maybe wait before you target Wisconsin in futures. The Badgers just ripped off five impressive victories, including at Purdue and vs. Iowa. The Badgers’ stock will likely never get higher, and they’re due for a loss.

But so far, Wisconsin is 11-5 ATS this season, good for the best mark in the conference.

If the Badgers were to cash any Big Ten regular-season tickets, I’m eyeing two must-have wins: at Illinois on Feb. 2, and then vs. Purdue on March 1. KenPom projects the Badgers as underdogs in both games.

Illinois Fighting Illini

My Illinois +700 to win the regular season ticket looks mighty good right now.

At 6-1 in conference play, the Illini sit atop the conference standings alongside the aforementioned Badgers.

While Illinois just suffered a tough, double-overtime home loss to Purdue, this team still has a very high ceiling. I see two reasons for that.

The first reason: the development of the backcourt during Andre Curbelo’s injury.

Before his injury, Curbelo’s reckless ball-handling and questionable decision-making were costing the Illini wins.

I think Curbelo is a great player and one who significantly raises the ceiling of the team. And I would never root for injuries. But there’s no question he’ll hold back the team at times, especially with how ball-heavy he is.

Take this overtime possession against Purdue as an example. If Jaden Ivey doesn't gamble for the turnover by leaving Alfonso Plummer unguarded, Curbelo just dribbled himself into an impossible double-team with 12 seconds left.

Andre Curbelo gets Double Teamed at the arc but finds the Neglected Alfonso Plummer (@AlfonsoPlummer9) in the paint for the game tying Layup with 8.9 seconds left in OT for #17 Illinois to force YET ANOTHER OT vs #4 Purdue 78-78 (Video via @MrMatthewCFB)

— NCAA Buzzer Beaters & Game Winners (@NCAABuzzerBters) January 17, 2022

While it was a good look and a good pass by Curbelo, it was also a bit lucky. And perhaps it's a bit unfair to judge a guy after a 20-point, zero-turnover game on one possession. But these late-game decisions happen a lot.

Either way, the other two guards dominated without Curbelo on the floor. Trent Frazier and Plummer are doing some unbelievable things offensively. Plus, Jacob Grandison has a 129.3 ORtg out of the wing position, which is the highest on the team.

Brad Underwood is demonstrating just how many dangerous scorers he has.

That brings us to the second reason: Kofi Cockburn is still one of the best big men in the nation.

Davis is the current favorite to win the Wooden Award, but Cockburn has the third-best odds at +900. The Jamaica product is dropping a casual 21.1 points and 11.8 rebounds per game.

Other Notes on Favorites Tier

  • The win over Illinois in Champaign was a big confidence booster for Purdue. It proves Matt Painter is the guy to beat in the Big Ten.
  • Michigan State held serve in the Big Ten until the Northwestern loss. Sparty is still 5-1 in conference play, but hasn’t played a KenPom top-50 team since November. Do not get lulled into betting Sparty, who may be a little overvalued.
  • Why did Ohio State play IUPUI in the middle of January? The Buckeyes beat the hapless Jaguars 83-37. Ohio State actually dropped three spots in KenPom following the win. IUPUI dropped from 355th to 356th.
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Tier 2: Trending Up

Indiana Hoosiers+2000
Iowa Hawkeyes+2500
Rutgers Scarlet Knights+4000
Penn State Nittany Lions+10000

Indiana Hoosiers

The Hoosiers have a few tough wins this season and are now 4-3 in conference play.

Mike Woodson’s team has one of the nation’s best big men in Trayce Jackson-Davis — who is dominant in all aspects of the game — and has a steadily improving defense.

The Hoosiers have snuck up to 12th nationally in defensive efficiency and third in defensive eFG%. Overall, the Hoosiers are allowing less than .8 PPP in the half-court.

Of course, everything for Indiana revolves around the frontcourt. Jackson-Davis, Miller Kopp and Race Thompson are all excellent all-around players, especially as interior defenders.

As a result, Indiana is 18th in block rate and sixth in post-up PPP allowed.

I love the "old school" feel to this Indiana team. The tandem or Trayce and Race Thompson is fun to watch. I think Trayce Jackson-Davis might be the best player in the country. Even against other NBA prospects, he looks heads and shoulders above.

— Justin Albers (@Justin_Albers) January 14, 2022

But, guard play will continue to be a major issue for Indiana going forward. Poor guard play is a death sentence in March, so be careful targeting Indiana in the futures markets.

But for the time being, Indiana just upset Ohio State 12 days ago and has three straight home games on deck. That does include a massive matchup with Purdue, however.

Penn State Nittany Lions

Penn State isn’t good, but I believe it is quietly exceeding expectations.

Wins over Indiana, Northwestern and Rutgers has the Nittany Lions in the middle of a deep pack — which, while not excellent, provides a solid floor for Micah Shrewsberry to build on.

I love the way Penn State plays. The Nittany Lions play true team basketball, and the offense has four double-digit scorers as a result. They work very slow (347th in tempo) and are rather efficient on both ends of the floor, particularly inside the arc.

The Nittany Lions won’t ever be in serious contention. But it’s very much worth watching coach Shrewsberry’s team play. That's because it’s enjoyable basketball.

Shrewsberry's team-based, slow-rolling style also makes PSU worth backing as underdogs. The Nittany Lions will muck games up, and they are 5-2 ATS as underdogs this season.

That includes this electric game against SEC powerhouse LSU earlier this season:


Penn State (+8) somehow ties it up with less than a second to play!

— The Action Network (@ActionNetworkHQ) November 27, 2021

I’d also target Penn State to make the tournament at +1000 or better.

KenPom projects the Nittany Lions to lose each of their next eight games, but I have a feeling they’ll pull off one or two shockers. Michigan and Michigan State both visit University Park in February, and both spots seem good to back the Nittany Lions.

It's also worth noting Penn State is the conference's biggest under team. The Nittany Lions are 9-6 to the under this season.

Other Notes on Tier 2

  • Rutgers is quietly 4-2 in conference play and is 5-2 since that shocking upset over Purdue. The Scarlet Knights get Iowa at home Wednesday night, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them pull off that upset.
  • Iowa’s offense continues to be elite. The Hawkeyes cracked the top 20 in KenPom for the first time this season after wins over Indiana and Minnesota.
  • The Hawkeyes are also the biggest over team in college basketball this season, currently sitting at 14-3 to the over (82%).

Tier 3: Trending Down

Michigan Wolverines+4000
Northwestern Wildcats+8500
Maryland Terps+20000

Northwestern Wildcats

Do not fall into the Wildcats’ trap!

A win over a sleeping Spartans team is not something to get excited about. The script for Northwestern has been the same for years: the Wildcats start hot in the first half of the year and then get embarrassed in January and February.

Think about this:

  • 2021: Wildcats start 6-1 and 3-0 in conference play; finish 9-14 and 6-13 in conference play
  • 2020: Wildcats start 6-9 with wins over Providence and Nebraska; finish 8-23 and 3-17 in conference play
  • 2019: Wildcats sit at 12-7 on Jan. 22 after back-to-back wins over Rutgers and Indiana; finish by losing 12 of their final 13 games.
  • 2018: Wildcats sit at 15-10 on Feb. 6 after beating ranked Michigan; finish by losing the final seven games.

The Wildcats currently sit at 9-7 after beating Sparty on Jan. 15. Sound familiar?

Do not get fooled if Northwestern looks like it’s starting to play well. It never ends well in Evanston, and it’s always worth fading Chris Collins around this time of year.

Seven of the Wildcats' final 13 regular-season games will also come on the road.

 Other Notes on Tier 3

  • I’d be impressed with Michigan’s shellacking of Maryland if both teams weren’t so pathetic.
  • Maryland is the worst team ATS in the conference this season, sitting at 6-12 ATS on the season.
  • However, given what we know about Northwestern, Michigan’s home game against the Wildcats on Jan. 26 looks like a great spot to back the Wolverines. We know the Wildcats are overvalued. But, maybe Michigan is actually getting it together and will be undervalued?

Tier 4: Continue to Ignore

Minnesota Golden Gophers+25000
Nebraska Cornhuskers+100000

Minnesota Golden Gophers

The Golden Gophers have lost four straight, but have had some remarkable performances. That includes straight-up victories over Michigan and Mississippi State paired with a two-point loss to Michigan State.

But in each of those games, Minnesota put up some remarkable offensive numbers — like 1.22 PPP against MSST, 1.18 PPP against Michigan and 1.10 PPP in the loss to Sparty.

In each of those contests, Minnesota saw some real hot shooting streaks. And in the end, ShotQuality’s metrics show negative regression coming for the Golden Gophers in the future.

Moreover, Ben Johnson is running with just a seven-man rotation right now. And the injury list is popping off. Although to be fair, COVID protocols have forced some guys out of the fold, and Wednesday’s game against Penn State has already been postponed.

The University of Minnesota announced that the men’s basketball game against Penn State on Wednesday has been postponed.

— WCCO – CBS Minnesota (@WCCO) January 18, 2022

Either way, I’m looking to fade Minnesota going forward.

I think there’s some negative regression coming for the Golden Gophers, and a good time to bet against Minnesota will be after its COVID pause. The team will be rusty and ripe to get blown out.

Nebraska Cornhuskers

The Cornhuskers are 0-8 in conference play with a five-star recruit leading the team in scoring.

Time to fire Fred Hoiberg!

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