During the offseason there was a lot of talk of how the upcoming 2014-15 season would play out for the fourteen teams in the Big Ten. There was a lot of discussion and debate, with Wisconsin as the class of the league (and Rutgers at the bottom) being the only consensus opinions. Another notion commonly agreed on was that regardless of how the middle played out, the Big Ten would be a well balanced and talented league.
Well at least one of those things was right.
We're now done with the non-conference season and conference play is starting to heat up and outside of Wisconsin we still have no clue what to expect. The first two months were particularly rough on the Big Ten and that could have some serious ramifications going down the road, especially for teams that end up on the bubble. Even if there were projected declines for teams like Michigan and Michigan State, I doubt many assumed the Wolverines and Spartans would drop games to teams like the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Eastern Michigan and Texas Southern. The same could be said for Nebraska and Incarnate Word, Indiana and Eastern Washington and Purdue's loss to Gardner-Webb.
So where does that leave the conference that has claimed to be the best in the nation the last several seasons? It takes a conference that was hoping to get a plethora of teams into the big dance and leaves it as a garbled mess. Things would be even worse if it weren't for the addition of Maryland, the only team besides Wisconsin that has consistently looked good throughout the entire season. Now the Big Ten could be lucky to match last years six bids, even though they now have an additional two teams. As of now it's safe to say Wisconsin and Maryland would (obviously) be locks if the season ended today, as well as probably Michigan State thanks to their dismantlement of Indiana last night, but what's after that?
Would you believe me if I told you that heading into today that Rutgers had the sixth highest RPI in the league, above teams like Ohio State, Indiana and Minnesota? Well they do, somehow, even though they're 9-6 and have lost to Northwestern, Saint Peter's, Saint Francis (Pa) and were held to a mere 26 points against Virginia. Then you have a team like Penn State, that just lost to Rutgers, who benefited from a laughable non-conference schedule to get to a 12-1 mark heading into conference play. Now after back to back Big Ten losses and a rough January schedule coming up, it'll be a miracle for the Nittany Lions to even scrape into the NIT.
Past that you have a Northwestern team that looks like a lost cause, a Nebraska team that has regressed to what everyone thought of them early on last season, a Purdue team that has two atrocious losses (North Florida, Gardner-Webb) and a Michigan program that is literally losing to everyone. That leaves us with five teams, two of which should be fine down the stretch. Those two teams, Iowa and Ohio State, could also fade as they both have plenty of question marks. Of course since somebody has to step up eventually in conference play, the Hawkeyes and Buckeyes could be the last two teams looking like a sure thing for the tournament this March.
The reality is we have five teams likely in good shape and three teams that could go either way. Naturally two of those teams (Illinois, Minnesota) both lost their first two conference games and the other (Indiana) just got smacked by Michigan State. Conference play won't go any easier and I think the common belief is that the Illini and Gophers will likely fade down the stretch, both needing to get things turned around in a hurry to avoid burying themselves into too big of a hole. As for Indiana, Monday was a perfect example of how important their freshmen will be this season, but one has to think that unless the team collapses down the stretch that they should be fine.
Here's the big problem for the Big Ten. Their non-conference season went extremely rough and the league more or less became a punchline for embarrassing upsets that kept happening over and over again in December. Without many standout or nationally recognized teams outside of Wisconsin and possibly Maryland, that means that a bubble team with double digit losses and a .500 record in league play will likely miss the tournament unless it's a soft bubble this season. That wasn't the belief heading into the season, with the idea of teams only needing maybe 19 or 20 wins and nine wins in the Big Ten. Now that the conference has faded early on, teams will need to win at a solid rate if they want to feel safe on the bubble and the sporadic nature of the conference means we could see teams beat up on each other for the next three months. That could interestingly keep the Big Ten with the fewest NCAA Tournaments since 2010 (five), even though the league now has 14 members.
The reality is regardless of how bad the Big Ten has been, it's still providing plenty of entertaining and unpredictable basketball. The only question is if enough teams will get things turned around in time for the league to earn back some recognition this March.