We're already about a third of the way through the conference season and it is going to be difficult for the Big Ten to get 7-8 teams into the NCAA Tournament. We have seen that the middle can be quite cannibalistic, and long-time stalwarts at the top in Michigan State and Ohio State have already suffered a two-game sweep by other teams. There are two teams contending for the title that are not surprises and two that are.
1. Maryland Terrapins (17-2, 5-1) - Maryland continues to play some really, really good basketball, and they have set themselves up for quite a run through the conference after sweeping both Michigan State games. They go to Indiana on Thursday night for one of the biggest early games of the Big Ten season. They might be considered the favorite going forward with only one game against Wisconsin, and that comes in College Park in late February after two easier games against Penn State and Nebraska.
2. Wisconsin Badgers (16-2, 4-1) - I still can't believe the Badgers lost to Rutgers, and tonight they host an Iowa team that has played really, really well. It should be an interesting game in Madison. Wisconsin has generally taken care of business, but struggled against Purdue and there was the inexplicable Rutgers loss. They are still the best team, top-to-bottom, in the league and should win it all, but the Purdue and Rutgers games showed some cracks in the façade.
3. Indiana Hoosiers (14-4, 4-1) - It has rarely been pretty and a case could be made for Indiana to be 0-5 in the league, but they are finding ways to win games and that is all that matters. Against Nebraska, Ohio State, and Penn State Indiana tried every way possible to give away big leads late. Against Illinois they had just enough to pull out a close win. Like Iowa tonight, they have a contender/pretender game on Thursday night at home against Maryland. Win it, and Indiana is a genuine threat to win the league.
4. Iowa Hawkeyes (13-5, 4-1) - Iowa is going to get a lot of credit for sweeping Ohio State, but I still question if Ohio State is really that good. Iowa is pretty good and has earned a place in the top 25, however. We could benefit from being the sandwich game between two Wisconsin games for them, thus making it a make-or-break stretch. If they go 2-1 over the next three games they will be in very good shape for the long haul, especially if the one loss comes Saturday afternoon in West Lafayette.
Work to do, but still doing well:
5. Michigan State Spartans (12-6, 3-2) - Against teams not named Maryland, Michigan State has done well. They had convincing wins at Iowa and at home against Indiana, which are the only conference games those two teams have lost. The sweep at the hands of Maryland hurts, but Michigan State can get right back in the title conversation with a nice, easy stretch of Penn State-Nebraska-Rutgers for their next three games.
6. Ohio State Buckeyes (14-5, 3-3) - Ohio State is probably going to finish near the middle of the conference this year, but they will still wins 6-8 more games and make the NCAA Tournament. Their league losses have not been that bad, but they were lucky to escape from Minneapolis with a win. We saw how good Ohio State can be when they absolutely pantsed Michigan last week.
Lots of work to do:
7. Purdue Boilermakers (11-7, 3-2) - Even if Purdue beats Illinois tomorrow night in Champaign its true worth will not be known until the next three games against Iowa, Indiana, and Ohio State. Purdue is still in the "Needs to go 12-6" range to reach the NCAAs, but the three by Kendall Stephens at Penn State kept that alive. Barely. Purdue needs to sweep Rutgers, beat Northwestern and Nebraska, win in Minneapolis, sweep Illinois (if it wins tomorrow), and get two other wins among Indiana, Iowa, Michigan State, and Ohio State. Winning at Illinois is probably just as important as winning at Penn State was.
8. Michigan Wolverines (10-7, 4-2) - With the season-ending injury to Caris LeVert the Wolverines feel like a dead team walking. They have barely survived with him to get four Big Ten wins, but their ability to bomb away from three will keep them alive in a few games. I don't see them getting enough wins to make the NCAAs though. The LeVert injury is devastating to this young team.
9. Illinois Fighting Illini (12-7, 2-4) - It is still early, but the Purdue-Illinois game feels like an early elimination game for both teams. Purdue likely needs the road win and a sweep of Illinois to get enough wins to make the tournament. The Illini likely can't fall into a 2-5 hole when they are probably going to need to finish 10-8 in the league. The win over Maryland was impressive, but failing to close games against Indiana and Michigan were costly.
10. Minnesota Golden Gophers (11-7, 1-5) - Minnesota is alive for the NCAA Tournament, but barely. They are surviving on an excellent non-conference performance but five straight losses to begin B1G play, two at home by a basket, were crippling. Minnesota has to find a way to defend home court with only Wisconsin as a really difficult home opponent remaining. Even then, any road win would be helpful.
Trying to avoid Wednesday in the B1G Tourney
11. Rutgers Scarlet Knights (10-9, 2-4) - The win over Wisconsin is paying huge dividends and the RPI is a surprisingly good 76 despite all the bad losses, but is Rutgers really going to get to .500 or better in league play? More likely they are going to play spoiler for teams like Purdue and Michigan who can't afford a loss to them, but might end up with one.
12. Nebraska Cornhuskers (10-7, 2-3) - Nebraska is another team that can play spoiler the rest of the way, but it was right around now that they turned it on and made a surprise run to a top four B1G finish last season. The schedule is somewhat accommodating. They have Minnesota, Michigan State, at Michigan, at Minnesota, Northwestern, and Penn State in their next six, so there is still a chance.
13. Northwestern Wildcats (10-8, 1-4) - The losses to Michigan, Michigan State, and Illinois were Bill Carmody specials. Northwestern was right there at the end of both but could not pull it out. It is just a sign that God hates Northwestern basketball.
14. Penn State Nittany Lions (12-6, 0-5) - While Kendall saved Purdue, he killed Penn State's hopes. The Nittany Lions have already whiffed against Rutgers, Purdue, and Michigan and were a split second late at Indiana. If they lose at home to Rutgers in their next home game it might be time to look and see if they will win any conference game. It's a shame, too. D.J. Newbill is playing like a man possessed. He'll probably win one game all by himself and nearly did against Purdue.