It appears as if my original thinking of this year's Big Ten was wrong. I had originally thought that Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Michigan State were the clear top 3 with seven teams that could battle for NCAA spots behind them and Northwestern at the rear. Even though Penn State and Nebraska probably weren't NCAA teams, they played hard and were good enough to pull off some upsets to make themselves strong NIT candidates.
Then the past week happened.
Lastnight Northwestern proved it is not going to be as big of a pushover as once expected, as they already have a conference win in a season where 0-18 seemed very likely. Nebraska and Penn State have each gotten off to slow starts in the win column, but have showed they will not be easy for anyone to beat. Finally, Iowa got probably the best win of any Big Ten team when it went to Columbus and knocked off the Buckeyes.
Fasten your seatbelts, kids. It's going to be a fun ride.
1. Wisconsin Badgers - RPI: 1 - 16-0, 3-0 - Wisconsin continues to roll along and crush the skulls of lesser teams. Their close home win over Iowa at home looks even better now too. Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky are Bo Ryan's dream forwards as guys who can shoot the three as well as dish out pain on the interior. How long can they keep the run going? As one of the country's last undefeated teams they head to Bloomington for their continued ownership of Tom Crean tomorrow night.
2. Michigan State Spartans - RPI: 9 - 15-1, 4-0 - After seeing North Carolina continue to struggle I am still baffled as to how they easily won in East Lansing. It wasn't a pretty week with a pair of overtime wins, but Michigan State dodged two chances to lose a home game to teams battling them in the Big Ten. Keith Appling is shooting over 48% from three and they are still winning despite having key players banged up. They easily could be 8-0 going to Iowa City on January 28.
3. Iowa Hawkeyes - RPI: 18 - 13-3, 3-1 - Iowa was very impressive yesterday, scoring 84 points on Ohio State's floor against that defense. It earned Roy Devyn Marble Big Ten Player of the Week honors with 22 points, four rebounds, three assists, and three steals. The Hawkeyes haven't been dancing since 2006, but that eight year drought ends now. This is a team more than good enough to win the Big Ten, let alone just make the tournament.
4. Ohio State Buckeyes - RPI: 16 - 15-2, 2-2 - I still have to give the Bucks quite a bit of credit for that comeback last week in East Lansing against Michigan State. They were dead, but that defense fueled a furious comeback and really could have won in regulation had Shannon Scott not missed the layup after a steal in the final 10 seconds. This week they get a pair of road games at Minnesota and Nebraska, but don't be surprised if they drop one.
On the good side of the Bubble
5. Michigan Wolverines - RPI: 48 - 11-4, 3-0 - I questioned this week whether Michigan was going to miss the tournament and got laughed at on Twitter. I still think it is possible. The RPI isn't nearly as healthy as other teams, and they have lived on the edge in conference play so far. They won by three at Minnesota and on a missed tip-in at Nebraska (also, when a blatant charge was not called on Derrick Walton Jr. on the game-winning basket). After Penn State this week they get three straight ranked teams, which is a make-or-break for them.
6. Minnesota Golden Gophers - RPI: 47 - 12-4, 2-2 - I am impressed with what Minnesota has done in the past week. They got a needed home win over Purdue, took a close win at Penn State, and nearly topped Michigan State in East Lansing before losing in overtime. A split with Iowa and Ohio State this week would be very helpful before they head to Madison to face Wisconsin. Elliott Eliason is playing out of his mind defensively with 30 rebounds and 14 blocks in the last three games.
Work to do:
7. Indiana Hoosiers - RPI: 71 - 11-5, 1-2 - It was far from pretty, but Indiana won in Happy Valley to get a Big Ten victory and avoid a bad loss that would have greatly damaged their profile. They should beat Northwestern easily at home this week before heading to East Lansing. This team is similar to Purdue because both are talented, but lack the necessary leadership to play consistent basketball. I gave them the edge of Purdue because they have won on the road in conference play, which is never easy for Crean.
8. Purdue Boilermakers - RPI: 104 - 11-5, 1-2 - The win over Nebraska yesterday was much-needed, as a loss would have likely ended any realistic hopes for an NCAA bid. Now, if Purdue can go to Champaign and get a win over a high RPI but struggling Illinois team the Boilermakers are in line to get a nice winning streak going. Purdue needs to be 4-2 in the Big Ten when Wisconsin comes to town.
9. Illinois Fighting Illini - RPI: 31 - 13-4, 2-2 - Things were going so well for the Illini before this week. Then the offense went away entirely in a loss to Wisconsin and in last night's disaster in Evanston. My friends at The Champaign Room called it the worst loss possible. It is especially damaging because there is no home game to avenge the loss and if Northwestern goes 1-17 in league play the Illini are the only team saddled with the albatross of a Northwestern loss. There is time to put it together and win 10-11 Big Ten games, but if they could start putting it together on Thursday that would be great.
No NCAA chance
10. Northwestern Wildcats - RPI: 148 - 8-9, 1-3 - This may be the only time Northwestern is out of last place all year, but for now, Hail to thee, Northwestern! Illinois was defeated thanks to a late barrage of Tre Demps threes and a night full of clanking iron by the Illini. After that, the nerds rejoiced with grape juice and an 11:30 bed time on a Sunday night.
11. Nebraska Cornhuskers - RPI: 86 - 8-8, 0-4 - Nebraska has proven to be a tough out so far after nearly beating Michigan and Purdue this week. To reach the NIT they need a 7-7 split the rest of the season, which is tough but could be done. They pulled the miracle schedule of only getting Wisconsin, Iowa, and Michigan State once, so this is a team all the Bubble teams above are going to have to battle hard. Nebraska may not make the NCAAs, but they will help decide who does.
12. Penn State Nittany Lions - RPI: 119 - 9-8, 0-4 - The Nitts had a very rough week with three point home losses to Indiana and Minnesota. That ended their slim NCAA hopes, but also showed they won't be an easy out. They'll be a lot like Nebraska in that they will play hard and generally make things a living hell for you. Since two of their next five are Purdue I am not looking forward to that.