Another week into the Big Ten season and things are starting to get more interesting across the Midwest, especially with teams like Indiana and Iowa returning to the mix while heavy hitters like Maryland and Michigan State look relatively vulnerable.
The biggest change up top isn't Indiana, though, but rather Iowa. While there's been quite a bit of chatter about the Hoosiers, with some of it warranted considering the team hasn't looked bad outside of their trip to Hawaii earlier in the season, lets not get carried away about a team that allowed Rutgers, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Minnesota opportunities to win so far through their first five conference games. But Iowa, Iowa has been rolling through the Big Ten so far.
As of right now the Hawkeyes have six wins against top 50 programs, including beating Michigan State on the road this past week and proving their home win against a Spartans team without Denzel Valentine was no fluke. Their three losses, all against teams in the top 40, were all winnable affairs and the national hype for the Hawkeyes would likely be sky high if they had not blown a huge lead on the road against Iowa State a month into the season. Of course I'm expecting Iowa to come back down sometime in the near future, but for now the Hawkeyes are currently running things in the Big Ten. They have six top 50 wins (no other team has more than 4), no bad losses, a top 10 RPI and a SOS just outside of the top 10 (11th). If Iowa wants to stay here they'll have a huge test this weekend when they square off against a Purdue team looking for some revenge.
One last thing before we get to the chart, but this past week was rough for the Buckeyes. They have the Kentucky win in their back pocket and losing to Maryland was more or less expected here, but they were absolutely embarrassed by the Terrapins. The loss puts decisively more pressure on Ohio State to add a few marquee wins over the next two months while decreasing their margin of error. The Buckeyes have now lost by at least 20 points to Maryland, Indiana and Connecticut, while also having three losses (two of which at home) to Texas-Arlington, Memphis and Louisiana Tech. The end result is Ohio State cannot afford to lose any of their winnable games coming up and really need to pull off an upset against Purdue or Maryland before February hits.
Northwestern could be out of the postseason hunt
When your best non-conference game is a double digit loss on a neutral court you probably have problems. That's more or less Northwestern's season in a nutshell, as a non-conference SOS that currently ranks 322nd did absolutely nothing for the team, even though they managed a 12-1 record. Now the Wildcats are already 3-3 in the Big Ten and still have zero wins against top 50 teams, with their only top 100 win being against a Wisconsin team currently ranked at 91st when it comes to their RPI. Still, heading into the weekend the worst game for Northwestern was a loss to Ohio State, with their two other defeats being passable since they came against North Carolina and Maryland.
Then the weekend happened.
If you're Northwestern and you wanted a trip to the postseason in 2016 you were likely hoping for at least a 12-1 record out of conference and then you were banking on your ability to create a "fool's gold" resume. Or in other words, try to get to 20+ wins by beating the bad and so-so Big Ten programs and hope that a 21 or 22 win resume out of the Big Ten will get you a free pass. In order to do this, though, you need to actually beat those bad teams and avoid resume killing losses. Losing to Penn State at home is one of the worst things Chris Collins and his Wildcats could have done, only topped by losing to a team like Rutgers or Minnesota at home. Now the Wildcats have a horrendous SOS, terrible RPI, no quality victories, a so-so conference mark and absolutely no reason to warrant a postseason birth.
Things won't get any easier for the Wildcats either with road trips to Maryland and Indiana this week, followed by games against Michigan State and Iowa to close out the month. In all likelihood two weeks from now when I'm typing this the Wildcats will be sitting at 15-8 (3-7) and will have an uphill battle just to land a NIT birth. Even if Northwestern can pick up an unexpected upset over the next two weeks, they'd still be a long shot for the NCAA Tournament. If 2016 is going to be the year for the Wildcats they'll need to suddenly start contending with the top Big Ten programs and avoid any and all upsets down the road, something that seems highly unlikely.
Better luck next year Northwestern, hopefully the 2016-17 non-conference schedule will be a bit more beneficial.
Michigan finally adds a resume defining win
The Wolverines had four losses heading into last week, all of which were double digit defeats to very good teams. While Michigan didn't really have a marquee win to hold themselves up, their resume also didn't have any major defects and it positioned Michigan nicely to emerge as the middle of the pack Big Ten program that could reach the postseason. The odds of Michigan returning to the NCAA Tournament improved this week as they added a win over Maryland on Tuesday, something that will likely look even better once Maryland fully gets up and running. Unfortunately Michigan couldn't capitalize on an opportunity to add a second huge win this weekend, falling on the road to Iowa by 11 points, but there's no shame in dropping a game at Iowa, especially considering how hot Fran McCaffery's program is right now.
The next two weeks should shape up pretty nicely for the Wolverines if they can avoid any upsets, with the team set to face Minnesota and Nebraska this week and Rutgers and Penn State next week. That should pave the way for a 17-5 (7-2) Michigan team that would be sitting nicely heading into February. Things will get more difficult next month, but home games against Indiana, Michigan State and Purdue will allow opportunities for a few more huge wins while the back end of the schedule still has plenty of winnable games (at Minnesota, at Ohio State, Northwestern, at Wisconsin). If the Big Ten is going to get in a sixth team into the tournament then the odds are definitely in Michigan's favor right now.
Wisconsin still hangin' by a thread
The bad for Wisconsin includes a dreadful 10-9 record, poor 2-4 start in conference play, bad RPI (91) and four losses to teams outside of the top 100. In all likelihood the Badgers are still essentially out of the running, but beating the Spartans at least keeps the hope of a postseason run alive. The Badgers had opportunities to beat Purdue, Indiana and Maryland, so I guess it isn't a huge surprise that they finally picked up a quality win this weekend. Also, let's not forget that Nebraska once made a similar run to the postseason two years ago.
Of course to get there Wisconsin needs to get hot and probably piece together a winning streak over the next couple weeks. The next five games for the Badgers have four entirely winnable affairs (at Penn State, at Illinois, Ohio State and Nebraska) and if Wisconsin can knock off the Hoosiers at home, that five game streak (six if you count Michigan State) would launch the badgers to 15-9 and right back in the thick of things. With a mid-February stretch including Maryland, Michigan State and Iowa over a four game span, Wisconsin could start winning games and reenter the conversation, but it leaves next to no room for error. While Wisconsin has played teams close and is an absolute handful at home, the team hasn't shown enough consistency to indicate that this will happen. Wisconsin isn't completely dead yet, but they're still only hanging on by a thread.
Michigan State fades
In the grand scheme of things, the Spartans are perfectly fine. They're a tourney team, a Big Ten conference title contender and have a legitimate shot to return to the Final Four this spring. That being said, this week was a setback for the Spartans if they wanted a top seed and will make the road to a Big Ten regular season title a bit more tricky. No one was going to fault the Spartans for losing to Iowa on the road without Denzel Valentine, but the team got outplayed considerably at home with Valentine this past week, then followed it up by losing to a bad Wisconsin team. The Spartans now are sitting at 3-3 in the Big Ten and have little room for error if they want a #1 seed this March. We should have a better idea of where the Spartans sit after this week since the team does host Maryland on Saturday, but the Spartans no longer look like the easy favorite to win the Big Ten now.