With Wisconsin dropping a “stunner” to Northwestern at home, Maryland falling twice in a row, and the Big Ten being excluded entirely from the first-ever “official” top sixteen, the Big Ten tournament picture may be more of a question than ever. Here’s how things are looking with most teams having five or six conference games still to play.
Should Be In
Wisconsin (21-4, 10-2; RPI: 24, SOS: 103). For all of the talk that a home loss to Northwestern was “shocking” or even the least bit “surprising,” to Badger fans, it was perhaps the most expected game of the season. For all of the high rankings and shimmering records, Wisconsin has played downright awful recently, and there’s little to say that this will change any time soon. Bronson Koenig is playing hurt, Nigel Hayes is no longer the leader of the team, and beyond D’Mitrik Trice, the bench hasn’t been able to produce much. The Badgers have one of the easiest schedules of those in the RPI Top 25, and their “signature” wins this season are Minnesota and Tennessee. There’s very little to prove that this Wisconsin team is even remotely a contender. That said, they’ve pretty much won the games they’ve needed to, and will get six more chances to show that they are actually the best team in the Big Ten. They’ll make the tournament, but a #3 or #4 hasn’t been earned. The only way it might be? Winning the Big Ten tournament.
Purdue (20-5, 9-3; RPI: 18, SOS: 43). Wisconsin may have the best record in the Big Ten, but Purdue is – by every metric – the best team. Sure, they’ve dropped head-scratchers to Nebraska and Iowa. But they have the best player in the Big Ten in their starting lineup (Swanigan; Happ is close, but not the best), as well as wins against the three other “best” teams in the Big Ten in Wisconsin, Northwestern, and Maryland. They also have a quality win over Notre Dame, and are 5-3 against the RPI Top 50. Purdue is vulnerable, to be sure, and have historically underperformed in the NCAA Tournament. Still, they have talent, and this could be the year that Purdue is the last remaining Big Ten team standing come March.
Maryland (20-4, 9-3; RPI: 23, SOS: 67). After a scorching 19-2 start, Maryland wasn’t able to play up to standard, losing two straight vs. Purdue and at Penn State. Neither are really a “good loss,” and much like Wisconsin, the Terps have had few chances to prove their worth this season. Granted, they’re 3-1 against the RPI Top 50 with wins over Minnesota, Kansas State and Oklahoma State, but they’ve also dropped games to Pitt (RPI: 54), Penn State (65) and Nebraska (83). This is a team built on freshman, as the trio of Jackson, Cowan and Huerter comprise a bulk of the Maryland scoring beyond Melo Trimble. A deep tournament run is unlikely, but they could make waves in the first few rounds.
Northwestern (19-6, 8-4; RPI: 34, SOS: 91). One Twitter pundit argued Sunday night that Northwestern’s toppling of then-No. 7 Wisconsin in Madison was maybe its most important win of all time. To be frank, that might be true. It all but solidified the culmination of what’s been an incredible season for Chris Collins’ crew, and it would take a major deterioration for this team to not make the tourney – that win was what we in the basketball world call a “dagger”. The Wildcats are by no means an earth-shatteringly great team, and they won’t be above a #5 or #6 seed, but for a team that has literally never made an NCAA Tournament, this year has been maybe its best ever. Northwestern’s 3-5 RPI Top 50 record includes wins over Dayton and Wake Forest as well as at Wisconsin, and their only losses this season to teams outside the RPI Top 25 are at Michigan State (RPI: 41) and vs. Illinois (66). The Wildcats should be proud, but keep pushing to improve their seeding come March.
Work Left to Do
Minnesota (18-7, 6-6; RPI: 21, SOS: 15). Minnesota not only has the second-highest RPI in the Big Ten, but the third-highest SOS as well. That’s thanks in large part to a pair of wins over Arkansas and UT-Arlington, both of which somehow just slip into the RPI Top 50. Still, the Golden Gophers possess only two losses outside the Top 50 (Penn State and Ohio State), and neither are glaringly bad. Minnesota’s next two games – home against Indiana and Michigan, two obvious bubble teams – could make or break their season, but coming out of both with wins would all but solidify a place in the tournament. What’s more, Minnesota will have two chances for big wins at Maryland (2/22) and at Wisconsin (3/5). The Gophers have taken advantage of a weaker Big Ten pool, and still need to win probably four of their last six regular season games to be a guarantee, but have proven themselves capable of winning tournament games in March.
On the Bubble
Michigan State (15-10, 7-5; RPI: 41, SOS: 18). A treacherous stretch between January 15th and January 24th saw the Spartans drop three straight to Ohio State, Indiana and Purdue. Since, they’re 3-1, but that one win was an absolute collapse against Michigan. Michigan State’s résumé flat out sucks, as they’re just 7-9 against the RPI Top 100 – inexcusable for most tournament teams. However, their RPI Top 50 losses all come to teams with RPI’s of 18 or above – Arizona, Kentucky, Baylor, Duke and Purdue. A trio of wins against Minnesota and Northwestern are the only things Sparty has to show right now, but games vs. Wisconsin and at Maryland and Purdue loom. If State can pull off one or two wins, they’re probably in. But lose all three? It wouldn’t be surprising to see Izzo’s gang in the NIT.
Michigan (16-9, 6-6; RPI: 61, SOS: 52). Michigan also has an abysmal RPI Top 50 record of 2-6, and sits in the middle of likely the least impressive Power Five conference this year. The critical stretch of games they have coming up will truthfully determine whether or not they receive a bid to March Madness – they’ll face Wisconsin in Ann Arbor (2/16), go to Minnesota (2/19), and then have Rutgers before going back home to face Purdue (2/25) and go on the road to Northwestern (3/1). If Michigan plays how it has all season, it will go 2-4 in its final six, finish 18-13 overall and 8-10 in conference. That’s simply not tournament-caliber. Michigan needs to pull at least two upsets to still be in, and they’re sitting on the #11 line in ESPN’s latest projection.
No Way In
Indiana (15-11, 5-8; RPI: 87, SOS: 44). Three straight losses to Purdue, Wisconsin and Michigan? Even with games left against Purdue, Northwestern and Minnesota, Indiana would at least need to win out the rest of the season and then perform well in the Big Ten tournament to be considered. Their most recent games have them absolutely reeling. They’re currently in ESPN’s First Four Out.
Ohio State (15-11, 5-8; RPI: 59, SOS: 26).
Penn State (14-12, 6-7; RPI: 65, SOS: 17).
Illinois (14-12, 4-9; RPI: 66, SOS: 7).
Nebraska (10-14, 4-8; RPI: 83, SOS: 1).
Iowa (14-12, 6-7; RPI: 105, SOS: 58).
Rutgers (13-13, 2-11; RPI: 146, SOS: 121).