As of last Wednesday, the Big Ten was just one month away from when it will head to Washington, D.C. for its annual conference tournament. While the 2017 Big Ten Tournament should offer plenty of excitement in its own right, this means that pressure is heating up across the league.
Simply put, time is running out.
Not only are most Big Ten teams down to seven or eight games left in the regular season, but many are only going to have a few opportunities remaining at home. For example, Indiana and Michigan only have two home games left on their respective schedules. If either is going to make a run, it needs to be soon.
And with sand running out of the Big Ten’s timer this season, what things should fans be most focused on in the weeks to come? Well, let’s take a quick look at the Big Ten’s biggest storylines over the last few weeks of the season.
Big Ten Storylines:
1. The Big Ten Title Race.
While there are many that have already penciled in Wisconsin for this season’s Big Ten title, Purdue’s performance over the last few weeks has changed that conversation. The Boilermakers grabbed wins over Indiana, Maryland, and Northwestern and as such, got in position to make quite a run over the last few weeks of the season.
To put this into perspective, just look at Purdue’s final six games. According to KenPom, Purdue is favored in every game and has 79 percent odds or better in four of those matchups. Road trips to Ann Arbor and Evanston could be tricky, but finishing any worse than 5-1 in that stretch would be pretty surprising.
Admittedly, Wisconsin has a manageable closing slate of its own (KenPom also favors Wisconsin in every remaining game), but things are far trickier for the Badgers. Wisconsin still faces quality Maryland, Minnesota, and Northwestern teams at home and has road trips remaining against Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State. This is a major reason why KenPom still projects Wisconsin to lose two more games this season.
Making up two games (the margin between Purdue and Wisconsin in the standings) with only six games remaining is a tall task for Purdue, but it’s not impossible. As such, barring an upset of Purdue in the next week, this should be a race that goes down to the final week of the regular season.
2. Bubble, Bubble, Bubble Teams.
Based upon your bracketologist of choice, the Big Ten is projected somewhere between six and eight teams in this year’s NCAA Tournament field at this point. And that doesn’t even include the possibility of a team like Illinois, Iowa, or Ohio State going on a tear down the stretch and in the Big Ten Tournament.
However, nearly half of those teams are on the bubble.
To get a deeper understanding on where things sit, just look at ESPN’s bracketology post from earlier this week. Now, I’m not a huge fan of Joe Lunardi, but it’s at least a place to start this discussion. In that projection, here’s how he listed the Big Ten:
- #4 - Wisconsin
- #5 - Maryland, Purdue
- #7 - Northwestern
- #8 - Michigan State
- #10 - Minnesota
- #11 - Indiana (First Four)
- First Four Out: N/A
- Next Four Out: Michigan
Considering how deep we are into the season, it’s pretty easy to say that Wisconsin, Maryland, and Purdue are locks. And barring a total meltdown, Northwestern should make the field as well. That loss to Illinois hurt earlier this week, but the Wildcats are still 18-6 and have seven games left.
However, it’s not hard to project a scenario where any of those final four teams miss the field. I mean, Indiana and Michigan are already on the edge or out, Michigan State already has 10 losses, and Minnesota has looked vulnerable. Personally, I think the Gophers are relatively safe, but my confidence isn’t that high on Minnesota.
What this should set up is an absolutely insane final month of the regular season. Nearly every game is going to have some type of NCAA Tournament implications, which is great for fans.
3. Who’s Going To The NIT?
Everyone likes to whine about the NIT, but there’s no denying that the Big Ten is going to be well represented in it this season. With so many teams huddling around the NCAA Tournament bubble and a handful that are solid, but not good enough for the bubble, expect a solid NIT showing for the league.
Obviously, all of the NCAA bubble teams mentioned above will factor into this picture, but Illinois, Iowa, Ohio State, and Penn State are all currently projected to make the field in NYC Bucket's latest NIT projection. That means there should be approximately eight Big Ten teams that could land in the NIT.
The two things to watch here will be how many of the Big Ten’s bubble teams slip into this field and whether young teams like Iowa and Penn State can qualify. Both the Hawkeyes and Nittany Lions appear headed in the right direction and a few more games should only help those efforts heading into next season.
4. Are We In Store For More Upsets?
For the first two months of conference play, the biggest story has been the league’s unpredictable play and the numerous upsets. Teams like Maryland, Northwestern, and Purdue have all went down in shocking fashion and the obvious question regarding that is whether that trend will continue.
The teams to watch in this regard will be Iowa, Penn State, and Rutgers. Each still face at least one of the Big Ten title contenders and could do some major damage if they do knock off the Badgers, Boilermakers, or Terrapins.
In particular, Rutgers still faces Maryland, Michigan, and Minnesota at home and Northwestern and Purdue on the road. While it’s not likely, Rutgers can do some major Big Ten title or NCAA Tournament bubble damage with wins in any of those games.