We're two weeks from The Big Ten Tournament in Chicago and the postseason fate of the conference is starting to take shape. The conference tournament is always a chance for someone to steal the automatic bid, but only once, in 2001 when Iowa won as a No. 6 seed, has a team really stolen the Auto-bid when they weren't getting in already. The No.1 or No. 2 seed has won the tournament every season except 1998 No. 4 Michigan (which was later vacated), Iowa in 2001, and Purdue in 2009 as the No. 3 seed. Iowa remains the only team to play on the first day to win the whole thing.
So the chances of a team stealing the automatic bid are slim, but twice Illinois has reached the final as the No. 10 seed or lower. Ohio State made it as a No. 8 in 2003, Iowa in 2002 as a No. 9, and Penn State and Minnesota played their way in by reaching the final No. 6 seeds in 2011 and 2010, respectively.
That is what a lot of teams are playing for. For a good portion of the conference, the postseason is already set, but with two weeks to go 11 teams have semi-realistic shots at playing somewhere in the postseason.
NCAA Lock and Probable Conference Champion:
Indiana Hoosiers - IU probably locked up at least a tie for the conference title when Michigan State lost last week. For them not to win a share they have to lose at least once at home to Ohio State or Iowa, two teams that they have already beaten away from Assembly Hall. A win tonight over Minnesota likely seals the outright conference title because I don't see the Hoosiers dropping two of their final three.
Indiana is also going to be a No. 1 seed and will be the No. 1 overall seed unless it all comes tumbling down. They should be the resounding favorites to win the entire tournament because they're playing better than even I expected. When their offense is humming they are as close to unbeatable as anyone in the country can be.
Sadly, Purdue was in a similar position three years ago right about this time. They weren't No. 1, but they were cruising to a No. 1 seed out in front of the entire Big Ten and looking really, really good. They, too, were going to Minnesota. We all know what happened, because the cruel basketball gods derailed all the promise on the floor of the Barn. I highly doubt the same happens to Indiana tonight because of course things always go their way in late February and March. History tells us that Indiana will thrive while Purdue will find the metaphorical banana peel in the same situation. Really, something catastrophic is the only way Indiana should lose the rest of the way outside of their trip to Michigan.
Michigan St. Spartans - The Spartans would likely be in control of the Big Ten and holding a No. 1 seed if they could have closed out both games. Now they are in a brutal dogfight to stay in the top 4 and enjoy Thursday off in Chicago. Of Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, and Wisconsin someone is going to have to play on Thursday. Yes, it will be against a depleted Penn State, but it is still a game that must be played and fatigue added. With Michigan State still to play at Michigan and at home against Wisconsin the Spartans very well could be that team. They are still an NCAA lock, but the lost two losses cost them a conference title and seeding in March.
Michigan Wolverines - Michigan has two tough games at home and two relatively easy games on the road. Going to Penn State shouldn't be a challenge. If Purdue has started to turn things around they might challenge Michigan, but the Wolverines should still win. That leaves home games against MSU (who recently pounded the Wolverines) and Indiana. If Michigan can get through the next three games their season finale could see them playing for a share of the conference title if Indiana drops another game, or the outright title if IU somehow loses two.
Michigan also can be a No. 1 seed, but they likely have to win the next four and probably reach the championship of the Big Ten Tournament. If they share the crown with Indiana (winning in Ann Arbor) a rubber match for the Big Ten Tournament could be for the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAAs.
Wisconsin Badgers - As if you need more proof that Bo Ryan is a wizard, he has the Badgers perfectly aligned for another top 4 finish and an outside shot at the conference title I don't see them higher than a three seed in March, but they have the easiest schedule left of any of the contenders (Nebraska, Purdue, at Michigan State, at Penn State). They should win three of those four with ease. Win all four, and they have the tiebreaker with Indiana for the No. 1 seed in Chicago because they won in Bloomington in their only matchup. This is one team that Indiana wants to avoid at all costs, as Bo Ryan owns Tom Crean.
What is costing Wisconsin right now is the loss at Iowa and the home loss to Michigan State. Also, they dropped a game Minnesota desperately needed in overtime a few weeks ago. Right now the Badgers need to take care of business and cheer like hell that IU drops two.
Ohio St. Buckeyes - Ohio State either wins or loses in very ugly fashion. The home loss to IU, the loss at Illinois, and the loss at Wisconsin were pretty awful, but they continue to play hard at home. They'll likely earn a four or five seed in March, but with five losses and a game still at Indiana the Buckeyes are likely on the outside looking in at a first round bye in Chicago. I think they will be the team that has to play Penn State on Thursday. That means a trip to their seventh championship game in the last eight years will be that much more difficult.
I just don't trust Matta's teams in March with his notoriously short bench. I am not a coach, but Ohio State's talented backups should handle Penn State easily, so he should play the second string in a game that has very little meaning in terms of their postseason fate and give his starters a bye.
Should Be In:
Illinois Fighting Illini - At one point I thought Illinois would get to 20 wins, but finish 7-11 in the league and really challenge my notion that no team with a losing record in their conference should make the NCAA Tournament. Illinois is already at seven wins before facing Nebraska in their home finale this weekend win that and win at Iowa and Illinois gets to at least 9-9. They are one of two wins over the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the country and they beat the other team that has done that double (Butler). The only way the Illinois slides out of the tourney is if they lose the next four games.
Minnesota Golden Gophers - After starting red hot the Gophers are just 3-8 in their last 11 games. They could finish below .500 in the league with two more loses and still reach 20 wins. They've lost consecutive games by at least 20 points, but still have decent wins over Memphis, Florida State, Michigan State, and Illinois. Ever since that first half at Indiana, when the Gophers were 15-1 but got blitzed 52-29, this hasn't been the same team. they recovered to score 52 in the second half and make it a game, but that is what started this stretch.
They get a second chance against Indiana tonight and an upset erases almost everything since that first Indiana game. Minnesota isn't losing to Penn State at home and should beat Nebraska and Purdue on the road, but beat Indiana rights the ship and puts them on the good side of the Bubble permanently. They'd probably be looking at about 6-8 seed with a win over Indiana, while a loss and wins in the final three games would likely still be enough.
Iowa Hawkeyes - The Big Ten can still get eight teams in, but Iowa is by far the weakest of the eight. The RPI is down at 89 and they have become the Northwestern of this year in terms of finding ways to not wins games in the final minute. Against Indiana, Michigan State, at Purdue, at Minnesota, at Wisconsin, and at Nebraska the Hawkeyes had every chance to win with just one more play but could not get it done.
Iowa is 6-8 in conference, but four of those wins are over Northwestern and Penn State. The Nebraska loss was brutal and a choke job that may have broken their spirits. If Purdue earns a sweep on Wedensday I think it is safe to say that Iowa is NIT bound regardless of what happens in the final three games. They still have to go to Indiana on Saturday, where a win is highly unlikely.
NIT at Best, but possible CBI teams too
Purdue Boilermakers - It was against a broken Northwestern team, but Purdue finally played another good game on Sunday and got to 6-8 in the league. A win at Iowa tomorrow is now crucial if they are going to make the NIT. The CBI is also possible even with a losing record, as Washington State, who made the final of that event last year, was accepted with a losing record. Playing in said tournament would be more about gaining experience and cohesion for next season than anything else.
Because of the split with Illinois and only one game with Minnesota Purdue has at least a chance to finish as high as the No. 6 seed and get a game in Chicago against Northwestern or Nebraska. That would be good, as it offers a better chance to get another win towards finishing at .500 or better overall, plus they avoid the No. 1 seed and a third Death by Indiana. A 2-2 split in the final four games would make Purdue 15-16 going to Chicago, where they would need two wins to go .500 overall or better. Purdue is capable of beating Iowa, who can't close games, and Minnesota, who is really struggling right now. At 8-10 Purdue would probably be in the 7-10 game on Thursday as the seven against Nebraska or Northwestern before facing the No. 2 seed on Friday. That's a tall order to get to .500 (needed for an NIT bid), but still likely good enough for the CBI.
Nebraska Cornhuskers - Nebraska has officially passed Northwestern in terms of postseason chances after coming back and beating Iowa. They play really hard and can certainly beat Minnesota and Iowa in the last four to get close to .500 and into the 7-10 game in Chicago. That means a CBI bid is possible for a young team that could also use the extra games and time together a postseason bid would bring.
That's pretty shocking when I questioned if they would win a conference game this year. The four wins they have aren't impressive, but they have the tiebreaker for the 10 seed since they beat Northwestern in their only game and they can't be caught by Penn State due to their sweep. They have quite a bit to play for against a favorable schedule for them.
Northwestern Wildcats - Northwestern's postseason is hanging by a thread that is likely to break with games still against Ohio State and Michigan State. They would have to win both of those, beat Penn State, and still win a game in Chicago to guarantee a plus .500 finish. That's unlikely
Will they win a conference game?
Penn St. Nittany Lions - Penn State has not won a basketball game in 2013, last winning on December 29th against Duquesne. They are fighting hard, however. They were competitive at Michigan and Illinois and took Iowa to the wire at home. They host Michigan tonight, but all eyes are on the March 7 game at Northwestern. Can an improving, but still bad Penn State team beat a Northwestern team that looks completely broken?
The 2007-08 Wildcats were probably the worst Big Ten team in recent history, going 1-17 with only a 62-60 win at Michigan. That is what is at stake here. Northwestern will play Penn State hoping to rid themselves of the "worst recent era Big Ten team".