With Christmas earlier this week, the Big Ten has hit a bit of a standstill. The league has been off since Monday and won’t restart play until Saturday afternoon. And considering that most of the Big Ten games this weekend are against underwhelming competition, this really looks like a dead period on the schedule before conference play restarts in January.
Given the slow down, it seems like a good time to take a step back and reassess where things sit in the Big Ten and some of the biggest narratives fans should be following going forward. So, here are some of the top things I will be watching in the weeks to come.
Let’s jump right in.
1. The conference title race looks as unpredictable as ever.
I say this always every year at this point in the season, but it’s anybody’s guess who could end up winning the Big Ten title this year. While that probably isn’t shocking considering how good the league has been to date, it’s something that warrants a little more discussion. As of now, these are the teams that seem to have a legitimate chance:
- Michigan State
- Ohio State
- Penn State
Seven teams might seem like a lot, but just look at the advanced stats. KenPom projects Michigan State and Ohio State both to finish 14-6 overall in Big Ten play, Maryland to finish 12-8, and the remaining four teams listed above to finish 11-9. A projected three-game gap is pretty substantial, but are we really ready to rule out teams like Michigan and Purdue at this point in the season? And KenPom projects Iowa and Penn State to finish with the same record. As such, it seems premature to rule those two out, either.
Obviously, the Buckeyes and Spartans are going to get most of the attention going forward. But don’t sleep on anybody in the top half of the Big Ten right now. The margin will be incredibly thin going forward. Any upset will have huge implications and it should make the next few months really fun.
2. Could we see as many as 10 Big Ten teams make the NCAAs?
Anybody who’s followed college basketball closely before knows that December is far too early to get a true gauge on who might make the Big Dance at season’s end. However, by this point in the season, we do have enough data to start making some realistic predictions on what’s to come. Everybody has played a handful of quality opponents and those statistical profiles are starting to get a lot more accurate.
With that in mind, we can take a deep look at the Big Ten and where things might land on Selection Sunday. And if the early projections are a good indicator, the league could be setup for an absolutely wild NCAA Tournament, as 10 teams sit in really interesting position.
To start, the Big Ten currently sits with four teams that look like absolute locks to make the NCAA Tournament. Those are Maryland, Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State. All four are at least 9-3, ranked in the top 12 on KenPom, and already have at least a handful of quality wins. We’ve seen crazy collapses before, but these four could be lackluster in Big Ten play and still probably make the cut pretty comfortably.
After those four, the Big Ten has three other teams that are probably just a step or two back from the top group. They are Iowa, Penn State, and Purdue. All three are in the top 24 on KenPom, have winning records, and enough to indicate they should be on the right side of things on Selection Sunday. Penn State probably has the strongest resume to date of the three, but we’ve seen the Nittany Lions struggle to close things out in the past. As such, it’s probably a bit early to bump the team up another tier just yet. It’s really just about avoiding too many bad upsets for these three.
And this is where things get really interesting. The seven teams listed above all have great odds to make the NCAA Tournament. Everybody else still has some solid work to do. Still, there are some really nice remaining candidates.
The team in the best shape is certainly Indiana, who sits at 11-1 overall and 34th nationally on KenPom. The Hoosiers have a few nice wins, but lack the statistical profiles of the teams above and have played a really easy slate. As such, we’re going to need to see more before really buying into this team. TRank’s currently Tourneycast projections give Indiana an 86.8 percent change to make the field.
Illinois, Minnesota, Rutgers, and Wisconsin are also interesting candidates. All clearly have flaws, but they have also done enough to make us think they have shots of making the cut on Selection Sunday. Illinois is 8-4 and already beat Michigan, Minnesota has three top 100 wins, Rutgers is coming off three solid wins, and Wisconsin has been outstanding at home. Interestingly, TRank gives Rutgers the best odds at 54.1 percent of making the cut and with Minnesota at 37 percent, Illinois at 33 percent, and Wisconsin at 18.8 percent.
This leaves us with an interesting position where 12 teams in the Big Ten are still reasonably alive for the NCAA Tournament. It’s tremendously unlikely all 12 could make the cut, but 10 doesn’t seem like an unreasonable scenario right now. We’ll have to see how things finish.
3. Watch out for the upsets.
This is true in most years, but is especially true this season. The Big Ten’s best teams are really going to have to be careful about upsets in the months to come, specifically from Nebraska and Northwestern. Losing to either team could really derail NCAA and Big Ten hopes and dreams.
Upsets always hurt, but the bottom two teams in this year’s Big Ten are noticeably weak this season. Nebraska and Northwestern have already lost some rough ones and are both outside the top 100 on KenPom. For perspective, the Big Ten didn’t have a single team outside the top 100 last season. And Nebraska’s currently rating of 139 (assuming it holds) would be the lowest for the conference since the 2015-’16 season, when Minnesota and Rutgers combined to go 3-33 in Big Ten play.
So yeah, it’s a weak bottom for the Big Ten this year.
As noted above, the rest of the league remains strong. But avoiding losses to Nebraska and Northwestern will be vital if the Big Ten is going to push for 10 NCAA teams. This will be a key thing to focus on in the months to come.