No one wants to win the Big Ten. The perception is that the conference is weak, but if it is so weak why are seven teams almost locks to go to the NCAA Tournament? Why do Indiana and, suddenly, Illinois have the smallest of chances to make a late run? In reality, much of college basketball is pretty even this year. There is no truly dominant team and everyone seems to be able to beat everyone else. It should make for a fun tournament, where hopefully the Big Ten will vindicate itself with a strong showing.
In that regard, you have a few teams that can make noise. Purdue is still 8-2 in its last 10 and has only lost on the road. This season it has played some of its best basketball on neutral floors (3-0), and if the shooting comes back around it can be a very strong offensive team. Minnesota is playing great basketball at the moment and could win the Big Ten Tournament easily. Michigan is 7-3 in its last 10 and Saturday showed that, when hot, they are a tough matchup. Michigan State is finally rounding into form as long as they don’t have to play Purdue.
The conference race is almost over, but the league should be fine in the NCAAs. I predict at least two teams will make the second weekend.
Champion in Waiting
1. Purdue Boilermakers (23-6, 12-4) Last Ranking: 1, RPI: 20, KenPom: 12 – Sometimes you just run into a hot team on the wrong night. That happened on Saturday and Purdue still clawed back to within six and Michigan needed a leaning triple as the shot clock expired to seal it. If that doesn’t fall things get real interesting with a decent amount of time left. Purdue stays No. 1 mostly because it was an awful week for the contenders. Michigan prevented Purdue from winning the title already by mere attrition. Now the math is simple: Beat your bitter, hated rivals at home on Senior Day and a 23rd Big Ten title is yours.
This parallels Purdue’s Rose Bowl team in 2000. That team, too, had an awful trip north (a 30-10 loss at Michigan State) that seemed to derail any title plans, but an upset elsewhere (then Iowa over Northwestern and this time Michigan State over Wisconsin) set up a scenario where Purdue can clinch a share of the title at home against Indiana. As far as I can tell, it is the first time since 1979 that Purdue has had a similar chance in basketball. That year Purdue tied with Iowa and eventual national champion Michigan State for the conference title. All three were 13-5 in the league, and Purdue beat Indiana 55-48 in the second to last game of the year. Even then, Purdue and Iowa both needed a Wisconsin upset of Michigan State on the last day of the season to get a share of the crown.
Purdue should win this, however. It needs one win for at least a share and two clinches the outright title for the first time since 1996. Even then, with the way Wisconsin is playing, the Boilers can back into the title with another Badger loss.
2. Minnesota Golden Gophers (22-7, 10-6) Last Ranking: 4, RPI: 16, KenPom: 30 – Here come the Gophers! If not for a a couple of home overtime losses to Michigan State and Wisconsin the Gophers would be in the driver’s seat here. In fact, if they can get some help from Indiana and Northwestern, they can come out of nowhere to get a share of the Big Ten title. They have won seven straight and with a trip to Wisconsin still on the schedule all they need is for Purdue to stumble twice. Sure, it could be as much as a four way tie (if the Maryland-Michigan State winner does not drop its other game), but considering where this team was a year ago you can’t discredit them.
3. Wisconsin Badgers (22-7, 11-5) Last Ranking: 2, RPI: 32, KenPom: 21 – The Badgers were in control of this thing two weeks ago, but they have now lost four of five. Aside from that second half against Maryland they have looked bad in doing it, too. Consecutive double-digit road losses will do that. Now, the Big Ten title that some were saying was locked up halfway through the season is in dire jeopardy. They are the only team other than Purdue with a chance at an outright title, but that goes by the boards with a loss or a Purdue win. Two losses, two Purdue wins, or a Purdue win and Wisconsin loss gives the Boilers the outright title, too.
4. Michigan State Spartans (18-11, 10-6) Last Ranking: 6, RPI: 42, KenPom: 50 – I am going to go ahead and lock in the Spartans even with some work to do. I just don’t see Tom Izzo missing the NCAA Tournament. They have looked two good in four of their last five games. Purdue is just a horrible matchup for them, but since losing Eron Harris they have looked better, oddly enough. This team will get in and be a bastard of a 7 through 10 seed for someone in the second round.
5. Michigan Wolverines (19-10, 9-7) Last Ranking: 7, RPI: 46, KenPom: 27 – Okay Michigan, you got my attention Saturday. That was an impressive near demolition of the best team in the conference. Moritz Wagner smoked Purdue. They have now won five of six when it matters most and should solidly be in the field. Like Michigan State, expect to see them in the 7-10 range seed wise and no one wants to see if they get hot bombing threes on people. Will they further ruin Northwestern’s season on Wednesday?
6. Maryland Terrapins (22-7, 10-6) Last Ranking: 3, RPI: 28, KenPom: 46 – Maryland will be in the tournament, but after three straight losses and five in their last seven their seed has plummeted. Now they can’t win at home, going 1-3 in their last four in College Park. It has cost them a shot at the title (unless Purdue loses twice now) and maybe even a double-bye in the Big Ten Tournament. It is not bad enough that they will lose to Rutgers tomorrow night, is it?
Dear God, Northwestern, don’t do this. You’re so close.
7. Northwestern Wildcats (20-9, 9-7) Last Ranking: 5, RPI: 50, KenPom: 36 – It is a weak bubble. A lot worse teams are still being considered. Northwestern has gotten to 20 wins and will finish at least .500 in Big Ten play for the first time since approximately 1874 (in reality, it is “only” 1968 when they were 8-6). Still, I think they need one more win to feel totally safe on Selection Sunday. They had it on Saturday, but somehow lost on a 22-0 run that included a 75-foot bank shot, a blown 7 point lead with roughly 90-seconds left, an and-1 on a dunk, and their own half court heave hitting the rim. If they beat Michigan or Purdue at home they will be fine. If they win a game in the Big Ten Tournament they will be fine. Lose all three and suddenly they are 20-12, on a five game losing streak, and 2-8 in their last 10.
8. Iowa Hawkeyes (16-13, 8-8) Last Ranking: 12, RPI: 96, KenPom: 71 – Iowa furthered Indiana’s misery and then walked into College Park and flat out kicked Maryland’s ass. They got their RPI above 100 as a result, thus taking away the “bad loss” stigma for Purdue when our profile is in front of the committee. If their numbers were better they might even have a shot at the NCAAs if they beat Wisconsin and Penn State to close out. If they win both they finish 10-8, and if they get on a run in DC, who knows?
9. Illinois Fighting Illini (16-12, 7-9) Last Ranking: 10, RPI: 57, KenPom: 62 – The Illini have had strong computer numbers all year even if the results on the floor haven’t shown it. Now, after three straight wins, they might be making a very late push. They’re going to have to win their last two against Michigan State at home and at Rutgers, but if they do both and win a game or two in DC they’ll likely be a top 50 team with 20 wins. Would it be enough?
10. Ohio State Buckeyes (16-13, 6-10) Last Ranking: 11, RPI: 73, KenPom: 65 – The Buckeyes played their best game of the season on Thursday to beat Wisconsin at home by 10. It was quite a turnaround after losing in Madison by 23. This team is not going to the NCAA Tournament without an autobid, but at least they finally showed what they’re capable of.
11. Indiana Hoosiers (16-13, 6-10) Last Ranking: 13, RPI: 89, KenPom: 49 – Let’s not think tomorrow night is an automatic win. Indiana showed enough life to stun Northwestern and they have played a lot of close games both home and away during their recent struggles. Plus, you know they would love to come to Mackey Arena and take a huge metaphorical dump on what could be a coronation. Even if Purdue beats Northwestern on Sunday and Wisconsin drops another game, we would never hear the end of it. Indiana either pulls the upset tomorrow night or Purdue wins in a blowout.
Say No to the CBI
12. Penn State Nittany Lions (14-15, 6-10) Last Ranking: 9, RPI: 81, KenPom: 81 – It was a very rough week for Penn State. It had Purdue on the ropes but couldn’t close. Then it dropped a game at Minnesota to clinch a losing overall record. This is still a tough team, but it needs about another year of experience.
13. Nebraska Cornhuskers (12-16, 6-10) Last Ranking: 8, RPI: 87, KenPom: 93 – Nebraska just has no consistency. They can play well. They have beaten Purdue and Maryland. You have a feeling both of those teams would win big in a rematch, however. It looks like another Wednesday game in the Big Ten Tournament here.
14. Rutgers Scarlet Knights (13-16, 2-14) Last Ranking: 14. RPI: 173, KenPom: 125 – Rutgers honestly played Michigan better this past week than Purdue did. It was only a four point home loss. They continue to be feisty, but is that enough to get one more win?