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The Big Ten looks to be a lock for seven NCAA bids, but will there be second half surprises.
Now that everyone in the conference has played at least nine league games we can get an idea of how many teams will make the NCAA Tournament. Already we are seeing some definite locks while a bubble has formed. Also, teams like Purdue that thought they could play their way back onto the Bubble find themselves on a different sort of bubble: the NIT.
Still, there is at least a chance for 10 teams to play somewhere in the postseason depending on how things finish. Some teams have easier schedules than others, but right now everyone outside of Penn State has a chance, at least, to play somewhere after the Big Ten Tournament. That event also hasn't had a surprise winner in several years that steals the auto-bid, but it could still happen.
NCAA Locks: Indiana, Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State, Minnesota, Wisconsin
All six of these teams are in the field because they are at or very near 20 wins overall. That's going to be enough this year to get into the Big Ten, especially with five league teams in the top 18. Wisconsin is sitting at only 15 wins overall, but they are the only team that has won at Indiana and they should be able to get five more wins in their last nine games. Besides, isn't there a rule that Bo Ryan's team must always finish in the top four of the league?
The real battle is for the conference title and a potential Number 1 seed. Both Indiana and Michigan have compelling cases for a No. 1 seed, but the Hoosiers have the tougher road. They have to go to the three main contenders for the title starting at Ohio State on Sunday. Michigan State and Michigan played them close in Bloomington and could turn the tied at home. Indiana also has a sneaky tough road trip to Minnesota and a home game against Ohio State.
If I had to pick a team to win the conference I would go with Michigan. The Wolverines get Penn State twice, Illinois at home, and a trip to Purdue. They also get Michigan State and Indiana at home. If they get out of these next three games (Ohio State, at Wisconsin, at Michigan State) at 2-1 or 3-0 they could coast to the title and a No. 1 seed because everyone else has a much tougher schedule.
NCAA Bubble: Iowa, Illinois
Both of these teams are behind worse profile teams based on league record, but at in the discussion based on their overall record and solid non-conference profile. Illinois is in the best shape with wins over Butler, Gonzaga, and Ohio State, but they are a putrid 2-7 in league play. They also still have to play Indiana, at Michigan, at Minnesota, and at Ohio State. They'll need to win two of those just to guarantee a .500 finish in league play, and that is without another loss to someone like Iowa or at Northwestern.
I am of the opinion that teams that finish below .500 in league play do not deserve an at large bid, but an 8-10 Fighting Illini would test that theory. It would be an easy rule to implement as well. If you want to complain then go win your auto-bid in the conference tourney because it is the ultimate second chance card. They could still finish as low as 7-11 in league play and get to 20 wins before the Big Ten Tourney. If they do that they had better at least make it to Saturday if they want some hope.
The Hawkeyes have had awful unlucky each of the last two Sundays. They have had a lead in the final minute only to let road wins at Purdue and Minnesota slip away. At 14-8 overall and now 3-6 in the league they Hawkeyes would be looking very good had they held on in both of those. They may have the easiest finishing schedule in the league after a brutal start. After going to Wisconsin this week they host Northwestern, go to Penn State, host Minnesota, then get Purdue and Illinois at home while playing Nebraska twice.
I think there are six wins there for Iowa, giving them 20 overall and nine in the conference, which should be enough. My gut tells me Iowa gets the seventh bid, while Illinois is the team sweating the most.
Fighting for the NIT: Purdue, Northwestern, Nebraska
The NIT is going to take any Big Ten that finishes .500 or better overall, and these three have at least a chance. Nebraska is probably the most surprising given their lack of scholarship players, but they play incredibly hard and have already gotten two wins. Hosting Penn State on Saturday would get them back to .500 overall, but they'd need to go 4-3 in the final seven before Chicago. They get Iowa twice and go to Illinois, so it's possible with an upset somewhere.
Northwestern helped themselves and greatly damaged Purdue's hopes with Saturday's win in Evanston. The Wildcats are now 13-10 overall and need only three wins in the final eight to secure at least a .500 overall record. They also could get a win or two in Chicago depending on seedings and matchups because someone has to play Penn State on Thursday up there. The Wildcats still host Illinois, go to Purdue, and host Penn State. I think they get there and got to a fifth straight NIT, while somehow getting to 9-9 in the lead from their current 4-6 would put them on the Bubble for the NCAAs.
As for Purdue, the last hope of playing onto the Bubble was dashed with the loss at Northwestern. That would have made Purdue 12-10 overall and 5-4 in the league. Now Purdue is 11-11 and must win five games the rest of the way to assure a .500 record. That includes a first round Big Ten Tourney game.
The good news is that if four of those five come before Chicago, Purdue finishes no worse than 8-10 in the league and would likely get a favorable first round BTT matchup. Purdue needs to take care of business tomorrow in its easiest game remaining at Penn State to even have chance. As for other wins, there would need to be some upsets and the team would have to play light years better than it did this last week. Purdue's best shot is to beat Penn State, Iowa, and Illinois on the road (they already beat all three in Mackey), and beat Northwestern at home. If Purdue is playing well they are capable of stunning Michigan State or Minnesota in Mackey and they proved they can play with Michigan in Ann Arbor, but the Purdue of last week would lose those three by at least 25, likely more.
Purdue's only at large NCAA chance is to go on a completely unexpected tear and win the final nine regular season games. That is not happening, though it should be noted that at Indiana is the only road game left against a ranked team.
Will they win a league game?: Penn State
The Nittany Lions are sitting at 0-9 in the conference, already lost to the next worst team in Nebraska at home, and have their best chances at a league win by hosting Purdue and going to Nebraska this week. The 2006-07 Northwestern team went 1-17 in the conference, winning only 62-60 at Michigan. Penn State is in serious danger of matching or breaking that record.
Of course, since god hates Northwestern basketball he'll have the Wildcats get right back on the bubble only to lose at home March 7 to Penn State.
If Penn State does not have a league win after hosting Illinois on February 21 0-18 is a real possibility.