Yesterday marked the end of the non-conference portion of the Big Ten basketball season, as conference play starts Tuesday with Ohio State at Purdue, Indiana at Illinois, Michigan State at Penn State, and Nebraska at Iowa. It is safe to say that the conference had a successful non-conference season. Michigan State, Ohio State, and Wisconsin are all in the top 5. Iowa has joined them in the top 25 with Illinois and Michigan receiving votes. It certainly looks like the league is in line for seven NCAA bids or more.
As we head into league play, let's do a quick power rankings while also separating the teams into postseason tiers again:
Michigan State (RPI: 19) 11-1 - Yes, I am aware that Wisconsin and Ohio State are undefeated, but I think the Spartans are still the best team in the conference despite their bizarre home loss to North Carolina. They own the most top 50 RPI wins of any team in the league with three, beating Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Texas. All of those came away from the Breslin Center too. As usual, Izzo challenged his team with a tough non-conference schedule and they are perfectly primed for a run at the Big Ten. As a benefit, they only have to play Wisconsin once, but it is in Madison.
Michigan State started the year in the top5 for a reason. They are a damn good ballclub that, as usual, gets better as the season goes on.
Wisconsin (RPI: 2) 13-0 - The Badgers have been very impressive in rolling through the non-conference season. Wins over Florida and St. John's are their best, but they also beat West Virginia, Virginia, and St. Louis. They have won by blitzing teams for over 100 points and by dragging opponents down into a Bo Ryan rockfight (the 48-38 win at Virginia). It is safe to say that Ryan's streak of top four finishes is likely safe. Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker are really the perfect archetypes of Wisconsin players. They are tall white guys who can shoot the three, rebound, set screens, and generally dish out pain.
Ohio State (RPI: 14) 13-0 - I will probably regret saying this around 3pm on Tuesday, but I am not quite sold on the Buckeyes. Yes, they are 13-0, but only one win is against the top 50 and that was over North Dakota State. The next best win is over Ohio. Lenzelle Smith Jr. and Sam Thompson are certainly good, athletic players and Aaron Craft is the Big Ten player everyone hates but would love on their team, but when Purdue will be the third best team you have played I don't think they have quite done as much as the top two.
Iowa (RPI: 39) 11-2 - I still really like the Hawkeyes as my dark horse for the league title and the non-conference schedule was far more kind to them this year than last. Still, it would have been nice for them to beat Villanova and Iowa State, especially with Iowa State being a valuable true road game. A win over Xavier is better than anything they had last year, but the Notre Dame victory has lost a lot of value with the struggles the Irish have had. Still, I don't see the Hawkeyes winning less than 10 Big Ten games, which is more than enough to get them back in the NCAAs.
Illinois (RPI: 18) 11-2 - The Fighting Illini have had their moments where they have looked kind of ugly in the non-conference, but Ravonte Rice has proven to be a great addition as one of the best transfers in the nation. The loss at Georgia Tech will sting as the year goes on, but it is hardly an albatross on their overall profile. Finally beating Missouri carries a lot more weight. There were some unexpected struggles against Valparaiso, IPFW, and Illinois-Chicago, but Illinois should also get 10 Big Ten wins and easily make the NCAAs.
Work to do:
Minnesota (RPI: 30) 11-2 - The Golden Gophers have very quietly had a nice non-conference season. The only two losses were to Syracuse and Arkansas out in Maui and they responded with a very nice home win over Florida State. Unfortnately, the next best win is over Richmond. They are similar to Purdue as Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins give them a brotherly backcourt like Terone Johnson and Ronnie Johnson. What is critical for Minnesota is the start in Big Ten play. Home games against Michigan and Purdue, fellow bubble teams, will be huge.
Indiana (RPI: 89) 10-3 - Yes, I think the Hoosiers are slightly better than Purdue right now, but both teams are close. That is why the only meeting of season between the two in West Lafayette will be so big. Indiana is quicker and more athletic than Purdue, which can be a major difference in any game. Still, Indiana has beaten no one. They are 0-2 against the top 100 and their best victory is over Oakland, who is 3-10, but has an RPI of 155 because they played a tough schedule. Would a 10-8 Big Ten season be enough for the Hoosiers?
Purdue (RPI: 92) 10-3 - Indiana and Purdue have almost identical profile. Indiana has played slightly tougher teams in Syracuse and Connecticut compared to Purdue's Butler and Oklahoma State. The loss to Washington State is similar to Indiana's loss to Notre Dame. Purdue at least has a top 100 victory (Eastern Michigan at No. 58) and a true road win over West Virginia. The Boilers have three wins over 300+ teams while Indiana has only one. If Boston College and West Virginia can crawl into the top 100 and Purdue beats Indiana in West Lafayette a 10-8 Big Ten finish should be enough, but a win on Thursday in Indianapolis would definitely help as long as it was over anyone not named Northwestern.
Michigan (RPI: 78) 8-4 - What has happened to the Wolverines? Now that Mitch McGary has been announced as out for the rest of the season this team is in real danger of missing the NCAAs a year after playing for the title. Nik Stauskas can bomb away on teams and Little Dog is still a great player, but they fell out of the top 5 and only wins over Florida State and Stanford have saved them from a disastrous start. Would 9-9 be enough? Unlikely, as they would only be 17-13 then. 10-8 would likely get them to the Bubble because then they at least played a tough non-conference schedule against Duke, Arizona, and Iowa State.
This is probably the only team in the Big Ten that could get in with less than 20 wins overall.
NIT or bust as NCAA spoilers:
Nebraska (RPI: 87) 8-4 - The Cornhuskers, had they won at Cincinnati yesterday, likely would have jumped into the next tier. They now have a new arena and they are good enough to spoil a visit by an upper tier team or two. I don't envy their starting run over at Iowa and at Ohio State, but Michigan had better be careful when they go to Lincoln on January 9th. When it comes to Purdue, if the Boilers can sweep both games wit will help us a lot. Terran Petteway is like Ravonte Rice in that he has been an excellent transfer.
As long as the Cornhuskers can stay at or above .500 overall they can head to the NIT. That means a 7-11 Big Ten finish, which is certainly possible.
Penn State (RPI: 103) 9-4 - The Nittany Lions have that look of a team that could certainly be a spoiler, mostly because of a backcourt of D.J. Newbill and Tim Frazier. An 11-7 Big Ten finish and 20 win season would be a stretch, but if they got there it might be enough to sneak into the NCAA conversation, mostly because I think it would be hard to deny a Big Ten team four games over .500 in league play even if they have lost to Bucknell and Princeton. Had the Nitts won those games they would be in a much better position. If they go 4-4 or better in their first eight Big Ten games they are likely an NIT team. Should they do better this team could sneak into NCAA consideration.
Special Category for Northwestern
Northwestern (RPI: 173) 7-6 - At least this year the tease of the NCAA Tournament will not be lost with a series of agonizing losses in Big Ten play. That has been Northwestern's MO for about five years now. The Wildcats need to go a very unlikely 9-9 in league play just to reach the NIT. They just lost on a buzzer-beater to DePaul and barely beat IUPUI. There have been some feisty moments, such as an 11 point loss to Missouri and a decent game at Stanford, but for the most part the Wildcats will be looking to spoil a team's Big Ten year with a win.
Since every other team in the Big Ten has at least an outside shot at the NCAAs any Northwestern victory in conference play is likely a mortal blow to a team's hopes. As long as that said win doesn't come on January 21 or March 8 it is fine with me.