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Bracketology: Taking An Early Look at the Big Ten As Conference Play Begins

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It's early in conference play, but already we're starting to get a picture of how the postseason hunt could pan out.

Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

As we enter into 2016 I realize it's way too early to take Bracketology too seriously, especially considering how quickly things can change. Look no further than Penn State's hot start last season (or possibly Northwestern this year) to realize that posting a nice 12-1 record out of conference can mean absolutely nothing in the long run. On the flip side, no one had a team like Purdue last year (or Nebraska the year before that) making a postseason run, even after the first two or three months of the season.

Either way, the topic of Bracketology and postseason predictions is something commonly seen at the end of the season, in the summer and before a single minute is even played back in the fall. So why not at least touch off with where the teams in the Big Ten stand heading into the meat of the conference schedule? While technically any team here could hypothetically rise to the postseason (or win their way in), there's a picture that is starting to become increasingly clearer and we're already seeing teams with a growing amount of work to do if they want to avoid missing the postseason once again.

When you glance at the Big Ten as a whole, the conference has been weaker than recent years and the non-conference showing wasn't exactly promising. That means a dog-eat-dog Big Ten could essentially knock out several teams, leading potentially to a five bid conference. At the same time, there's enough teams to land six or maybe even seven bids, but it'll depend on how the middle of the pack pans out. More specifically, it will depend on how teams like Michigan, Ohio State and Wisconsin play down the stretch. At least one of these teams will end up in the postseason, but there could be scenarios with two or even all three of the teams making a strong case. Either way, the narratives pertaining to these teams are starting to come together and we'll have some added weight to a number of these conference games pretty much immediately.

Team Record Conf. Rec. RPI SOS KenPom vs. 1-50 51-100 101-200 201+
Maryland 13-1 2-0 13 90 15 0-1 4-0 5-0 4-0
Indiana 12-3 2-0 76 189 25 0-1 2-2 2-0 8-0
Michigan 12-3 2-0 50 102 24 1-2 2-1 2-0 6-0
Iowa 11-3 2-0 16 12 11 2-2 2-1 3-0 4-0
Ohio State 10-5 2-0 63 16 53 1-2 1-2 4-1 4-0
Michigan State 14-1 1-1 5 31 6 4-1 4-0 2-0 4-0
Purdue 13-2 1-1 29 82 7 2-2 1-0 5-0 5-0
Northwestern 13-2 1-1 95 266 51 0-2 0-0 4-0 9-0
Wisconsin 9-6 1-1 108 52 60 0-2 3-1 3-2 3-1
Illinois 8-7 0-2 118 53 116 0-4 0-2 5-1 3-0
Minnesota 6-8 0-2 188 91 161 0-3 0-1 4-4 2-0
Nebraska 8-7 0-2 224 216 157 0-2 0-2 3-3 5-0
Penn State 9-6 0-2 72 66 133 0-4 2-0 4-2 3-0
Rutgers 6-9 0-2 245 132 248 0-3 0-2 0-3 5-1

Looking Good

Tier I: Michigan State, Maryland, Purdue

The Spartans, Terrapins and Boilermakers have carried the torch for the Big Ten so far this season and it would take a massive collapse for any of these teams to fade out of postseason relevancy. So far Michigan State has looked great, already knocking off Kansas, Florida, Louisville and Providence. The numbers for Tom Izzo and company and about as good as you can get and the only issue at hand is if they'll lose any more games without star Denzel Valentine. The reality is losing a few games here could keep the Spartans from achieving a top seed down the line, but they're still in line for a strong seed regardless this March. The same can be said for a Maryland program that has managed to avoid a few upsets (Rider, Georgetown) and take care of business. There's no marquee victory on the resume yet, but a lot of that has to do with the so-so schedule so far. If the Terrapins play to the level they're capable of, those wins will come and they're still in the running for a top seed when all is said and done.

As for Purdue, the unfortunate loss to Iowa shows that the team isn't perfect. As good as Purdue can be, they're still susceptible to going cold from the field and have had a few issues with turnovers that they need to remedy. Either way, the resume is already padded with a number of solid wins and losing to Iowa and Butler won't hurt the Boilermakers at all. The only question is how Matt Painter's team will fare down the stretch, as this Purdue team has the skill and talent to trend up to a 3 seed (or possibly a 2), while at the same time could also fade to a 7 or 8 seed if their offense can't find some consistency.

Tier II: Iowa, Indiana

A few weeks back the Hawkeyes blew a solid opportunity for a resume defining win against Iowa State, blowing a massive road lead and dropping the game. This was about two weeks after failing to pick up a strong win against Dayton. Either way that means little now with wins against Michigan State and Purdue, even if it required the lack of Denzel Valentine and a complete collapse from Purdue. The Hawkeyes were always seen as a tournament team, the only question is if they can build off of their recent momentum and trend upwards. The offense here is good enough to hang with anyone and Iowa could become a force to be reckoned with as the winter goes on...or they could fade towards the upper-middle of the Big Ten and fall out of national relevance. Iowa is a postseason team regardless, it's just curious as to how good this team can (and will) be.

Another team largely considered a shoe-in for the postseason is Indiana, though their resume isn't exactly that strong just yet. So far their top win is a neutral site game against Notre Dame, edging earlier wins against IPFW and Creighton. The strength of schedule is relatively weak so far (189th), partially thanks to missing out on Kansas in Maui. Speaking of, that trip added two bad losses with defeats to Wake Forest and UNLV. That has led to a team with a RPI at 76th, a poor SOS and only two wins against top 100 teams (one of which is IPFW at 98th). If Indiana wins games they'll be fine, obviously, but if this team suffers a losing streak in conference play it could prove disastrous. Or in other words, expect Indiana to take care of business, but they're not completely bulletproof heading into the thick of conference play. They'll get an opportunity for a pair of nice wins with Wisconsin and Ohio State coming up, though losing either (or both) of those games at home could lead to more 'Tom Crean hot seat' chatter from the fan base and social media.

Up in the Air

Michigan

The Wolverines are a team that could easily be in the looking good section in all honesty, but with a weaker Big Ten it wouldn't be a surprise to see only six teams get a bid. It's early but the top five teams have seemingly separated themselves, leaving this group essentially fighting for one or maybe two seeds. Michigan definitely has a solid enough foundation to build on, though. On one hand their non-conference SOS wasn't overly impressive (124) and outside of a neutral site win over Texas, their wins aren't that impressive either. They've also blown opportunities for marquee wins, losing decisively to Xavier (16), SMU (24) and Connecticut (14). But at the end of the day they're 2-0 in conference play, 12-3 overall and simply need to land in the upper half of the Big Ten to likely earn a tourney bid. Or in other words, there is some work needed to do, but if Michigan can go out and win some games over the next few months it'll be hard to see them miss the postseason once again.

Ohio State

Ohio State has been weird, end of story. This is a team that has beaten Kentucky and almost knocked off Virginia, but also lost to Texas-Arlington, Louisiana Tech and Memphis. That Kentucky win was huge, as well as what will end up as one of the stronger SOS's in the country, so if Ohio State can end up as a bubble team they'll probably be fine. Winning their first two Big Ten games, even if it was against two of the weaker teams, was also a nice touch. If we get good Ohio State during Big Ten play it's hard to see them not working their way towards a bid, but if the youth rear it's ugly head, this team could go south in a hurry as well. With a win over one of the top teams in the nation, though, the Buckeyes managed to put themselves into a position where they are capable of going either way based on how they handle the conference. It's not the easiest path to the postseason, but the hole they started digging early this season is easy enough to climb out of.

Wisconsin

Wisconsin was very good last season, but a massive amount of roster turnover made this year's path to the postseason decisively more difficult. That of course became even more difficult with the sudden retirement of coach Bo Ryan. The reality is while Bo Ryan never missed the postseason while at Wisconsin, his team this year was most likely going to miss out for the first time in his tenure here. Of course now any postseason miss will be pinned on Greg Gard, who has his work set out for him if he wants to keep the Badgers postseason streak alive. As of now the Badgers have only knocked off two teams inside the top 90, with Syracuse being the best win on their resume so far. They've had opportunities, with a decently difficult schedule, but haven't been able to pick up a marquee win just yet and have a pair of bad losses with their home defeats to Western Illinois and Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Now sitting at 9-6 in a down Big Ten, it means the Badgers will need to have a strong two months in conference play to get back to the big dance. It's certainly possible, as the Badgers are a handful at home and will still have Nigel Hayes, but it leaves little room for error. With a road trip to Indiana and a home game against Maryland, with Michigan State also coming up after a road trip to Evanston, the Badgers could make some legitimate progress these next two weeks...or be standing in a sizable hole heading towards the end of January.

Northwestern

Fool's gold. While Northwestern started the season off 12-1, their best non-conference game was a double digit loss to North Carolina at a neutral site. The Wildcats have a non-conference SOS outside of the top 300 and even with Maryland now on their resume, their overall SOS was still 266th as of Monday. 15 games into the season and the best win so far is your choice of Virginia Tech, Missouri or DePaul. Let's not forget that the Wildcats struggled with all three of those teams as well. Either way, Northwestern didn't suffer any crippling losses over the first two months and if they can win games in the Big Ten and get to 20 or so wins then they could very well end their postseason drought, but at the same time there's little to prove that the team won't trend south like Penn State did last year. There's a ton of talent here, but the question is if Chris Collins has enough in the tank to compete in the Big Ten at a level that will make up for the horrible non-conference SOS. It will likely require a winning record in conference play and a few marquee wins, and nothing has really implied we'll see that just yet. There's growing potential and talent in Evanston, it just looks like it could be another year away for the Wildcats.

Trending Poorly

Illinois

It's hard to hold this season's poor start against John Groce, especially considering all of the injuries his team has had to deal with. The reality is the massive laundry list of injuries could (maybe) save his job for at least another season, though the turnover up top in the athletic department could prove problematic. The problem with the Fighting Illini is it's hard to get a good read on the team. This is a team that lost to North Florida and barely beat UIC (344), Chicago State (299) and North Dakota State (150), yet competed with teams like Providence, Michigan, Notre Dame and Iowa State. There's potential but the injuries have left the roster once again thin and inconsistent and now the team is sitting at an 8-7 mark with no marquee wins out of conference play.

Penn State

One thing is consistent for the Nittany Lions under Pat Chambers, and that is that the team always competes. Sitting at 9-6 and 0-2 in the Big Ten, that's not a pretty picture, but things could have been decisively better as Penn State could have knocked off Maryland last week, as well as losing winnable games against Colorado and George Washington. Instead they boast a so-so record, a poor start in the Big Ten and wins against a bunch of remedial mid-majors (and Boston College). Chambers has a decent amount of young talent on the roster and plenty currently on board in the future, but Penn State is probably at least a year away from legitimately contending for a postseason bid. Tonight's game against Minnesota is a must win for Penn State, since a loss could lead them to a 0-5 conference start with Michigan State and Purdue coming up afterwards.

Nebraska

My opinion on Nebraska when they made the NCAA Tournament was that the team simply got hot at the right time, beat a bunch of weaker opponents and padded the resume with a good Wisconsin win to sneak into the tourney. I wasn't high on the team last season and things promptly took a dive. This year things haven't been much better, though Nebraska has been more competitive. The team has had chances to win against Miami, Indiana, Northwestern and Cincinnati, but the problem is they couldn't seal the deal. Right now the team hasn't beat a team within the top 100 and their best wins are against Rhode Island and Tennessee. Sure Nebraska could turn things around, but at 8-7 in a weaker Big Ten, they'd need to be a major contender up top in the conference to get into the postseason and so far the Cornhuskers haven't shown that they're capable of doing that.

Minnesota

The Golden Gophers are one of two teams (Rutgers being the other) to currently hold a losing record. Richard Pitino's squad didn't face a very difficult non-conference slate (146th non-conf SOS), but still could only go 6-6. When you lose to teams like South Dakota, Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and Oklahoma State...you put yourself in a bind. With their best win currently being a slim three point win over Nebraska-Omaha (per RPI, the eye test would make their best win a home win over Clemson) and back-to-back losses to open up Big Ten play, it's looking like the NIT is probably out of reach for this years squad. There's a lot of youth on the roster and Pitino did just get a contract extension this offseason, even though there really wasn't a huge need for one just yet, so he'll have time here, but it could be a rough winter for the Gophers once again.

Rutgers

The Scarlet Knights haven't reached the NCAA Tournament since 1991, way back when they were a member of the Atlantic 10 Conference. Not only that, but they haven't had a winning season since the end of 2006, with their best finish over the last nine seasons being 15-16. Heading into conference play with a losing record, losses to teams like St. Johns, Clemson and Creighton and a decisively tougher Big Ten schedule heading forward...things look bleak. Last season was a disaster for Eddie Jordan and company, only made better by an inexplicable upset over Wisconsin. This year it's looking like things will be even worse out east in Jersey.