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The Big Ten and the NCAA Tournament: How Many Teams Make It?

Is there a path to a 10-team Big Ten NCAA contingent?

Duke v Kansas Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Getting 10 Big Ten teams into the NCAA Tournament seems a bit absurd, but it has been bandied about for a good portion of this season. The league this year has exceptional computer numbers. There are currently six teams in the top 30 of the NET rankings, meaning any win over those six teams anywhere (home or away) counts as a valuable tier 1 win. There are an additional five teams in the top 75, so wins on their home floors count as tier one. That only makes the league stronger as the majority of games count as tier 1.

I’ll give you an example of how strong the computer numbers are. Last night Penn State, who was 0-10 in the league coming in, won a brutally ugly game 59-52 at Northwestern, who was 3-7. Neither team is going to the tournament, but Northwestern is currently at 71 in the NET rankings, so it was a tier 1 win. That victory was enough to move Penn State (at 8-14 overall) from 85 to 74 in the NET rankings and, as a result, our 99-90 overtime in State College is now a Tier 1 win. All Penn State has to do is stay above the 75 line and the win there will be like gold.

This is why ESPN considers Purdue as one of only 10 locks in its debut Bubble Watch. We’re sitting at 6-5 against tier 1 and with only a single loss on tier 2, a neutral floor defeat to Notre Dame. We also have an excellent chance to get even more tier 1 wins. Of our remaining nine games all five road games would count as tier 1 victories as of right now. The home games against Ohio State (35) and Nebraska (33) would also be very close.

Not bad for a team that was destined to miss the NCAAs after losing to Notre Dame.

So we’re in the incredibly rare position of playing for a seed unless we drop these last nine games and our Big Ten Tournament opener. It would take a monumental collapse to miss the NCAA Tournament, so much so that we would need to lose four in a row in Mackey Arena, which hasn’t happened since approximately 1632. How does the rest of the league look, however? Well, here are my thoughts.

NCAA Locks

Michigan (20-2, 9-2, NET 6)

Michigan State (18-4, 9-2, NET 7)

Purdue (16-6, 9-2, NET 11)

Wisconsin (16-6, 8-3, NET 12)

Barring a huge collapse these four teams will be in the NCAA Tournament. All four of them have at least five tier 1 wins and Michigan State has a whopping nine. They are in the top 12 nationally in the NET rankings and most of them don’t even have the potential for a bad loss because of have strong the Big Ten is. Wisconsin has the worst loss at No. 129 Western Kentucky, but even it is on tier 2 because it was a true road game.

With Rutgers at 119 as the only Big Ten team in triple digits (Illinois is close at 98) that’s about as close as you can get to a bad loss. The Scarlet Knights have just one game left against these four: tonight when they host Michigan. Illinois still hosts Michigan State tonight and goes to Purdue and Wisconsin, but that is about it even for bad loss potential. At that point you’re just looking at sheer volume. It’s highly unlikely (barring a major injury) any of these teams just goes on a 7-8 game losing streak.

In Great Shape:

Maryland (17-6, 8-4, NET 24)

Iowa (17-5, 6-5, NET 22)

Maryland’s closing slate is ridiculously tough with trips to Michigan and Iowa as well as home games against Purdue, Michigan, and Minnesota. Iowa should be fine on sheer volume of wins as they get Rutgers twice, Northwestern, and a potentially reeling Nebraska. If the magic number is 20 wins both of these teams should get there, and they won’t lose a ton of profile strength, either. I suspect both will be fine on selection Sunday.

Potential Dead Team Walking

Nebraska (12-9, 3-8, NET 33)

Here is a team where the NET rankings absolutely LOVE them, but the RPI hates them. They currently have an RPI of 104 and on KenPom they are at 27. They are in a lot of trouble because of the loss of Isaac Copeland Jr. for the season. The big man was averaging 14 points and 5.4 rebounds per game, but is down for the year. The Cornhuskers are just 2-7 in their last nine and have lost five in a row, too. That includes road losses to Illinois and Rutgers. The closing schedule does them no favors with two games against Purdue and trips to Michigan and Michigan State.

Pretty much the Cornhuskers are going to have to start winning immediately, but they have the opposite problem from last year. Last year they won a ton of games against a crappy Big Ten and didn’t even sniff the Bubble. This year they could barely be above .500 by week’s end and be 3-10 in the league, but still have strong computer numbers. Their wins at Indiana and Clemson are keeping them alive for now, but unless they have an immediate turnaround even the computer profile won’t help.

Work to Do:

Minnesota (16-6, 6-5, NET 53)

Indiana (13-9, 4-7, NET 44)

Ohio State (14-7, 4-6, NET 35)

This is a very interesting group. Indiana has two of the best wins you can ask for in their victory in East Lansing and the non-conference win over Marquette, a top 10 team. They also had a 7-game losing streak and have to answer the question of “Was MSU a fluke?” Ohio State is in good shape, but lost 6 of 7 at one point and also lost to Rutgers. With five home games left they are probably okay as long as they hold serve, but winning at Indiana on Sunday would be a good idea. Minnesota had Purdue on the ropes and could have used that as an excellent win, but couldn’t hold on.

Of these three I think Ohio State is in the best shape. They seem to have recovered from their swoon, but still need to take care of business at home. Their game at Indiana on Sunday is potentially big as well. Minnesota has the weakest computer profile here. They still have some good wins over Washington, Iowa, and Maryland. They’ll probably get to 21-22 wins with ease and be fine.

Then there is Indiana. They certainly did not pass the eye test before winning at Michigan State. Beating Marquette by 23 looks fantastic and their win over Louisville is very good. They also get six of their last nine at home. Of course, they have to play Iowa, Purdue, Wisconsin, and Michigan State in four of those games and they have to go to Minnesota and Iowa. Is a 18-13 record enough? What about 17-14? This week will say a lot in hosting Ohio State and Iowa.

There is always the Big Ten Tournament

Rutgers (11-10, 4-7 NET 119)

Northwestern (12-10, 3-8 NET 71)

Illinois (7-15, 3-8 NET 98)

Penn State (8-14, 1-10 NET 74)

These teams are effectively done for the year with Northwestern and Rutgers still playing for maybe an NIT bid. Northwestern had some hope until last night, but teams that lose at home to 0-10 Penn State are automatically barred from at large consideration. Sorry, but those are the rules.

There is always the Big Ten Tournament, however. Sure, you likely have to win five games in five days, but it is a chance. Rutgers might even climb out of the cellar and get a bye to Thursday this year, which is huge for them.