Dare we dream?
When Purdue lost to Notre Dame at the Crossroads Classic a little over a month ago we were 6-5. We had just whiffed on our fourth and final attempt for a high quality non-conference victory and the general malaise of that game made it look like even the NCAA Tournament would be a longshot.
Since then Purdue has won 7 of 8, losing only at red hot Michigan State. Not only are we back in the NCAA conversation, we would solidly be in the field if the season ended today. We’re a top 10 team nationally according to KenPom, and if we can swing the upset on Sunday when the Spartans come to town we’re suddenly right back in the race for our 24th Big Ten championship.
It’s been a hell of a ride for sure. Almost everyone in the conference has now played at least eight of the 20 games on their league schedule, so here is a quick snapshot of the race itself.
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Penn State (7-12, 0-8)
Illinois (5-14, 1-7)
Rutgers (9-9, 2-6)
These three are already well out of it and also have no chance at the NCAA Tournament. They can still be dangerous though. Rutgers has sprung a pair of surprises at home on Ohio State and Nebraska. Penn State is winless in the league, but has a nice upset of Virginia Tech on its resume to show they can compete. Illinois is a complete mess, but did beat Minnesota. All that is left for them is to play spoiler.
Work to Do for the NCAA
Minnesota (14-5, 4-4)
Ohio State (12-6, 2-6)
Northwestern (12-7, 3-5)
Indiana (12-7, 3-5)
Nebraska (12-6, 3-5)
This is how we know the Big Ten is a brutal race this year. The bottom three are way back in the NET rankings, but the top 11 teams? All of those teams are rated 60th or better in the current NET rankings. Minnesota is the lowest of this group at 60, but they are 3-3 against the NET tier 1. Northwestern is 53rd and is 0-6 against tier 1, but has plenty of chances to get wins and make the field.
This group will begin to sort itself out. Both Indiana and Ohio State have lost five in a row now and are really struggling. Minnesota lost at Illinois and Nebraska lost at Rutgers. The Cornhuskers are in the best shape, however, as they are 20th according to NET and 14th according to Kenpom.
Contenders in Need of Help
Wisconsin (13-6, 5-3)
Iowa (16-3, 5-3)
Both of these teams are solidly in the field and are known to defend their home courts well. With the way that Michigan and Michigan State are playing these two teams might be out of it if they reach five losses. Could they go 11-1 down the stretch against a ridiculously tough Big Ten?
Iowa’s next two home games are against Michigan State and Michigan starting tonight. If they win both it opens up the entire conference. Michigan already lost at Wisconsin and Michigan State still has to go there.
Trending Towards Contending
Maryland (16-4, 7-2)
Purdue (13-6, 6-2)
The Terps and Purdue played quite a game back in December, but not much was thought of it then. Purdue barely hung on and at the time it looked like it was going to be a small bright spot in an otherwise dismal season. Since then both teams have been great in conference play. Purdue’s only losses were quite excusable at the two best teams, and Mackey Arena gives us quite the advantage. The schedule is favorable too the rest of the way.
The same is true for Maryland. They do not host Michigan State this year, but they do host Michigan. They also go to Michigan for their toughest road game left. The Terps are going to be favored in their next two games, which are at home against Illinois and Northwestern.
Michigan State (17-2, 8-0)
Michigan (18-1, 7-1)
It seems like everyone else’s chances in the race hinge upon Michigan State’s games tonight at Iowa and Sunday at Purdue. If the Spartans get through those two with wins they’ll be 10-0 in the conference and have at least a two-game lead on everyone except Michigan.
These two still play each other twice, which might open the door a crack for some other teams if they split. Michigan State also has to go to Wisconsin in addition to Iowa and Purdue. If they lose at Purdue, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Michigan we could have quite a mess for the title at 16-4. Michigan’s toughest games left are at Iowa, Michigan State, and Maryland. That is their path to four losses.
So if both of these teams get to 4 losses can Purdue finish 16-4 along with them? We’ll see. We’ve been the hard luck loser before. During the era of the 18-game Big Ten schedule 15-3 was good enough for at least a share of the title in every year except 2017-18 and 2007-08. Last year we were 15-3 but finished second to 16-2 Michigan State. In 2007-08 we were 15-3 while Wisconsin went 16-2 (losing to Purdue twice, for good measure).
Michigan and Michigan State are both good enough for a 17-3 Purdue season to not be enough for a share of the title.