Big Ten Midseason Report
Depending on the week, time of day or whether the sky is filled with cirrus or cumulonimbus clouds, the Big Ten is either having a great year, a good year, or a down year. The same can be said about nearly all of the teams in the conference.
At one point, many prognosticators had seven or even (gasp!) eight teams projected to make the NCAA Tournament. As of Sunday, Bracketography editor David Mihm had four Big Ten teams in the field with another two teams in the “First Four Out” section.
It seems safe to say four Big Ten teams–Michigan State, Ohio State, Purdue and Wisconsin–have all purchased their dance tickets. Moreover, all four teams could (albeit unlikely) be given protected seeds. The second half of the conference season will dictate exactly where these teams will start their march toward Indianapolis.
Outside of the Big 4, just four other teams have a chance to crash March’s biggest party. Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, and Northwestern all have high postseason hopes, but the season’s first three months put each team on a road only a sophisticated GPS can navigate.
What happens to the Big Ten on Selection Sunday will undoubtedly be determined by what happens in the next six weeks.
NCAA Tournament Teams: Michigan State, Purdue, Ohio State, Wisconsin.
MICHIGAN STATE (19-4 overall, 9-1 Big Ten): The Spartans are having the season many pundits thought they would. Many feel Tom Izzo’s club will run away with the Big Ten Championship just as it did last year (MSU claimed the conference crown with a 15-3 mark while the next closest competitors were each 11-7). However, the Spartans’ biggest challenge to date comes Tuesday with a showdown against Wisconsin at the Kohl Center. Michigan State will not go undefeated in conference play, but the Spartans have avoided the missteps that have cost past MSU teams at least a share of Big Ten titles.
The team’s losses aren’t damning (@ Texas, N-Florida, @ UNC), though the latter pair look worse and worse each day. Heck, even Texas is faltering after its 17-0 start. Based on those teams’ big wins, both the Gators and Tar Heels should make the NCAA Tournament (most likely between the No. 8 and No. 11 line), but damaging losses (read: UNC’s 15-point home loss to Virginia on Sunday) need to be avoided. The Spartans’ biggest wins so far have come against Gonzaga and Wisconsin (at home).
If the Spartans can match last year’s conference record and reach the Big Ten Tournament final, MSU should nab a No. 2 seed. The Spartans do have the above listed game with Wisconsin, two games against Purdue, and a home contest against Ohio State. At worst, these Spartans look like a No. 3 seed barring some unforeseen injury or choke job.
PURDUE (18-3, 6-3): The Boilermakers are exactly where they want to be; flying under the radar. That’s what three straight conference losses will do to any team, especially a preseason Final Four contender. Much of Purdue’s profile was constructed in the non-conference this year. The Boilermakers downed Tennessee on a neutral floor, beat Wake Forest in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, and whipped West Virginia. The conferences losses came at the hands of other contenders (@ Wisconsin and vs. Ohio State), with a slip-up to Northwestern that inevitably could cost Purdue a share of the Big Ten title.
The Boilermakers do have two dates against the Spartans and need to sweep to have a legitimate shot at the conference crown. A split won’t damage Purdue’s reputation or Final Four contender status, however.
Given the strong non-conference slate and somewhat “easy” schedule to close the conference season (at worst Purdue should lose two games), the Boilermakers are a pretty good lock for a No. 4 seed at worst. The sky, however, is the limit and Purdue could still find itself on the No. 2 line if it plays its cards correctly.
OHIO STATE (16-6, 6-3): A six-loss team shouldn’t be thought of as being a pretty sure bet for a top-4 seed, especially in early February. But this is a different six-loss team. These Buckeyes have played two seasons: the regular season and the “We miss Evan Turner season.” Sans Turner, the Buckeyes went 3-3 with losses to Butler, Wisconsin and Michigan. That means, at this very moment, the NCAA selection committee would no doubt look at this scarlet and gray club as having a 13-3 record with a 6-1 conference record. Turner can carry this team to the Final Four without question, and come Selection Sunday, you’ll be hearing Ohio State as that magnanimous sleeper team in every “expert’s” bracket.
The Buckeyes have the wins (@ Purdue, vs. Wisconsin, N-California) that will hold up late in the season. Beating either Purdue at home or winning at Michigan State in mid-February would be a huge plus. When you have a player of the year candidate like Turner, anything is possible and the Buckeyes (and the Selection Committee) know that.
At worst, the Buckeyes could slide down to the No. 6 line, but only if the committee puts more weight than expected on those six games without Turner. Otherwise, the Buckeyes have a similar resume to Michigan State, which would be in line for a No. 2/3 seed.
WISCONSIN (17-5, 7-3): The Badgers make up the final piece of the threesome trying to chase down Michigan State for the Big Ten championship. Wisconsin, picked to finish anywhere from seventh to ninth in almost all preseason magazines, continues to do what coach Bo Ryan expects: prove everybody wrong by playing in a system and winning. This is Ryan’s ninth season coaching the Badgers and–shockingly–Wisconsin has NEVER finished worse than fourth in the conference. (Keep that in mind when making preseason predictions from here on out).
Wisconsin has four marquee wins to date; a number that will certainly grow by season’s end. Beating Duke in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge is the victory that got Wisconsin noticed again. Defeating a good-but-unlucky Marquette team was also a big out-of-conference win. Wisconsin had already defeated Ohio State and Purdue in conference play and a win against Michigan State on Tuesday gives the Badgers an at-worst split against all the conference contenders. Wisconsin had one ominous defeat;an OT home loss to Wisconsin-Green Bay.
Like the Buckeyes, Wisconsin’s big wins are impressive and the Badgers seem to have the easiest Big Ten schedule down the stretch (road games at Michigan, Minnesota, Indiana, and Illinois; home games against Michigan State, Illinois, Indiana, Northwestern, and Iowa). Wisconsin should get some momentum heading into the Big Ten Tournament and the NCAA Tournament. At worst, Wisconsin will get a No. 5 seed, but this surprising Badgers squad will most likely end up on the No. 4 line.
NCAA Tournament Hopefuls: Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Northwestern.
ILLINOIS (14-8, 6-3): Not to knock the hopes of Fighting Illini fans, but this isn’t a great team. What got Illinois on the map was a 4-0 start in conference play. Of course, people failed to realize those wins came against the worst four teams in the conference (Northwestern, Iowa, Indiana and Penn State). Illinois has the you-have-to-see-this victory at Clemson where the Fighting Illini erased a 23-point deficit to defeat the Tigers along with a win against Vanderbilt that looks better and better. But there are some glaring losses (N-Utah, N-Bradley, @ Georgia, @ Northwestern) that nearly eliminate the good on the resume.
While Wisconsin has the conference’s easiest schedule down the stretch, Illinois has the most difficult slate. Check out some of the marquee games: vs. Michigan State, @ Wisconsin, vs. Ohio State, @ Purdue, @ Ohio State, vs. Wisconsin. Those are six games that will bring a share of lumps Illinois’ way but it also gives Bruce Weber’s club some opportunities to add more “big” wins to the schedule.
Illinois will probably end up right around 20 wins as the NCAA Tournament rolls around. With at least four big-time wins, Illinois should end up in the NCAA Tournament field. However, if everything plays out as many people think it will (Kenpom.com projects Illinois loses its last eight conference games), Illinois will be a favorite in the NIT.
MICHIGAN (11-10, 4-5): The only reason Michigan is on this list is the same reason the Wolverines were, in many publications, ranked in the preseason Top 15: potential. Like all of John Beilein’s teams, Michigan can get hot at any time. Let’s not make any mistake, however; Michigan needs to win seven of its final nine conference games to get into the dance discussion.
What will kill Michigan is its lack of notable non-conference victories. The win against UConn not only was nationally televised, but it also gave a glimpse of what Michigan is capable of doing. But in other potential resume-builders, Michigan faltered (losses to Marquette and Kansas). The win over Ohio State carries some weight, but Michigan needs more wins at this point.
The conundrum that is Wolverines basketball can be summarized by the Jan. 20 game at Wisconsin. In the conference’s most feared arena, Michigan jumped to a 13-2 lead and led 39-30 with nine minutes to play (yes, the teams had combined for 69 points in 31 minutes; welcome to Big Ten basketball). Wisconsin held Michigan to four points over the next eight minutes to steal the victory.
Michigan’s aggressive 1-3-1 zone defense held Wisconsin to 34% shooting from the field, but Michigan couldn’t capitalized shooting a putrid 36% from the field itself. That wouldn’t just have been another victory for Michigan; it would have been the conference’s biggest upset and would have put Michigan in a completely different position. As it stands now, this is a disappointing NIT team.
MINNESOTA (13-8, 4-5): Coach Tubby Smith has taken his team to 20 wins for 14 straight seasons. That, my friends, is impressive, especially since Tubby did it at three schools (Georgia, Kentucky and Minnesota). What is lost in Minnesota’s success this season is that it is marred in fool’s gold. The Gophers, for the third straight year, feasted on patsies in the preseason (Tennessee Tech, Utah Valley, Brown, Northern Illinois, and South Dakota State, just to name a few).
Minnesota did beat Butler on a neutral floor but followed that win up with losses to Portland and Texas A&M. The team’s second-biggest victory is a home against Ohio State. but after that it might be a home win against Northwestern. When you have to use a victory against Northwestern as one of your “best wins,” you know your resume isn’t strong.
Gopher fans should be happy for one reason: there are two home dates left against Wisconsin and Purdue. A win in either of those games would add a needed victory to the resume. A sweep would be huge. Two losses would be devastating.
Depending on how their season finishes and the conference tournament, the Gophers will be an interesting case come Selection Sunday. If Minnesota finishes 11-7 in the Big Ten and has a decent showing in the Big Ten Tournament, will it be enough to garner even a No. 11 or No. 12 seed? Only time will tell, but the Gophers hold the future in their hands.
NORTHWESTERN (14-7, 3-6): This isn’t a cruel joke. The Wildcats do have a chance to reach the NCAA Tournament. That chatter will only reach a crescendo as Northwestern should win its next three games (Michigan, Indiana, @ Iowa). There is even a non-conference game against Chicago State that will add another victory to the Wildcats’ win column. However, this team needs impressive wins. The biggest non-conference victories are a neutral-site win against Notre Dame and a victory at N.C. State (The ND wins looks worse and worse daily, especially after Notre Dame gave Rutgers its first Big East victory this season). N.C. State is, like Northwestern, a low-end bubble team at best.
Northwestern can win as many games as it wants, but it needs show-me-on-SportsCenter victories. Unfortunately, the team was dealt a very easy Big Ten slate this season, especially down the stretch. There is one “big” game and that’s at Wisconsin. The next best chance for a marquee win comes at home against fellow-bubble team Minnesota.
The 70-year NCAA Tournament drought will surely continue for Northwestern unless the Wildcats do the following two things: Finish 9-9 in the conference and reach the Big Ten Tournament semifinals (meaning a win against the conference’s No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the quarterfinals). Even then, Selection Sunday in Evanston, Illinois, will be nerve-racking.
See you in 2011: Indiana, Iowa, Penn State
Indiana (9-11, 3-5) might never reach the elite status it once attained under Bobby Knight (or even Mike Davis’s one year of glory in 2002), but I expect Indiana to be a conference contender beginning next season. Saturday’s game at Illinois, a renowned tough place to play, backs my stance. It took a last-second runner in overtime for Illinois to knock off an undermanned Indiana team.
That is a huge rivalry folks, and it only intensified after there seemed to be some dirt under the nails of then-Indiana coach Kelvin Sampson in the recruiting of Eric Gordon (Gordon had initially committed to Illinois, but changed that commitment to Indiana. He played one season before the Clippers took him with the seventh pick in the 2008 NBA Draft). Illinois should have won the game by double digits. Instead, Indiana controlled the game and only lost when the Fighting Illini finally did what they were supposed to do.
Iowa (8-14, 2-7) will probably be a Big Ten bottom-feeder for years to come. Iowa never was a recruiting hotbed and it took a very good coach in Steve Alford to keep Iowa afloat in the conference for many years (The last four years Alford was at Iowa, his teams finished fourth in the conference twice and second another year). He’ll never admit it, but Todd Lickliter knows he had a better job at Butler. He might be given a handful of more years to turn things around in Iowa City, but any turnaround seems unlikely.
Penn State (8-13, 0-9) will make some noise in the Big Ten next season, if only because Talor Battle, Jeff Brooks, and Andrew Jones will be seniors. This has been a dismal season in Happy Valley, but just to show how close it could have been to being a good season, look at Dec. 5. That day, Penn State lost at Temple 45-42. Had Penn State won, the snail-paced game undoubtedly would have given the team some momentum to carry into the Big Ten season. Instead, the Nittany Lions lost and have won just three games since (against Maryland-Baltimore County, Garnder Webb, and American).
PROJECTED FINAL STANDINGS (conference record) – Postseason prediction
1. Michigan State (15-3) – NCAA Tournament
2. Ohio State (14-4) – NCAA Tournament
3. Wisconsin (13-5) – NCAA Tournament
4. Purdue (13-5) – NCAA Tournament
5. Minnesota (11-7) – NCAA Tournament
6. Illinois (10-8) – NIT
7. Michigan (9-9) – NIT
8. Northwestern (7-11) – NIT
9. Indiana (5-13) – None
10. Iowa (3-15) – None
11. Penn State (3-15) – None