Looking at the Big Ten Standings right now is a mess. Of the 14 teams, five have already played six games (a full third of the schedule) while Wisconsin, the prohibitive favorite, has only played four. It is still early, but only Maryland and Wisconsin have just one conference loss. Purdue has bit bitten by a pair of narrow losses, one at home in overtime and a second on the road in a game that had a 1-point margin in the inside the last minute with a very controversial call going against them.
Northwestern, they of no tournament appearances ever, is a half game out of first place.
I know it is cliché to say the Big Ten is a tough league every year, but this season is particularly nutty. I think the only team you can definitively rule out of NCAA consideration is Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights are 0-6 in the conference even though they are 10-8 overall. They played a hilariously easy schedule to gain some confidence, but their best victory is over Stony Brook, the No. 180 team in the RPI.
Everyone else is alive to some degree. I am sure we will see some separation in the coming weeks, but when it comes to Purdue the two narrow losses to Iowa and Minnesota look more like missed opportunities instead of crippling defeats because there is not a dominant team just running away with this. The entire conference is densely packed together with Rutgers being the one real outlier.
And remember: The last time Purdue won the Big Ten it started 2-3.
There does have to be a winner eventually. Who has the best shot? Let’s take a look at the seven teams that have either one or two conference losses. It seems very likely the winner(s) will emerge from there, as Indiana at 2-3 is the only team that has passed the eye test that has the potential to emerge from the remaining seven teams and challenge for the league crown. I’ll hold off on them because they have already played four of their nine home games in conference play, so with 8 of 13 on the road to finish they are going to have to play better away from Assembly Hall than they have.
Maryland (15-2, 4-1) – The Terrapins have been winning close games all year, but their two losses were odd ones at home to Pittsburgh (by 14) and Nebraska (by 2). On paper they may have the easiest schedule. They get Rutgers twice and Iowa twice, with those teams both being outside the top 100 in the RPI. As we learned, you can’t take Iowa for granted. If they win those four that already gives them eight conference wins. They also get the next lowest team, Ohio State, twice. Maryland does not have to go to Purdue or Michigan State, but they must go to Wisconsin. They have already swept Illinois. This Thursday they go to Iowa, where the Hawkeyes can do us a major favor by continuing to play tough at home.
Wisconsin (14-3, 3-1) – The only other one loss team is the Badgers, and I really don’t think they are that good. So far they have beaten Rutgers, Indiana, and Ohio State while getting handled pretty easily at Purdue. On Saturday they go to Minnesota, where the Gophers will try to recover after a very bad week this past week. The Gophers could use another quality win, and beating Wisconsin at home would be a good one. The Badgers have a mixed remaining schedule. Their only game with Michigan State is in East Lansing. They get the mercurial Indiana one more time, but in Madison. They play Minnesota twice and they have a second game coming up with Rutgers.
Northwestern (15-4, 4-2) – After three straight wins the Wildcats are a half game out of first place in the league. It is unlikely they will win the conference, but they at least have a chance. Their focus needs to be getting six more wins. That would put them at 21 victories going into the B1G Tournament and 10-8 in a tough league. They would also have no sub-100 losses (as long as they don’t lose at home to Rutgers). They already have two road wins in conference play, but grabbing a game at Illinois, Ohio State, or Indiana would be excellent. Playing both Indiana and Purdue twice in their final 10 games is tough and likely knocks them out of the conference title race, but getting one of those four, splitting with Illinois, and beating Rutgers gets them halfway to their NCAA goal.
Michigan State (12-7, 4-2) – I don’t know what to think of the Spartans. Are they rounding into form or are they a year away? They are 3-0 at home in conference play, but 1-2 on the road with losses to Penn State and Ohio State, who are two of the weaker teams this year. This week they go to Indiana, followed by a home game with Purdue that is huge for the Boilermakers. Michigan State also still has to go to Purdue, Nebraska, Illinois, and Maryland. I don’t think there is enough consistency to win the title, but they are still a tough, tough out.
Purdue (14-4, 3-2) – You could argue that Purdue is two possessions from being undefeated in league play. At the end of the Iowa game they had two excellent chances at the rim to score and take the lead, but did not convert. Before Caleb Swanigan sent the Minnesota game to overtime Purdue had another close look just barely rim out. Purdue fans have been back and forth on both of these games, but here what they really mean: the Boilers still have a great chance, but it is a harder road now. If you think 14-4 is enough for at least a share of the conference Purdue cannot drop another home game Winning the last six in Mackey Arena is expected though, and it is not a huge stretch. On the road, Purdue has to go 5-2 in their remaining 7. That means winning at dangerous places like Michigan, Nebraska, and Northwestern while getting at least one at Michigan State, Maryland, or Indiana. Next Tuesday at Michigan State is huge for the Boilers. A win there can help erase the Iowa loss. If they could take two of three at Michigan State-Maryland-Indiana the Boilers would be in REALLY good shape. Right now, those are the three biggest games left. The 2010 was in trouble after dropping a game at home to Ohio State and losing at Northwestern, but later recovered and won both at Ohio State and Michigan State.
Penn State (11-7, 3-2) – Penn State is probably not winning the Big Ten, but they have already made an impact on the race with wins over Michigan State and Minnesota. On Wednesday they can at least hang around a little while longer and all but end Indiana’s hopes with a home win. Their title dreams will likely then come crashing down with back-to-back games at Purdue and Wisconsin. Can this team rebound to make the NCAAs? They are a longshot, but if they can win 7-8 games in Happy Valley and steal a few on the road, who knows?
Nebraska (8-8, 3-2) – The Cornhuskers are fading after the 3-0 start. They dropped a home game to Northwestern, then lost at Michigan as the Wolverines fought back to get into the NCAA picture. What makes Nebraska dangerous is that they pulled off the two most shocking wins so far. They won at Indiana and Maryland in consecutive games. Their only truly bad loss was to Gardner-Webb, as playing Kansas, Creighton, and UCLA gives them a lot of credit. This week they host Ohio State then go to Rutgers, so they can stay near the top for about another week.
Lurking and Waiting for a Run:
Minnesota (15-4, 3-3) – Against teams not named Michigan State the Gophers have been solid. Losing at Penn State on Saturday was a bad idea though. Minnesota will get a lot of mileage out of beating Purdue in West Lafayette, as that is their “get into the tournament” ticket. Barring a total collapse this is an NCAA team. If they can beat Wisconsin on Saturday and Maryland a week later they can sneak back in to the title race.
Iowa (11-8, 3-3) – Losing to Omaha aside, Iowa has been tough at home and lousy on the road. They are 3-0 at home with wins over Purdue, Rutgers, and Michigan, and 0-3 on the road with losses at Purdue, Nebraska, and Northwestern. With a player like Peter Jok the Hawkeyes are probably that 8-10 or 9-9 team that is just a pain in the ass to play. They’ll get at least one more win over a contender, hopefully Thursday against Maryland. As long as they can climb into the top 100 it doesn’t hurt Purdue too much seeding-wise.
Indiana (12-6, 2-3) – If there is one team capable of reeling off a 10-game win streak to take control of this race it is the Hoosiers. Indiana has more talent top-to-bottom than any team in the conference. No team is more scary offensively, as if they get hot they can drop 110 on anyone. They are also a dysfunctional mess at times that can refuse to play any sort of defense. The Hoosiers have already lost twice in Bloomington though. They close with four of five on the road too. The crazy thing is I can see Indiana winning 12 of its last 13 to win a share of the league, but I can also see them losing seven and dropping out of NCAA consideration entirely.
So who wins it?
I think Maryland, Wisconsin, and Purdue have the best chances left. Of the seven teams with two or fewer losses Penn State and Nebraska are huge longshots, Michigan State has not been consistent enough, and Northwestern is just happy to be there and wants to make the tournament. On paper, Maryland has the “easier” schedule, but with Nebraska already winning in College Park you feel like they could drop a few here and there. Purdue has missed chances all over its schedule as it has either been tied or down one inside of one minute in three of its four losses.
That leaves the Badgers. They only have one conference loss, but they also have played the fewest conference games. If they get past Minnesota in Minneapolis this weekend they are probably in the driver’s seat, especially since they don’t have to play Purdue anymore.
The thing is, anything can happen. Ohio State, though they are well out of the race, is a nasty athletic team to play. Illinois and Michigan have the talent to beat anyone. Even Rutgers, who is 3-39 overall and 0-21 on the road since joining the Big Ten in conference games, somehow beat a Wisconsin team that was national runner-up in 2015 and the Scarlet Knights gave league champ Indiana a good game in Piscataway last year.
Strap yourselves in. It’s about to get crazier.