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My Column: Is The Big Ten Eating Itself Alive?

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How to sort out the Big Ten’s bubble race.

NCAA Basketball: Indiana at Ohio State Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re like me, you’ve been following the Big Ten for quite some time. And while no two seasons are ever the same, each year always has a certain flow to it. We get the uncertainty of the first few months of the season, the race to the postseason in the months thereafter, and March Madness after that.

There’s a certain routine and rhythm to all of it. A comfortableness about which teams will hear their names called on Selection Sunday and who will have to sweat it out. And of course, how the Big Ten fits into that picture.

But this year is a bit different.

Not because the Big Ten has struggled, but because it’s been so good.

The league is off to a historic start this season, dominating the rankings on the various statistical sites. KenPom not only ranks the Big Ten as the strongest conference nationally, but puts an incredible 10 Big Ten teams in the top 30 of its rankings. For comparison, here’s how the conferences rank in that measurement:

Number of Teams In The Top 30 On KenPom:

  • Big Ten — 10
  • Big 12, Big East — 4
  • ACC, Pac 12, WWC — 3
  • American, A10, MWC — 1

Regardless of whether you think that’s a fair metric to use to compare conferences or not, those ratings speak volumes. The Big Ten might be as deep as its ever been and has 10 teams that appear (at least on paper) to be capable of doing damage in March. After all, it’s not exactly rare for teams ranked 30th or higher to make noise. Oregon was 28th last year and made it to the Sweet 16. It all leads to what should be really exciting for fans as we continue to move through February.

But while fans may be excited about the league’s statistical performance and overall projections, that strength also comes with a side effect. The conference’s strength has made it look good in these ratings, but has also made the conference slate more brutal than anytime in recent memory. In past years, teams might get a game or two to relax before entering a particularly tough portion of Big Ten play. But that’s no longer a case. There are simply no “off nights” in this year’s Big Ten.

That schedule has led to plenty of upsets and has had a particularly negative impact on the league’s bubble teams, who are desperately trying to compile the requisite win totals to navigate their way into the Big Dance. For an example of that fact, look no further than Purdue, who ranks 28th nationally on KenPom. Despite this impressive rating, the Boilermakers are just 12-10 overall and viewed by many as a fringe NCAA squad.

And while not all of Purdue’s struggles this year are because of a tough schedule, it’s certainly played a part. After all, look at the team’s last six losses:

  • 12/21 - Butler (neutral court)
  • 1/5 - at Illinois
  • 1/9 - at Michigan (2OT)
  • 1/18 - at Maryland
  • 1/21 - Illinois
  • 1/28 - at Rutgers

Five of those six losses came away from home and all six came against top 30 opponents. It’s fair to levy some criticism at Purdue for losing those games, but are we really supposed to act like the Boilermakers at some bad team for losing at Maryland or on a neutral court to Butler? After all, the Terps and Bulldogs are a combined 34-9 and have been great so far this season. It just seems ridiculous to act like Purdue is somehow underachieving by losing those games. And the same goes for other Big Ten teams similarly situated to Purdue. The schedule is clearly having a negative impact on their resumes.

And while all of that might just sound like excuse making, it’s not. For comparison, look at last year’s Iowa, Minnesota, and Ohio State teams. All three were rated between 37th and 46th on KenPom, but still managed to finish with at least 20 wins and won games in the NCAA Tournament. Purdue figures to be rated well above all three and is projected to finish the regular season with just 16 wins. There’s no other explanation for that but the schedule.

This all leaves the Big Ten in an interesting spot moving forward. The conference might be as deep as it’s ever been, but it’s starting to feel like it might be eating itself. A strong league generally means good things for Selection Sunday and beyond. However, we’re just a little over a month away and it seems like the Big Ten’s group of bubble teams are fading in light of the brutal slate.

For perspective, I have included the league’s bubble teams below. I have also noted their respective KenPom ratings and records:

  • No. 12 Ohio State — 14-7 (4-6)
  • No. 26 Michigan — 13-8 (4-6)
  • No. 28 Purdue — 12-10 (5-6)
  • No. 30 Wisconsin — 13-9 (6-5)
  • No. 38 Minnesota — 11-10 (5-6)
  • No. 41 Indiana — 15-7 (5-6)

That’s an unbelievable list of teams. KenPom ratings aren’t everything, but it’s a system with a long track record of success. And based upon those ratings, it looks like at least four Big Ten teams that would normally be in the top 25 discussion are poised to end up on the NCAA bubble at season’s end. It’s hard to take that as anything but a result of the schedule.

And Ohio State’s rating is particularly notable. The Buckeyes are currently 12th nationally on KenPom, but are viewed by most bracketology experts as a bubble team. For perspective, Houston finished last season ranked 12th nationally on KenPom. But instead of being on the bubble, the Cougars were 33-4 and a three-seed. To think Ohio State is in that spot right now and struggling for an at-large bid speaks volumes.

How things progress in the weeks and months to come is unknown. After all, if a few Big Ten teams drop off and others rise up, it could simplify this picture considerably. But right now, the six teams noted above are projected between 16 and 20 wins, which means all have their work cut out if they want to make the Big Dance. Suffer an injury or a few poor bounces and you could end up in the NIT. It’s a scary thought for a league that was hoping to have one of its best seasons of all-time.

The Selection Committee’s evaluation of the Big Ten is also going to be interesting this year. We know conference strength and strength of schedule matter, but how much? The last power conference teams to make the field last year all had at least 19 wins. And teams like Minnesota and Purdue are projected to finish the regular season with just 16 wins. Even with the Big Ten Tournament hanging out there, those projections make it reasonable to think somebody is going to get screwed by this setup.

We still have a long way to go, but the Big Ten could be setting up for perhaps the most dramatic bubble race we’ve ever seen in the league before. With so many quality Big Ten teams this season, every game is going to be hotly contested. Buckle up.