ILLINOIS (4-9, 0-2 BIG TEN)
The Illini’s MVP is …Trent Frazier, and it’s not really even much of a debate. The sophomore guard has carried the Illinois offense much of the season. In an ideal world, though, the Illini would find that perfect combination of confident shooter and effective facilitator with their 6-foot-1 lefty.
2019 is a success if … the Illini at least show some promise. Wins might be hard to come by in the next two-plus months in what could be a brutal Big Ten. But the Illini have to show clear signs of improvement ahead of what could be a pivotal 2019-20 season. (Some recruiting successes wouldn’t hurt either).
The Illini’s must-win game is … on Feb. 9 at home against Rutgers. Part of the fan base is already starting to bail after the 4-9 start, and the 73-71 overtime home loss to Florida Atlantic didn’t help. That might change in the month before Illinois faces the Scarlet Knights, but lose that one and the fans check out for sure.
The Illini win the Big Ten if … they’re able to figure out how Frazier and Ayo Dosunmu fit together the best. And Kipper Nichols takes that consistency he found in early December and holds on to it the rest of the year. And Giorgi Bezhanishvili returns to November form. And either Alan Griffin or Tevian Jones breaks out. And …
MICHIGAN (13-0, 2-0 BIG TEN)
The Wolverines’ MVP is … Ignas Brazdeikis in a landslide. The freshman forward has scored in double figures in 11 of 13 games, and he’s Michigan’s leading scorer and third leading rebounder.
2019 is a success if … the 13-0 start with wins against Villanova and UNC wasn’t the Wolverines peaking too soon. Still, they’ll be favored in nearly all of their games moving forward.
The Wolverines’ must-win game is … the first of two matchups with Michigan State on Feb. 24. Michigan has home-court advantage, and the Big Ten title might come down to those rivals.
The Wolverines win the Big Ten if … they’re able to maintain their suffocating defense (likely) and keep squeezing the most out of their offense that’s good but not quite at the level of their defense.
OHIO STATE (12-1, 2-0 BIG TEN)
The Buckeyes’ MVP is … Chris Holtmann. Sure, Kaleb Wesson has been great, but Ohio State’s coach has taken a team that lost last year’s Big Ten POTY (Keita Bates-Diop) and kept it relevant.
2019 is a success if … there are more wins, like beating Creighton on the road and demolishing a tuned-out UCLA on a neutral court, and fewer losses like the one at home to Syracuse.
The Buckeyes’ must-win game is … this weekend in a Saturday home date against Michigan State. Want to make a statement? Knock off the No. 8-ranked Spartans to jump back into Big Ten play.
The Buckeyes win the Big Ten if … they continue to grind out wins behind Wesson and C.J. Jackson — and probably get some help from both Michigan teams losing games they shouldn’t.
INDIANA (11-2, 2-0 BIG TEN)
The Hoosiers’ MVP is … senior forward Juwan Morgan, and the way his season is shaping up statistically, he’s got to be at least considered for Big Ten POTY honors, too.
2019 is a success if … the run of Top 50 wins to start December wasn’t a fluke. The average margin of victory in that four-game stretch was just two points. Still wins, but awfully close ones.
The Hoosiers‘ must-win game is … against Michigan on Jan. 25. Indiana will have likely already lost to the Wolverines in Ann Arbor, Mich., this weekend. That makes a home win even more important.
The Hoosiers win the Big Ten if … Morgan continues to play like one of the conference’s best players and Romeo Langford continues to solidify his status as a future NBA lottery pick.
MICHIGAN STATE (11-2, 2-0 BIG TEN)
The Spartans’ MVP is … Cassius Winston, and if you thought he was going to be their leading scorer (17.5 ppg) through 13 games, get yourself to Las Vegas immediately.
2019 is a success if … this perhaps less talented team (no future lottery picks) gets past the second round of the NCAA tournament that’s been a recent stumbling block.
The Spartans’ must-win game is … their regular season finale. That March 9 showdown with Michigan in East Lansing could very well determine this year’s Big Ten regular season champion.
The Spartans win the Big Ten if … the trio of Winston, Nick Ward and Joshua Langford can continue to lead the way — as was maybe not wholly expected, but certainly needed.
WISCONSIN (10-3, 2-0 BIG TEN)
The Badgers’ MVP is … Ethan Happ, and he’s doing all his typical Ethan Happ things. Like leading Wisconsin in every statistical category — except free-throw shooting. Definitely not that.
2019 is a success if … the Badgers get back to the NCAA tournament (and maybe back in the top four of the Big Ten) after last year’s disappointing sub-.500 season.
The Badgers’ must-win game is …Thursday’s home date with Minnesota. Wisconsin is favored, but after losing at Western Kentucky to end 2018, the Badgers need to start 2019 on a better note.
The Badgers win the Big Ten if …both D’Mitrik Trice and Brad Davison can continue to be viable second options offensively after Happ. Some help from their competition wouldn’t hurt either.
MINNESOTA (11-2, 1-1 BIG TEN)
The Gophers’ MVP is … Jordan Murphy. The 6-foot-6 forward continues to rack up double-doubles at a prodigious rate with 10 in 13 games so far this season.
2019 is a success if … last year’s 15-17 season can be a distant memory. Richard Pitino isn’t exactly coaching for his job, but consistent success wouldn’t hurt his cause.
The Gophers’ must-win game is … a home date with Iowa on Jan. 27. Minnesota already beat a top 25 caliber Big Ten team in Nebraska. Taking down another (if Iowa can hang on) could be key.
The Gophers win the Big Ten if … Murphy and Amir Coffey continue to lead the way, but sophomore guard Isaiah Washington starts providing more production as a defacto sixth man.
NEBRASKA (11-2, 1-1 BIG TEN)
The Huskers’ MVP is …high-scoring wing James Palmer Jr. The senior guard ranks second in the Big Ten in scoring at 19.6 ppg boosted by his innate ability to get to the free-throw line.
2019 is a success if …Nebraska wins at least 20 games, finishes in the top half — maybe quarter — of the Big Ten and actually makes the NCAA tournament this time.
The Huskers’ must-win game is … next week in a Jan. 10 home game with Penn State. It’s simply a game they can’t lose if they want to be among the Big Ten’s elite (and maybe the top 25 still).
The Huskers win the Big Ten if … they can take advantage of their window. Because this is it. Palmer, Isaac Copeland and Glynn Watson Jr. are all seniors. It’s now or never for Tim Miles and Co.
MARYLAND (10-3, 1-1 BIG TEN)
The Terrapins’ MVP is … Anthony Cowan Jr. The junior point guard is the glue that holds this young team together, but his 16.5 ppg, 4.5 apg and 3.9 rpg makes a difference, too.
2019 is a success if … Maryland’s freshman class, which is already paying dividends, is truly the foundation of elevating the program back to more national relevance.
The Terrapins’ must-win game is … today. They get a home game with Nebraska and a chance at a needed résumé booster early in Big Ten play given a mostly soft nonconference schedule.
The Terrapins win the Big Ten if … those same freshmen — Jalen Smith, Aaron Wiggins and Eric Ayala — embrace the challenge that is the Big Ten and don’t hit the so-called freshman wall.
PURDUE (8-5, 1-1 BIG TEN)
The Boilermakers’ MVP is … Carsen Edwards because other than some Ryan Cline three-point shooting, there hasn’t been much else this season for Purdue.
2019 is a success if … Matt Painter’s team can weather a step back from its recent success and come out of the other end stronger in March.
The Boilermakers’ must-win game is … their fans’ first chance to break out their favorite IU-related chants in a Jan. 19 home game against the Hoosiers.
The Boilermakers win the Big Ten if … leaning so heavily on Edwards yields more wins against high-major opponents (you know, the entire Big Ten) than it has so far.
IOWA (11-2, 0-2 BIG TEN)
The Hawkeyes MVP is … Tyler Cook, who went through the pre-draft process and returned, producing on an even higher level across the board.
2019 is a success if … the ranked Hawkeyes maintain that level of play through the Big Ten and put last year’s 14-19 season in the rear view.
The Hawkeyes’ must-win game is … on Jan. 12 at home versus Ohio State. Iowa is currently a slight favorite, but the “upset” potential makes a home loss possible.
The Hawkeyes win the Big Ten if … they’re able to maintain the type of balance that has three other double-digit scorers lined up right behind Cook.
NORTHWESTERN (9-4, 0-2 BIG TEN)
The Wildcats’ MVP is … a healthy Vic Law, and that makes all the difference. The fifth-year senior is making good on his final season in Evanston.
2019 is a success if … it more resembles the 2016-17 season (first-ever NCAA tournament appearance) than 2017-18 campaign (a sub-.500 finish).
The Wildcats’ must-win game is … Sunday against Illinois. Expect plenty of orange and/or blue-clad fans in the stands of the newly-renovated Welsh-Ryan Arena.
The Wildcats win the Big Ten if … they can put together a series of better wins than their current best, which was just a six-point home win against Georgia Tech.
RUTGERS (7-5, 0-2 BIG TEN)
The Scarlet Knights’ MVP is … junior forward Eugene Omoruyi, who leads the team in both scoring and rebounding.
2019 is a success if … the Scarlet Knights are able to win more than three Big Ten games. That’s been the max since they joined the conference.
The Scarlet Knights’ must-win game is … a Feb. 24 home date with Minnesota. While things could change, that’s the game with the best odds for a win.
The Scarlet Knights win the Big Ten if … the rest of the conference absolutely craters. They’re continually more competitive under Steve Pikiell, but not that much better.
PENN STATE (7-6, 0-2 BIG TEN)
The Nittany Lions MVP is … Lamar Stevens, who was sometimes a one-man show early in the year before freshman guard Rasir Bolton settled in to his role.
2019 is a success if … Penn State can bounce back from its 7-6 start (with losses to DePaul and Bradley) and live up to higher preseason expectations.
The Nittany Lions must-win game is .. .a Feb. 19 matchup with Nebraska in Happy Valley. At that point of the season, it’s imperative to protect home court.
The Nittany Lions win the Big Ten if … the return of Mike Watkins from suspension solidifies their lineup and rotation along with plenty of help from the top of the league.