The road to Madison Square Garden.
No, I’m not talking about the Big Ten Tournament. Everybody in the league makes it there.
I’m talking about the road to the most prestigious postseason tournament in college basketball (prior to the end of World War II, anyway).
Nobody wants to make the NIT at the start of the season, but at the end of the season if your choice is between the NIT and staying home (or the NIT and the CBI), the Little Dance starts to look pretty good.
OK, it’s not March Madness, but you get a chance for additional home games and the opportunity to play in Madison Square Garden. (Again.)
And the Big Ten has been relatively successful in the NIT. Since the last Big Ten team won a National Championship in 2000 (or 2002 if you count Maryland, then a member of the ACC), a Big Ten team has won the NIT four times: Michigan in 2004, Ohio State in 2008, Penn State in 2009, and Minnesota in 2014. That’s more than any other conference.
So who’s likely to make it NIT title No. 5 for the Big Ten this season? Let’s take a look.
Not In the Field
Four Big Ten teams aren’t making the NIT because they’re all but certain to make the Big Dance: Michigan State, Ohio State, Purdue, and Michigan.
Six Big Ten teams aren’t making the NIT because they are likely to finish below .500 for the year: Wisconsin, Northwestern, Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa, and Rutgers. Note that everybody except Iowa and Rutgers could sneak back above .500 if they make a run in the Big Ten Tournament. (And Rutgers could get to .500 by winning the Big Ten Tournament, but in that case, they’d be in the NCAA tournament, not the NIT.)
The only true NIT bubble team is Indiana. The Hoosiers have had an up-and-down year, finishing a respectable 9-9 in the Big Ten but dropping home games to Indiana State and Fort Wayne. Last year the Hoosiers qualified for the NIT and had the opportunity to host a home game, but they deferred that opportunity and lost by 12 at Georgia Tech. This year if the Hoosiers qualify they will almost certainly be road dogs for the first three rounds. That doesn’t bode well for the Hoosiers, who haven’t won a non-conference road game since a November 30, 2011 win against North Carolina State.
Should Be In
Maryland finished below Indiana in the Big Ten standings, but their non-conference performance was better, which means the Terrapins have a decent chance to host a first round game in the NIT. Maryland has a young squad, so some extra March basketball should help them set up for a good season in 2018-19.
I admit it, I picked Nebraska to finish last in the league this season. Instead, they managed to win 13 games and be the only Big Ten team to go through the conference schedule undefeated at home. Had they managed just one more home win, that December 16 one-point loss to Kansas, they’d be in the field of 68. As it is, they’ll need some big wins in the Big Ten Tournament to go dancing. Assuming they don’t go off in Madison Square Garden Part I, they have a good change at making it to Madison Square Garden Part II (the NIT Final Four), since they’ll likely get a good NIT seed and a chance to host more home games.
Lackluster performance against Nebraska notwithstanding, Penn State should be considered to be the favorite to win the NIT, assuming they get Mike Watkins back healthy. Of the teams on the outside the NCAA tournament looking in, Penn State easily has the best KenPom profile of the bunch. A terrible non-conference schedule is what’s keeping the Nittany Lions from dancing, but there aren’t many NIT teams that did anything like sweep the Ohio State Buckeyes this season. Tony Carr is an all-Big-Ten caliber player. There aren’t many people that participate in NIT pools (the author of this article being a notable exception), but if you do, you should think long and hard before picking against Penn State.