Since conference play started last month, the Big Ten has seemed more like a wacky fun house than one of the nation’s best leagues. On any given night, anybody can win and it’s made things more than unpredictable for fans around the conference.
Well, as January begins to come to a close, much of that wild play has started to calm down. Teams like Nebraska and Penn State appear to be trending back where we expected them to finish and others like Indiana and Purdue are reemerging. Things certainly remain wild, but this is more like a controlled explosion now.
But there’s still plenty of drama left for the Big Ten.
And in light of that upcoming drama, I wanted to play the fun game of buy or sell. So here’s who I’m buying and who I’m selling in the coming weeks and months.
Big Ten Buy or Sell:
1. Maryland As A Big Ten Title Contender.
If you’re a Maryland fan, there’s a good chance that you spent much of last offseason reading about your team’s offseason losses and how it would doom Maryland’s chances to do anything significant this season. The talent was there, but the narrative was that there was simply too many new faces to expect much.
But with 19 games in the books, Maryland now sits at 17-2 and atop the Big Ten.
In light of that success, the question is whether Maryland can finish this off and truly contend for the Big Ten title. After all, the Terps have made it through a third of the conference slate with just one loss.
Can they continue that momentum?
Honestly, I’m with that line of thinking and right now, I’m buying Maryland as a Big Ten title contender. To start, nobody in the Big Ten is truly that much better than anybody else. As such, the champion is going to have a few losses this year, so even if Maryland does drop a few going forward, the Terps should be in this race.
Moreover, I just don’t see that many losses left on the schedule for Maryland. Winning at Minnesota and Wisconsin will be tough, but not impossible. Plus, Maryland still has six home games left and road trips to Ohio State, Penn State, and Rutgers remaining. Even if the team just wins those games, it finishes at 14-4. That’s more than good enough to be in the Big Ten title picture at season’s end.
Maryland may not have the statistical numbers to match teams like Purdue and Wisconsin, but with its fast start and favorable schedule, I think Maryland will at least play a role in the Big Ten title race by season’s end.
- Verdict: Buy Maryland as a Big Ten title contender.
2. Northwestern As An NCAA Tournament Team.
Let’s be honest. If Northwestern wasn’t Northwestern, this probably wouldn’t even be a topic at this point. After last Sunday’s road win against Ohio State, Northwestern is now 16-4 with a boatload of winnable games left on the schedule. In fact, the odds of Northwestern missing the NCAA Tournament are already pretty slim.
To put that in perspective, look no further than Northwestern’s current KenPom profile. The team figures to be favored in seven remaining games and currently has 49 percent odds to upset Purdue in the team’s home finale. Even if the team splits those eight games and losses the rest, it will end the regular season at 20-11. That’s more than enough to be in the bubble conversation and that’s a pessimistic outlook.
Given Northwestern’s history, it’s never safe to assume the Wildcats will make the NCAA field, but we’ve reached the point where we need to consider Northwestern as a likely NCAA team. Barring utter collapse, Northwestern will make the NCAAs.
- Verdict: Buy Northwestern as an NCAA Tournament team.
3. The Mitten State’s Fortunes Will Be Determined Shortly.
Nearly half the Big Ten figures to be in NCAA bracketology discussions this season, but two of the most intriguing profiles come from the Mitten State. Both Michigan and Michigan State are desperately fighting for bubble positioning and fans of both schools will likely have a few stressful weeks in March.
And more interestingly, these two will battle it out twice in the next 15 days.
So, is this make or break time for the Spartans and Wolverines?
Let’s first start with the obvious. There’s no debating that the next two weeks or so are going to be massive for both sides of this rivalry. Here’s a look at the upcoming slates for both teams:
Michigan’s Next Six Games:
- 1/26 - Indiana
- 1/29 - at Michigan State
- 2/4 - Ohio State
- 2/7 - Michigan State
- 2/12 - at Indiana
- 2/16 - Wisconsin
Michigan State’s Next Six Games:
- 1/24 - Purdue
- 1/29 - Michigan
- 2/2 - at Nebraska
- 2/7 - at Michigan
- 2/11 - Iowa
- 2/14 - Ohio State
Realistically, outside of Michigan’s trip to Bloomington on 2/12, all of these games look pretty winnable In fact, KenPom gives Michigan a 38 percent chance or better in every game except that road trip to Indiana and it gives Michigan State a 35 percent chance or better in every game. KenPom favors Michigan outright in three of those six and Michigan State in four of its next six games.
The point here is rather simple: It’s money time for the Mitten State. Both sides need to show improved play over these stretches if they want to further their NCAA Tournament dreams. It’s time to get past the talk and get to some action.
However, I’m not buying the logic that this next stretch is all-encompassing for either side. I think Michigan and Michigan State can play themselves out of an NCAA Tournament bid, but I don’t think they can’t play themselves into a bid here. In short, I’m buying the concept here, but not this particular assertion.
- Verdict: Sell on the next stretch being the season for the Mitten State.
4. The Big Ten Getting In A Surprising At-Large NCAA Team.
As I wrote about in this week’s BTPowerhouse Power Rankings, there are a group of Big Ten teams that are starting to come to their last gasps for an NCAA Tournament at-large bid. In no particular order, those teams are Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Ohio State, and Penn State. That NCAA door is still open, but it’s getting really narrow.
So, do any of these five teams make the field?
Let me start my answer here by eliminating Nebraska and Penn State from this conversation. I understand that these two have some really impressive wins, but neither is getting an NCAA at-large bid this season. Although it sounds blunt, these two were already working uphill and both suffered tough losses last week.
The next tier for me is Iowa and Ohio State. I think these two have the talent and depth to make a serious run in February and March, but there’s no time left to get in position to make a run. It needs to start immediately. Perfection isn’t required, but it’s going to take close to that and probably a win or two in the Big Ten Tournament.
In other words, I’m writing these two off as well.
That leaves us with Illinois. To me, the Illini are the only fringe NCAA hope that the Big Ten has at this point. The reasoning here is two-fold. To start, Illinois actually has a non-conference resume to lean on, which the others don’t. It’s a big reason Illinois sits in the top 50 of the RPI despite a mixed start to Big Ten play.
Second, Illinois still has plenty of opportunities to add marquee wins. In particular, Illinois still has home games remaining against Minnesota, Michigan State, Northwestern, and Wisconsin. All four of those wins would bump the team’s resume.
Even if Illinois only wins its home games and its road game against Rutgers, it would finish the regular season with 19 wins. Add in winnable road games at Nebraska and Penn State and a Big Ten Tournament game and the slate is pretty favorable. The cards are certainly sitting there for Illinois to make a run.
Unfortunately, Illinois still hasn’t shown enough consistency to believe they can win out at home or even go on the road and beat teams like Nebraska and Penn State. In fact, Illinois has been blown out in every one of its road games this season. So, until we see something different, I’m selling on the Big Ten getting in a fringe NCAA team.
- Verdict: Sell on a Big Ten fringe NCAA team.