With the conference season starting to move to a close, it seemed like a good time to write up a post with some general thoughts on the conference with just five regular season games left for much of the Big Ten. It's an exciting time, but also a stressful one as any win or a loss can have massive ramifications
With that, here are a few things I'm thinking about this Tuesday.
1. Big Ten Setting Up For Monster NCAA Tournament.
Early in the year, the headlines were all over the place. The Big Ten was having a down year, the top teams weren't great, and the bottom could set up to be historically bad. From a general perspective, those statements are still true. The conference is weaker than it has been in the last few years and the bottom has been really bad.
However, the top could be set up for a remarkable finish.
To start, with Michigan's win over Purdue and Wisconsin's road win over Maryland on Saturday, it's looking more and more likely that the Big Ten is going to get seven teams into this year's NCAA Tournament. That's certainly not guaranteed as both Michigan and Wisconsin have some big games coming up, but at least according to the bracketology posts, it's pretty likely.
However, it's where those teams could land that's really significant for the Big Ten. Not only is Iowa in serious contention for a No. 1 seed, but both Maryland and Michigan State are in great shape to get No. 3 seeds or higher and Purdue is in decent shape to get a No. 4 seed. Plus, if Indiana wins the Big Ten and does well in the Big Ten Tournament, it might even be able to get on the top side of seeded teams.
Other conferences are certainly going to have their contenders as well, but it's hard not to be impressed with that turnaround. The Big Ten could very reasonably end up with a No. 1 seed, two No. 2 seeds, a No. 4 seed, and still have three other teams make the field. That would be an oustandings Selection Sunday and considering that this is a down year for the conference, an even more remarkable feat.
Along with that, there are a bunch of teams could make deep runs. This season has been incredibly difficult to predict across college basketball, but as of now, it's not that hard to see every single one of the Big Ten's projected NCAA teams being able to the Sweet Sixteen and a handful being able to make the Final Four.
At the top, Iowa has played like a top five team for the past few months, Maryland might be the most talented team in the country, and Michigan State might be better than last year's team that made the Final Four. It's probably unrealistic to think all three make deep runs, but all three certainly have the rosters to do it.
Along with those three, Indiana has been playing really well over the last few months and Purdue posesses one of the most difficult matchup problems in the country. Heck, even Michigan and Wisconsin are threats to make a run. After all, the Wolverines are set to get star player Caris LeVert back and the Badgers have been one of the nation's hottest teams in recent weeks.
There's still a lot ahead for the conference, but if things fall right, this could be setting up to be an epic year for the Big Ten in the NCAA Tournament.
2. Iowa Is Going To Win The Big Ten.
I hate making bold predictions because it leaves the door open for trolling down the line, but based on how things are sitting in the Big Ten right now, it's time to start cleaning out the rafters in Iowa City to add a Big Ten title banner. Barring something miraculous happening in the final stretch, the Hawkeyes are going to win the conference.
Of course, as Indiana and Maryland fans will note, there are still games left and Iowa holds just a one game lead. That means that Iowa needs to win at least four of its final five to clinch at least a share of the title. Given that the Hawkeyes still have three road games left and a rematch with Indiana, there's certainly some leeway there.
So, why am I so confident that Iowa is going to win the Big Ten?
First, let me acknowledge that I'm only talking about a share of the Big Ten. It wouldn't shock me to see either Indiana or Maryland tie things up down the stretch. However, it would shock me to see Iowa failing to get at least a share.
I take this stance for three primary reasons. First, Iowa is going to be a major favorite in three of its final five games and a significant favorite in all five. In fact, KenPom has Iowa as a 75 percent (or better) favorite in three of those five games and at least a 61 percent favorite in every game. Essentially, even if Iowa does drop a game down the stretch, it's beyond unlikely for Iowa to see the team dropping more than two games.
And remember, the Hawkeyes just need to win four more to clinch a share.
The second key factor here is that both Indiana and Maryland have tougher schedules remaining than Iowa does in the final five games. Indiana not only has to travel to Iowa City, but the Hoosiers also get Maryland and Purdue in key late season matchups. Likewise, Maryland gets Michigan at home and tough road games against both Indiana and Purdue. KenPom actually has both teams projected to lose two more games this year.
Finally, I think the fact that Indiana and Maryland matchup with one another to close the season is a major benefit to Iowa's Big Ten title chances. Maybe this overlaps with the schedule point, but having this game means that one of those teams has to lose at least once. Given the factors above, that essentially means that Iowa likely only has to battle the winner of that game in the title race, which should make things easier.
Seeing Iowa fail to win the Big Ten might still be possible, but it would be shocking to say the least.
3. Don't Give Up, Middle of the Road Teams!
For most teams, the final month of the regular season is the most awkward portion of the year. With the conference title and NCAA Tournament out of the picture, many teams and fanbases start to lose focus. After all, with the team's goals virtually guaranteed to be out of the picture, what's there left to play for?
Obviously, there's no way that a fanbase is going to be excited about missing the NCAA Tournament or failing to finish near the top of the conference. Nobody is going to be fit pumping in their room after seeing their team miss out on Selection Sunday.
Still, turning a bad season into a mediocre one can do wonders for a program.
That may sound naive or pathetic, but it's true. Teams need to give the program, players, and fans something to hold onto in the final weeks and months of the season and the offseason. It's crucial to keep the program feeling like it's moving in the right direction, even if that may not be entirely true.
Take Northwestern, for example. I wrote about the Wildcats on Monday for Today's U and said that Northwestern can and needs to put a positive spin on this season. The team can do that by winning another big game, avoiding the first day of action in the Big Ten Tournament, and making the NIT.
There's no debating that none of those things mean that much by themselves. I mean, if Northwestern beats Purdue, then drops all of its remaining games, fans aren't exactly going to feel great. However, if the Wildcats could beat Purdue, knock out a few more wins to make the NIT, and win a few games in the NIT, that's really going to make this season look a whole lot more better when the Wildcats are recruiting in July.
It can often be tough to reset expectations for a team after a frustrating start, but for teams like Illinois, Nebraska, Northwestern, and Penn State, finishing the year well can pay plenty of dividends down the road.
You can follow Thomas Beindit on Twitter at @tbeindit.