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BTP Roundtable: Big Ten Title Favorites; NCAA Teams; National Title Contenders?

The BTPowerhouse staff breaks down the current status of the league.

NCAA Basketball: Wisconsin at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

With another weekend of play in the books, it seemed like a good time to get the BTPowerhouse staff back together for a roundtable discussion. Topics included Big Ten title contenders, NCAA teams, and wildcards moving forward.

Here is the full discussion:

1. We’re now roughly a month into the season and we have seen every Big Ten team play against some real competition. What’s been your biggest takeaway? Is the league as good as people are claiming?

Thomas Beindit: Let’s start with the obvious. Yes, the Big Ten is better. In fact, it’s drastically improved. The middle of the league has been down for a few years and it looks like it’s finally come to life with teams like Indiana, Maryland, and Purdue making noise. Personally, I’m not convinced the Big Ten is a runaway for best conference in the nation, but I think it’s up there with anyone right now. We will see how things sort out going forward. The start, though, has been very encouraging.

Andrew Michael H: Last year, the middle of the league was bad. This year, it’s good. In 2017-18 the Big Ten had 6 teams in the KenPom top 50, compared to 11 in 2018-19. I see three implications:

  • The teams are legitimately better, so the league is better overall.
  • There are very few games this year where you can coast to a W on talent and reputation, so the league is a lot more difficult night in and night out.
  • Because the Big Ten did so well in the non-conference, even if we aren’t as good as everyone thinks, we’ll all get credit for beating up on each other, particularly in the middle tier. Just like the SEC does in football.

Virat Gupta: Couldn’t agree more about the middle of the conference. It’s going to be a hot mess - in a good way. There are currently four Big Ten teams in the KenPom top 20. And on any given night, Indiana, Purdue, Nebraska, Maryland, Minnesota, Iowa, Penn State, or Northwestern can go on the road and beat one of those four teams. There are no easy games or reliable wins on anyone’s schedule - except maybe Illinois.

Just a stat to show how improved the middle, meaty portion of this Big Ten is this year. Last seasons, the middle 8 teams in the conference had an average KenPom defensive efficiency rank of 90.5 nationally. This year, that average number is 41.5. Defense travels on the road in the cold, dark days of January and February - and the Big Ten’s middle is playing much improved defense. I’m pumped.

Eric Leisure: At the risk of sounding like a parrot, my answer is going to read an awful lot like Andrew and Virat’s. As things stand right now, I think you could make a case for all but Rutgers and Illinois to qualify for the NCAA Tournament out of the Big Ten.

Obviously, no one is expecting the conference to be a 12-bid league (but man, wouldn’t that be something!?) but it speaks to the depth and talent of the Big Ten that so many teams still find themselves in the mix as we wrap up non-conference play. On top of that, the conference looks to have at least one National Championship contender (if not three or four), which is a welcome upgrade from the Big Ten’s reputation of producing good-but-not-great NCAA Tournament teams.

2. Michigan and Michigan State are the league’s highest ranked teams in the human polls, but who do you see winning the Big Ten regular season title?

Beindit: I talked about this on the podcast earlier this week, but I genuinely believe that the 20-game slate is going to lessen the scheduling differences for Big Ten title contenders. Teams aren’t going to be able to avoid playing the top teams away from home anymore. As such, I am as inclined as ever to pick the best team, which looks like Michigan right now.

However, one thing I want to highlight are the final few weeks of league play. Michigan and Michigan State face off twice in the final four games and three of Michigan’s final five games come away from home. If the Wolverines fade a bit and the Spartans surge, Michigan State will have a very real shot at the title.

AMH: Michigan is the favorite, and I don’t think it’s particularly close at this point. Their defense is unreal, and while their offense isn’t as consistent, when the Wolverines are on a hot shooting streak they’re the best team in college basketball.

Leisure: I really want to find a reason to pick against the Wolverines, but man, I just can’t find a flaw right now. Michigan is out-scoring its opponents by nearly 20 points on the year and Ignas Brazdeikis has exceeded any of my wildest expectations for the first-year forward.

If you wanted an under-the-radar pick that not nearly enough people are talking about, however, I’d point you in the direction of the Maryland Terrapins. While its lack of depth could end up being its achilles’ heel, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better starting five than the group coach Turgeon has been running out. With an old school, bang it inside approach and two supremely talented bigs, the Terps will make some noise throughout conference play.

Gupta: Michigan is my pick to win the Big Ten regular season title. Their defense showed some cracks this past week, but their offense is slowly figuring things out. Plus, John Beilein has a record of developing his players and teams throughout the course of the season - they hardly ever look in February like they did in November. So, Michigan is the favorite.

I wouldn’t sleep on the Badgers, though. They are a solid, well-coached group that shoots well, limits turnovers, and plays high-level defense - pretty much classic Wisconsin basketball. And despite playing Michigan twice, they have single plays against the other top teams in the conference - Michigan State, Ohio State, Indiana, Purdue, and Nebraska. The 2-0 badgers might not have enough firepower to be in the national title conversation, but with Ethan Happ, an improved backcourt, and solid defense, they could stealthily rise to the top of the league.

3. Now, let’s talk NCAAs. How many Big Ten teams make it this year?

Beindit: For these questions, I always like dividing it into tiers. Starting at the top, I think Michigan, Michigan State, and Wisconsin are virtual locks. It would take something insane for those three to miss the field on Selection Sunday. And below them, Indiana, Nebraska, and Ohio State all look like pretty safe bets right now. They have quality wins and have avoided bad losses through non-conference play so far. That gives us six teams.

Beyond that is where things get interesting. I think Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota, and Purdue all have a serious shot at making the field. In fact, if I had to bet right now, I would probably anticipate that (at least) three of those four make the cut. That puts us around nine teams with Northwestern being the final wildcard. I don’t believe anyone else makes the dance.

AMH: Nine, with ten within the realm of possibility. It depends on how many bubble teams drop games to the likes of Illinois and Rutgers.

Leisure: It’s a little crazy and a bit homerish, but I’m going to say ten. Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Indiana, Wisconsin, Maryland, Nebraska, Iowa, and Purdue all pass the eye and smell tests right now, and I foresee at least one of Minnesota, Penn State, or Northwestern putting together a bubble-worthy resume and sneaking its way into the field come March.

Gupta: 8. The Big Ten had a great run through the early non-conference schedule, but 10 teams in the tournament??? I just don’t know. Don’t quote me on this (even though I’m literally going on the record on a sports media site), but I don’t think the Big Ten has had more than 7 teams in the tournament in the last 10 years. 8 teams in would be a big deal.

Based on the season thus far, I say Michigan, MSU, Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Indiana for sure. Purdue and Nebraska get enough wins to dance somewhat comfortably. Iowa ends up on the good side of the bubble, with a strong schedule and solid conference play. Maryland ends up on the other side of the bubble in part because of its horrendous non-conference scheduling. And Penn State and Minnesota do what they do best - fizzle out.

4. Which Big Ten team are you most worried about?

Beindit: Illinois, Illinois, and Illinois. Brad Underwood arrived on campus with plenty of excitement and relatively high expectations. The excitement has now dissipated and he hasn’t even come close to living up to those expectations. Admittedly, Illinois has been one of the unluckiest teams this season (345th in KenPom’s luck metric), but a 3-7 start with a brutal Big Ten slate coming isn’t encouraging. Underwood and his staff need to figure out a way to steal some games down the stretch. Or the heat is going to start picking up.

AMH: Illinois. With good coaches, you can tell a difference almost right away, even if the wins and losses aren’t there yet. Exhibit A is Steve Pikiell at Rutgers. I thought Underwood was a great hire at the time, but at this point his main identity as a coach is defined by three things: forcing a lot of turnovers, yelling a lot, and running guys off the team in the offseason. If Penn State or Minnesota miss the NCAA Tournament this year, they might fire their coach, but Lion and Gopher fans aren’t about to hit the existential panic button around their entire athletic department. At this point Illinois fans can make the case that the Curse of Chief Illiniwek may be real.

Leisure: It has to be Illinois. The Illini are the only team under .500 in the conference right now (quick -- hang a damn banner Rutgers!) and fans have to be frustrated by the results under Brad Underwood. While you’d give the orange and blue a small reprieve for its monster of a non-conference schedule, the team looks to be taking a step back in Underwood’s second year with only three wins to show for itself so far. For a once-proud program like Illinois, a slow build back to relevancy is a hard sell and you have to wonder how long of a leash Underwood has to complete an overhaul in Champaign.

Gupta: Hard to not be worried about the Illini, but Brad Underwood was a strong hire in Champaign and I do think he will start to the right the ship at some point soon.

I’d like to answer an alternate version of this question - which team with no real reasons to worry thus far am I most worried about? Minnesota. The Golden Gophers have yet to win a road game yet this season and I’m not sure they have what it takes to steal hard-fought winter games against the Big Ten’s elite. They get to the line early and often, but are only shooting 67% when they get there - and turn the ball over on 20% of their possessions.

5. Is this the year that the Big Ten finally breaks the streak? Can it win the national title?

Beindit: Until the Big Ten breaks the streak, this is going to be the question that continues to consume fans. And rightfully so. The national championship is the ultimate goal in college basketball and it’s been frustrating to see the league go this long without getting to celebrate on Monday night in April.

However, this feels like the best opportunity the Big Ten has had in quite sometime. The Big Ten has four teams (Michigan, MSU, Purdue, Wisconsin) in the top 15 on KenPom and has a very realistic shot at putting nine or more teams into the field. For the Big Ten, that’s exactly what you want to see. Top end teams and a plethora of teams making the field. It’s still too early to speculate on whether they can deliver, but things look good right now.

AMH: Michigan can, but odds are against it. There’s always the chance of a broken bracket--for God’s sake, Kevin Ollie has a national championship--so it’s not impossible that someone else from the league breaks through. But we need 2-3 legitimate title contenders for me to feel like our chances are better than over the past 20 years, and at this point we only have one.

Leisure: The answer to this question is always going to be sure. It’s not called March Madness because everything goes exactly to plan, and so much will change between now and when we get to Minneapolis. Does the Big Ten have teams good enough to win a national title? Yep. But do those teams always rise to the occasion come tournament time? Nope. The Big Dance is a crapshoot, and while the conference’s odds might be better this year than in years past, that only increases the Big Ten’s roll of the dice so much.

Gupta: In the words of the West Wing, I don’t want to tempt the wrath of the whatever from high atop the thing.