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Big Ten Title Race: February 25

It’s basically a four team race with three to play.

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Purdue Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

And then there were four.

One of my hot takes is that it is harder to win a Big Ten regular season championship than reach a Final Four. Winning the Big Ten (or any conference, for that matter) is sustained excellence over 3 months with true road games in hostile venues. Reaching a Final Four can be as simple as “a team got hot for four games over nine days”. Yes, it is very cold comfort for a school that has not reached the promised land in over 40 years, but when the likes of George Mason, VCU, Butler, Wichita State, and some bad Syracuse & Michigan State teams have made it to the Final weekend there is definitely a “they got hot at the right time” involved.

March will take care of itself when it arrives though. We’re now two weeks from the Big Ten Tournament and have a pretty clear hierarchy. Purdue, Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Illinois will very likely be your four double bye teams barring something crazy happening. They all have at least a two game lead in the loss column over everyone else with three games to play. The regular season champion will very, very likely come from some combination of those teams.

Beyond that, it looks like the league has at least one more NCAA lock now with Iowa playing some great basketball. Michigan State is also likely safe for now, but if they keep losing you never know. They have a very difficult remaining schedule. Rutgers, Michigan, and Indiana are fighting for their tournament lives and we could have an elimination game in Bloomington next week. It makes for an exciting final week of basketball.

Championship Contenders

Purdue Boilermakers – 24-4, 13-4 – Purdue is in the driver’s seat, and in 36 hours it could be in an even better position. The Boilers will be the outright Big Ten champion if they win their final three regular season games. If Purdue beats Michigan State tomorrow and Rutgers gets a second win over Wisconsin the Boilers won’t have to win in Madison to get at least a share of the league crown. The key is tomorrow at Michigan State. Purdue must win in order to avoid a scenario where it has to win in Madison. I feel pretty confident of a 25th Big Ten championship if Purdue gets to next Saturday needing only a win against Indiana.

Wisconsin Badgers – 22-5, 13-4 – It should be noted that Wisconsin also controls its own path for the outright crown, as if it wins out it will be the outright Big Ten champion. They held on at Minnesota Wednesday night, beating the Gophers by a point. Now they have two very tough games at Rutgers and at home against Purdue. Win both, and it is extremely likely the Badgers win the crown outright since they close at home against last place Nebraska.

Ohio State Buckeyes – 18-7, 11-5 – The Buckeyes are officially lurking after upsetting Illinois in Champaign last night. They still have four games because of a make up game against Nebraska, plus a trip to Maryland and home games against Michigan and Michigan State. They know that one of Wisconsin and Purdue is guaranteed a loss, however. If Rutgers can beat Wisconsin or Michigan State can beat Purdue they will be right back in it.

Illinois Fighting Illini – 19-8, 12-5 – Illinois was in control before dropping three of its last five. Now they need help in the same form that Ohio State does. The remaining schedule is tough with a trip to Michigan, but favorable in the other two with home games against Penn State and Iowa. They have to regret the 16 point loss at Maryland, one of the more bizarre results this year.

NCAA Locks

Iowa Hawkeyes – 19-8, 9-7 – Iowa is in excellent shape with great computer numbers. They also finally got a win over a contender at Ohio State last week. As long as they don’t trip against Nebraska tonight or Northwestern early next week they are in. They could also play a small role in the title race at Illinois on the final weekend.

Michigan State Spartans – 18-9, 9-7 – This is mostly a “for now” lock, as one more win is probably more than enough, but Sparty is not headed in the right direction. They were absolutely run by Iowa, losing by 26, and their next game is against Purdue, which is basically a better version of Iowa. Michigan State has now lost 5 of 6 and has to play Purdue, Michigan, and Ohio State in a six day span. They still get to close at home against Maryland, but if they drop the other three things could get very dicey.

NCAA Bubble

Michigan Wolverines – 15-11, 9-7 – The computers love Michigan, and at 33 in the NET we’d love them to win a few more games so our home win moves onto tier 1. The finishing kick is brutal though. They have to play Michigan State, Illinois, Iowa, and Ohio State. They can deal a crippling blow to Illinois and Ohio State’s title chances while securing an NCAA bid for themselves. I think one win would be enough, while two makes them a certain lock.

Rutgers Scarlet Knights – 16-11, 10-7 – What do you do with Rutgers? They remind me a bit of the Purdue team a few years ago that lost to Gardner-Webb and North Florida, but still made the tournament thanks to a great finishing kick in the Big Ten. I have a hard time seeing the committee keeping them out if they finish 12-8 or better in the league, which is possible. They have a huge chance tomorrow at home against Wisconsin, then they go to Indiana before hosting Penn State. As long as they don’t lose to Penn State I think they get in with a win over Wisconsin or Indiana. This is even with bad computer numbers that have them in the 80s (83 NET, 72 KenPom).

Indiana Hoosiers – 17-10, 8-9 – IU saved its season last night with the win over Maryland. Had the Hoosiers lost at home it would have been a crippling blow to their NCAA chances. They finish with trips to Minnesota and Purdue while hosting Rutgers. The Rutgers game is starting to look like a “loser leaves town” match too. If Indiana beats Minnesota, but drops the other two, it might need a win in Indianapolis in the B1G tourney to feel safe. If they lose in Minneapolis it will be panic time.

NIT or Bust

Northwestern Wildcats – 13-13, 6-11 – The Wildcats don’t have any NCAA chances, but can probably make the NIT if they beat Penn State and Maryland while losing to Iowa in their last three. Do that and get a win in Indy and they will probably make the NIT. At 77 in the NET we need them to have a two spot rise so our road win in Evanston moves to tier 1.

Minnesota Golden Gophers – 13-13, 4-13 – The Gophers’ undefeated non-conference keeps them alive for the NIT and they proved they could play spoiler Wednesday by almost beating Wisconsin. If they take two of three against Indiana, Northwestern, and Maryland they could reach the NIT.

Playing Out the String

Penn State Nittany Lions – 11-13, 6-10 – It would take an extraordinary finish for them to make the NIT, as they have to play Northwestern, Nebraska, Illinois, and Rutgers.

Maryland Terrapins – 13-15, 5-12 – The Terps likely saw an NIT bid go away with last night’s loss in Bloomington. They close with Ohio State, Minnesota, and Michigan State and would have to win all three to get over .500 overall.

Nebraska Cornhuskers – 7-20, 1-15 – Nebraska gets to finish with Iowa, Ohio State, Penn State, and Wisconsin, with only Iowa coming at home. The good news is Fred Hoiberg is coming back. Any time you can keep a guy that has six Big Ten wins in three years you HAVE to do it.