Another week, another bracketology post. As we speed ahead towards February, the Big Ten's landscape has changed quite a bit, with the Hawkeyes roaring past both Maryland and Michigan State as the new favorite in the conference, while Indiana's soft Big Ten opening has them neck and neck with Iowa. Not to be outdone, the Wolverines have started collecting wins with an advantageous Big Ten schedule so far, elevating themselves as another Big Ten team likely to find the NCAA Tournament this March.
For now there are plenty of questions, but unfortunately a lot of them won't be answered for at least a few more weeks, especially with the recent rise of Indiana and Michigan. That being said, it'll be interesting to see if Iowa can stay this high for the remainder of the season, as well as if Ohio State can finally piece things together under Thad Matta, with his wildly inconsistent team providing plenty of headaches for a Buckeyes fan base used to a high level of success in Columbus.
|Team||Record||Conf. Rec.||RPI||SOS||KenPom||vs. 1-50||51-100||101-200||201+|
Hawkeyes a potential #1?
Probably not, but if the season ended now there'd be a strong argument. The Hawkeyes have a top 10 RPI, they're ranked inside the top five, they have four wins against the RPI Top 25 and haven't lost in the Big Ten yet. They've beaten Michigan State twice, Purdue twice and Michigan, while having all three losses being winnable non-conference games against strong opposition. Hell, this team should have beaten Iowa State on the road and one has to wonder how high everyone would be on this program if that had happened.
Things are going to remain difficult for the Hawkeyes this week with a road trip to Maryland, but if they can get past the Terrapins they'll have three manageable games before a road trip to Indiana in a few weeks. Iowa has already gotten a number of the upper Big Ten teams out of the way, so there's plenty of opportunities for wins. That being said, though, they're going to need to win almost all of these games if they want a top seed. If Iowa plays like they are now that's definitely feasible, but I think the team is set to come back down to earth sooner or later and will likely drop a few Big Ten games down the stretch. Of course losing two or three Big Ten games will still lead to a very nice seed this March, but I think Iowa will fade just enough to not be a top seed. Don't forget that a few weeks back this chatter was being made about a Michigan State team that is now sitting at 4-4 in conference play.
Close but no cigar for Northwestern
I've harped plenty about the lackluster schedule for Northwestern and it's definitely killed any chance of the Wildcats reaching the NCAA Tournament in all likelihood, with 14 of their 15 wins so far coming against teams outside of the RPI Top 100. That being said, Northwestern had a chance to finally add a quality win this past week on the road against Maryland and let it slip through the cracks, falling in overtime thanks to a very, very poor offensive performance (34.8% from the field, 23.8% from 3 on 21 attempts and 41.7% from the line). Of course they didn't follow that game up with anything special, getting hosed by Indiana as their offense still remained lifeless.
Still, the reality is Northwestern could have been 16-5 heading into this week. Sure, their RPI and SOS would still be horrible, they'd have a dreadful loss to Penn State (and a problematic loss to Ohio State) and only one quality victory, but 16-5 in the Big Ten can be deceiving. With a schedule that closes with Rutgers, Penn State and Nebraska (two of which at home), and includes home games against Minnesota and Illinois, Northwestern could have mustered out 21 wins, which would have also put them to at least 9-9 in conference play. Win a game in the conference tournament or add another upset in February and it'd be hard to keep a 22 win and 10-8 Big Ten team out of the dance, even if they're not really worth the invite.
Instead, however, Northwestern dropped a winnable game that could have saved their season. Now after a demoralizing defeat at Indiana, the Wildcats are set to probably have another rough week with Michigan State and Iowa coming up. By next week the Wildcats will likely be 15-8 and it will take a major effort from Chris Collins to keep the team motivated if he hopes to add wins in early February against Minnesota, Ohio State and Illinois.
Ohio State hanging by a thread
The Buckeyes have been frustrating in 2015-16 and that has continued once again this past week. After atrocious outings at Indiana and Maryland, Ohio State only had one game last week with a road trip to Purdue. While Matta's team was able to hang with Purdue for a half, the Boilers eventually took care of business down the stretch. Falling to 12-8, Ohio State enters a huge week this week with two must win games and a chance for a second resume defining victory.
So far so good for the Buckeyes as they knocked off Penn State by 20 at home last night. Now they'll have to get ready for a winnable road trip to Illinois that would be a detrimental loss for Ohio State if they can't add a 14th victory. Later in the weekend will be an interesting game as Ohio State hosts Maryland. On one hand the Buckeyes got demolished by Maryland recently, on the other hand Maryland has proven that they are entirely beatable. If the Buckeyes can piece together a strong performance and add a major upset to their resume, it'd go a long way to a potential NCAA Tournament appearance. If they lose? It'd more or less force Ohio State into must win territory for a five game stretch that includes road trips to Wisconsin, Rutgers and Nebraska, as well as two home games against Northwestern and Michigan. That Maryland game isn't quite a must win, especially with Michigan, Michigan State (twice) and Iowa still left on the schedule, but it would remove almost all room for error throughout February.
How far can Indiana continue to climb?
In 2014-15 the narrative surrounding Tom Crean went from the embattled head coach being on the hot seat to potentially being the Big Ten Coach of the Year and finally back to the hot seat. The 2015-16 season has been a bit different, but the team's positioning with fans and the media is somewhat similar to some extent. Earlier on when the Hoosiers stumbled out west, the Crean naysayers and hot seat chatter became the focal point for Indiana. Now with the Hoosiers steamrolling the Big Ten, the question is how far the team can trend up and the amount of respect for the job done by Crean is continuing to grow at a rapid pace. Of course the Big Ten slate for Indiana has been a cakewalk of sorts, with the teams most difficult opponent being either Wisconsin or Ohio State. And lets not forget that the team could have easily lost to Rutgers, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Minnesota, but the soft opening schedule isn't exactly Indiana's fault.
Also, the Maui trip was a disaster, but outside of that fiasco what has Indiana done that's been so bad? Lose to Duke? The reality is most of the negative reactions to this year's team is based on the fan base's inability to trust their head coach. There's almost an expectation that the team will stumble and falter when it actually matters, an assumption driven by Crean's inability to get things done in the past. And of course once that schedule toughens up things could once again be problematic in Bloomington, but until Indiana starts playing these games we have to base our judgment on what they've done so far. And while Indiana's easy schedule makes it hard to truly rate how good this team is and can be, they've avoided any major upsets as of late.
We still likely won't know much about this team until next month since they play Wisconsin and Minnesota this week, though a road trip to Madison is always a potential upset. The Michigan game on the 2nd could be very interesting as it could be a hyped match between two teams taking advantage of a beneficial schedule to improve how good they look. Either way, if Indiana can keep winning they could work their way up to a strong tournament seed, but until their schedule catches up it'll be hard to truly gauge just how far this team can trend upwards down the stretch.