Beindit’s Breakdown is a weekly post from BTPowerhouse Manager Thomas Beindit, where he addresses the hottest Big Ten topics that are on his mind. The post will run weekly and will touch a varying number of topics.
During most weeks, this column is going to look at somewhere between three to five topics. It should be a few quick hits on things that are going on around the league. Topics will vary between broad takes on the conference and narrow focuses on specific players and specific teams.
However, that won’t be happening this week.
It won’t be happening because the Big Ten is entering crisis mode. After a horrid start to the season, things are beginning to look more than just a little concerning. Only two Big Ten teams (Michigan State and Purdue) have fewer than three losses and three teams are .500 or below.
Maybe that doesn’t sound terrible, but it’s a pretty rough mark for mid-December, when most of the Big Ten’s games have come against undermatched opponents. More simply put, teams usually build their records by beating bad teams.
And these struggles are now finally starting to show up in the statistical projections. KenPom rates the Big Ten fifth nationally in strength of conference and a significant distance behind the SEC. Not exactly what fans are used to seeing.
But perhaps the most jarring projection came from Bart Torvik of T Rank. His statistical projections put just three Big Ten teams in his latest NCAA Tournament bracket. Something that would have been inconceivable a few years back.
For perspective, the Big Ten put seven teams into the NCAA Tournament in each of the last three seasons. Those teams also finished with a winning record in each of those three years. Prior to that, the Big Ten put six teams into the field in 2014.
Needless to say, dropping to three teams would be pretty substantial.
Admittedly, there is still time for the Big Ten to get its affairs in order. There are still roughly two weeks left of non-conference play for teams to pad their records and score some more marquee victories. For example, the Big Ten still has the Crossroads Classic this weekend, Nebraska faces Kansas, and Ohio State gets North Carolina on a neutral court right before Christmas.
However, expecting the Big Ten to “run the table” heading into league play is pretty unrealistic. For example, in the four games outlined above, three of the Big Ten teams will be significant underdogs. Other games like Michigan at Texas fall into the same category. Upsets happen, but not usually that often. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be considered upsets.
So, where does that leave us?
If the Big Ten doesn’t get a miraculous turnaround, where is the league sitting? Are we actually looking at three NCAA teams? That can’t be real, can it?
Unfortunately, a three or four-bid scenario for the Big Ten isn’t that unlikely. Let’s dive into some of the reasons why below. For brevity’s sake, I’m going to rely on KenPom and T-Rank for my arguments.
1. Who has quality wins?
The obvious place to start our analysis is with the Big Ten’s current situation. We need to look at who has quality wins and how many they have. Every college basketball fan knows this is where the Selection Committee will start, so it only makes sense that we would start here as well.
As of Tuesday, here’s who has quality non-con wins (by KenPom rating):
- Maryland: Butler (49); Bucknell (95)
- Michigan: UCLA (46); VCU (87)
- Michigan State: UNC (9); Notre Dame (18); UConn (98)
- Minnesota: Alabama (38); Providence (56)
- Nebraska: Boston College (84)
- Purdue: Arizona (19); Louisville (27); Marquette (53); Valpo (85)
As you can see above, there are six Big Ten teams that currently have a non-conference win against a top 100 KenPom opponent so far this season. People can certainly disagree with my use of KenPom in this regard and/or my arbitrary cutoff at 100, but that’s what I’m using for my purposes here. It’s still too early to really use RPI.
The other important thing to note from the teams above is that just two teams (Michigan State and Purdue) have a win against a top 25 opponent and that five of the teams above have already lost at least once against a team outside the top 50. More simply put, even the teams with quality wins have been inconsistent.
However, perhaps the most significant takeaway is that a whopping eight teams are currently set to enter Big Ten play without a win against a top 100 KenPom win. In fact, most of the teams that even have such a matchup in the next two weeks will be significant underdogs.
What this means is that half the league (if not more), could realistically enter the heart of Big Ten play with virtually nothing to offer resume-wise. More than half the party will be entering a potluck without a dish to pass.
2. Empty resume teams coupled with good coaching and venues is bad news for NCAA bubble teams.
The issue with so many teams coming to the party without a dish to pass is because it means they really can’t do anything to boost the conference’s profile before March. Really, all they can do is damage it by upsetting teams that have something on their resumes heading into league play.
Think about it this way. Let’s assume Illinois, Indiana, and Rutgers all lose their remaining top 100 matchups heading into Big Ten play. Considering that these teams are underdogs in three of those four matchups, it’s not exactly an unrealistic proposal.
In such a scenario, the only way those teams could even get into postseason contention would be to reel off wins in Big Ten play. However, if they began upsetting teams like Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, and Purdue, that’s only going to hurt the resumes of those NCAA contenders. To go back to our party analogy, this would sort of be like a guest gorging on all the food and leaving nothing left for anyone else. He can only hurt the party.
Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that the scenario won’t occur. Teams like Illinois, Indiana, and Rutgers are not going winless in conference play. In fact, KenPom currently projects Illinois and Rutgers for five league wins and Indiana for seven. Similar things can be said for teams like Iowa, Nebraska, and Wisconsin. Teams with coaches and venues like that aren’t going winless (or anywhere close) in Big Ten play.
What this leaves us with is a realistic situation where many of the league’s projected bubble teams get worked out of the field because they blow games to teams like Illinois, Iowa, and Indiana. And that’s especially troublesome, considering how tough those teams have been to beat in their buildings.
3. The hope for this year’s Big Ten.
If fans are going to hope that the league can defy the odds and end up sending a bunch of teams to the NCAA Tournament, it’s going to need a unique set of events to unfold. Let me be the first to say that these are not likely. However, expect it to look something like this:
- A strong close to the non-conference slate, that includes some upsets;
- Absolute dominance for MSU, with a few limited upsets, and a loss in the Big Ten Tournament;
- Disastrous play from the lower tier of the league. We’re talking about four or five of the bottom teams putting up two or three win performances in Big Ten play, coupled with early exits in the Big Ten Tournament;
- One bottom team rising up the RPI ratings thanks to domination of the lower tier.
Although those are four steps, the major point here is clear. The Big Ten needs to play above its head for the next two weeks and transition that into an oddly shaped performance in league play. Fans will hope that ends up being one elite team in the league, a few bubble teams rising up, and a bottom that does little damage.
Expecting all of that may seem unrealistic, but that’s reality for the Big Ten.