At the beginning of the 2013-14 basketball season the Big Ten was widely considered to be the best conference in the nation. While not expected to be as strong as last season, the Big Ten was still looking to be at the top for another season, with at least nine teams with a legitimate shot at making the NCAA Tournament. Now as the non-conference schedule is starting to wind down, several Big Ten teams have started to dig a hole that they'll need to climb out of in conference play if they want to make the big dance.
Right now I'd go out on a limb and say there are only four locks for the tournament right now, with those being Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Iowa. Of course Michigan State has looked relatively vulnerable, albeit with a thinning roster. And while Iowa has looked like a tournament team, their loss at Iowa State joins their Villanova defeat as another blown opportunity for a quality win, putting more pressure on the Hawkeyes to pick up some quality wins in 2014. On the flip side, it's looking like Nebraska, Penn State and Northwestern will not be dancing in March, as expected. For simplicity stake we'll skip over Minnesota and Illinois for later. While both are currently on the bubble, they're exactly where most people penned them to be when the season tipped off.
Note: For RPI based numbers, I use the numbers provided by Basketball State. If you look throughout the Internet, there's usually some discrepancies in these numbers, though they're all usually relatively similar.
If I told you back in October that Michigan would be 6-4 after ten games and have some questions arising about their NCAA odds, you likely wouldn't have believed me. Even now there's still plenty of time for this team to take care of business. I think the Arizona loss this weekend is evident that the team is definitely a NCAA caliber team regardless of how flawed they can be, but their resume is still a problem right now. There's no shame in losing to teams like Duke, Arizona and Iowa State. Excluding the bad loss versus Charlotte (RPI-153), these losses shouldn't hurt the team on paper. The problem, though, is Michigan hasn't picked up any wins to put on their resume. Losing in close games to good teams should be more valuable than beating cupcakes, but without the wins it makes it tougher for Michigan (and unfortunately there's almost more value in wins against cupcakes).
As of now Michigan has beat no one in the top 100 RPIwise, with Florida State being 105th. With two non-conference games remaining, Michigan's matchup next Saturday against Stanford is hovering around "must win" territory. However, Stanford very well could be a NCAA bubble/NIT level Pac-12 team and has a RPI just inside the top 100 at 80th, so it wouldn't exactly be a 'big' win for the Wolverines. That being said, it's more of a must win to avoid a second bad loss and to put less pressure on Michigan in the Big Ten.
Michigan's SOS numbers should look very, very good at the end of the year. However, losing games will hurt their overall RPI, where they are currently 139th. At the end of the day if Michigan wants a tourney bid, they'd likely need 18 wins and a few Big Ten Tournament wins or hit 19-20 regular season wins. At 7-5 that would likely require 11 or 12 conference wins. Last year's Wolverines were considerably better and only won 12 games, the idea of a less talented squad winning as many (or more games) isn't exactly guaranteed. Luckily for Michigan the Big Ten schedule starts off pretty easy, with Michigan taking on Minnesota, Northwestern, Nebraska and Penn State in their first four games. If the Wolverines enter the Big Ten at 8-4 they would likely face off at Wisconsin with a 12-4 record and plenty of momentum.
Of course Michigan will likely need to clean shop over the next six games as the schedule will become considerably tougher afterwards. After their first four conference games the Wolverines will not face Penn State or Northwestern again and will face a very, very tough mid-conference stretch, at one point playing Iowa, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan State in a brutal four game stretch.
What does Michigan need to do to get to the NCAA Tournament?
The Wolverines have plenty of talent and the Arizona game pretty clearly shows that this team is a NCAA-caliber team, they just need to pick up the wins to get there. The Stanford game would be another bad loss, so that game is something this team desperately needs. If Michigan can close out the non-conference slate with two wins and open up in the Big Ten at 4-0, they'll be 12-4 with two decent wins (Florida State, Stanford) and would likely just need seven wins over their last 14 games (as well as the Big Ten Tournament). If McGary stays healthy and keeps it up, he'll likely just need someone to emerge as a secondary scoring option. Glenn Robinson III showed his potential versus Arizona and if he can play at the level the rest of the season? Michigan is in, hands down. If Robinson III continues to be up and down, well then that'll put pressure on someone like Caris LeVert, Derrick Walton Jr. or Zak Irvin to step up and emerge as a scoring threat.
At one point I thought Indiana would surprise people and be considerably better than most predicted, though that seems a bit of a longshot right now. There's definitely the talent here, especially with the immediate emergence of Noah Vonleh and continued development of Yogi Ferrell. Of course Indiana still has some serious issues, especially with the zone, and consistency has been a problem. Losing to UCONN by one point was not a bad loss, and there is no shame in falling to Syracuse (regardless of how poor you played). But losing to a Notre Dame team that had looked terrible all season? Beating Long Island by only one point? Both of these games weren't exactly what you'd expect from Tom Crean's Hoosiers.
So right now Indiana is sitting at 8-3 and an RPI at 94th. They're not exactly in deep trouble right now, but like Michigan, they'll need to start winning some games down the stretch. So far the Hoosiers have only played two teams in the top 100, both of them losses. Their highest ranked win? A home win against Oakland (RPI-126), their only win versus a team currently in the top 190. With a non-conference SOS currently at 169th, Indiana's non-conference slate does the team no favors. While the Wolverines could slide into the tournament with 18 or 19 wins, this Hoosier team will likely need to hit at least 20 wins. While their SOS has been atrocious so far, they'll see the number increase dramatically thanks to the strength of the Big Ten.
With two more cupcakes coming up, Indiana should kick off Big Ten play at 10-3. Luckily for the Hoosiers, they'll face off of every team at the bottom of the conference (Penn State, Nebraska, Northwestern) twice, creating plenty of opportunities to pad their win total. Unlike Michigan, though, their conference schedule is considerably more difficult at the beginning, with two of their first six games going against Michigan State and another versus Wisconsin. When all is said and done, this team could be sitting at 13-6 (3-3) six games into Big Ten play and have their best win come against Illinois. It wouldn't be the end of the world, but there would definitely be some pressure to pull off some upsets down the road.
What does Indiana need to do to get to the NCAA Tournament?
First off Indiana needs to find a way to overcome their issues with the zone. If I'm pretty much any coach in the Big Ten right now I'd make sure to show the Hoosiers the zone defense. Crean's teams here have struggled with it and I have no idea why, but if Indiana can overcome their inability to beat the zone, it'd go a long way in shoring up one of the teams bigger weaknesses. Also, while Vonleh and Ferrell have been looking good, consistency from the rest of the roster would help make Indiana a considerably more difficult team to beat.
Indiana should hit 10 wins before conference play starts. With their non-conference SOS being so weak, no marquee wins out of conference and a bad loss against Notre Dame, Indiana likely needs to hit ten wins in the Big Ten to feel pretty good about their tournament odds. That means the team will need to avoid any upsets/letdowns when they face off against Penn State, Nebraska and Northwestern six times. If Indiana can win these games, they'll likely be able to pick up a few more wins in their four games against Illinois (2x), Minnesota and Purdue. If they take care of business here it'd mean they'd only need to really win two games against the upper echelon of the Big Ten and with the Hoosiers being so difficult at home, it'd likely require Indiana to straight up collapse if they're going to miss the tournament.
Oh Purdue, why do you do this to me. The team has shown improvement in a wide variety of areas but once again seems suspect to the same exact problems as last season. While this team has considerably more leadership, more weapons, better shooting and the ability to overcome adversity...the offense still has a tendency to turn off at random points in the game. While Ronnie Johnson has improved dramatically, he still likes to just put his head down and run down the court before firing a horribly off center jumper that rims out. While the three point shooting has improved, the team still likes to fire up some poorly timed threes, leading to long rebounds and easy points in transition. And my favorite part? Whenever this team opens up a lead you can expect the offense to go into neutral and for the opposing team to cut it down within a few minutes.
Oh, and poor free throw shooting. And losing inexplicably to Washington State after almost coming back from a huge deficit to beat Oklahoma State. Because this is Purdue and they can't have nice things, or something of the sort.
Now Purdue is sitting at 8-3, has an RPI of 124th, a relatively weak non-conference SOS, no marquee wins (best win against Eastern Michigan, currently sitting at 86th) and a bad loss against Washington State. After missing opportunities for nice wins against Oklahoma State and Butler, Purdue does have one more chance for a quality non-conference win as they still have West Virginia on their schedule. While last nights game versus Butler wasn't a must win, it was widely acknowledged that they needed to beat either Butler or West Virginia, making the game next Sunday a must win for Purdue.
If Purdue can beat West Virginia they should enter Big Ten play at 10-3 and will have their NCAA chances still alive. If they lose to West Virginia? Well at 9-4 and the way their non-conference season played out, it'd likely put Purdue's odds up in the air, with the possibility starting to look slim. Purdue's conference schedule involves eight games against Nebraska, Penn State, Northwestern and Minnesota...but at the same time Purdue's issues with consistency means this team will likely lose a few games that should be wins. They're definitely capable of a few upsets, but if the Boilermakers need 10 or 11 wins, it could get tricky. If they can hit 10 wins prior to Big Ten play and get by with a 9-9 conference record? The odds would likely increase quite a bit.
What does Purdue need to do to get to the NCAA Tournament?
The biggest thing this team needs to do is win against West Virginia. It's not a huge win for the program, but it helps avoids another bad loss, gets the team closer to the 19-20 wins they'd likely need and is at least better than beating Eastern Michigan. At 10-3 Purdue would then need to make sure it takes care of business against the bottom of the Big Ten, avoiding potentially catastrophic upsets against Minnesota, Northwestern, Nebraska and Penn State. If Purdue can win at least 7 of those games, they could be at 17 wins with the team only needing 2 or 3 wins and having 10 games to do so. Is that a possibility? Definitely, though Purdue's lack of consistency kind of makes it hard to say for sure.
So more or less Purdue has to finish out the non-conference slate with two wins, take care of business against the bottom of the Big Ten and find a way to pick up a few wins against the mid to upper echelon of the Big Ten. Can they do this? Yes. Should they do this? Yes. Will they do this? Umm...
Purdue should be capable of getting to the tournament if they can just fix several of their more manageable issues. The first issue is the occasional brashness of the guards. Both the Johnson brothers aren't known for being high percentage shooting guards, yet time and time again both will take off down the court and force up a jumper that usually is a miss. This kills consistency with the offense and leads to wasted possessions, something Purdue desperately needs to avoid. Also, when shooting three pointers the team needs to make sure the shot is the best decision and that the team is better set prior to the ball going up. Far too many times the Boilermakers fire off a contested three with the team out of position and it leads to easy points for the opposing team.
Purdue has the elements to field a solid offense and improved defense, but they still seem so wishy washy. At some points in the game the team looks like a solid NCAA-caliber team and then at other times they look like they belong at bottom of the Big Ten. Why this team hasn't been capable of playing at a consistent level for the last few years is a bit of a question mark and starting to wear on the fans approval of Painter and the team in general. If they can just play to potential and do it night in and night out, this Purdue team is talented enough and will be fine. If they continue this up and down game throughout 2014? Well at least they'll be playing in the NIT instead of the CBI.