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Bracket Watch: Big Ten Still In Play For 11 NCAA Bids

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How many teams could the Big Ten get into the Big Dance?

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

Well, it’s finally that time of year again. The magical season of March Madness and the NCAA Tournament, where dreams are made and careers are defined. Where a single bucket here or there can drastically change how coaches and players are evaluated by fans.

And with just a few days left of regular season action, many are starting to turn their focus to the weeks ahead and what might be awaiting in this year’s NCAA Tournament. After all, we’re now just a little over a week away from Selection Sunday. The competitive juices are flowing and everyone is ready to see what their favorite team might do.

The depth of the Big Ten has made things even more interesting than normal this year. The conference is arguably as strong as its ever been and more than half the league might have a serious shot at making the Sweet 16. That’s not exactly a normal occurrence and it’s making most bracketology predictions a complete mess.

So, where do things sit and how many Big Ten teams can make the cut?

Well, let’s take a look at what fans should expect. I have sorted things out into tiers at the moment and have included some analysis about each group moving forward.

Current Big Ten NCAA Tournament Outlook:

-NCAA Tournament Locks:

  • Maryland
  • Michigan State
  • Ohio State
  • Penn State
  • Wisconsin

I learned a long time ago to avoid making too many predictions and guarantees in college basketball. This sport just has too much uncertainty to know what’s coming next. If Virginia can lose to UMBC, we can never say something will happen with complete confidence.

With all of that said, the five teams listed above are all locks to make this year’s NCAA Tournament. Everyone of those squads could lose all of their remaining games and feel comfortable about making the field.

And why do I say that?

Well, each already has 20 wins and all are ranked 30th or higher on the NET right now. In the world of NCAA projections, those are both incredibly encouraging statistics. It’s extremely rare for a Power Five team with 20 wins to miss the NCAAs and almost unheard of when you combine it with advanced measurements like that. Plus, with only two guaranteed games remaining for the five teams above, you can only damage your resume so much more going forward. After all, it’s not like these teams can still lose 10 straight or something heading into Selection Sunday. The time for that is long past.

-Likely In The Field:

  • Illinois
  • Iowa
  • Michigan

Unlike the teams in the first group, I don’t think these three teams have necessarily “guaranteed” themselves spots in the field. That doesn’t mean I don’t think they’ll make the cut on Selection Sunday. After all, Illinois and Iowa both already hit that magic 20-win mark and Michigan’s strength of schedule and marquee wins have been fantastic. Odds are extremely high that all three teams hear their names called next weekend.

However, all three still have their blemishes and two more losses plus a perfect storm of events elsewhere (namely auto bids and other bubble teams winning) could make things interesting. As such, I’m not officially closing the door on these three just yet. But fully expect all three to make the field, and rather comfortably as well.

Bubble Teams:

  • Indiana
  • Rutgers

So, this is where things start to get really interesting. The eight teams in the first two groups are almost certainly going to make the field on Selection Sunday. However, I don’t think that’s the case for Indiana and Rutgers. Both seem to be on the right side of bubble right now, but it’s close. For example, ESPN has Indiana among the last four teams in the field and Rutgers among the last eight. Even one loss could change things significantly.

Let’s start with Indiana. The team is 19-11 overall and 35th on KenPom, but only 51st in the NET rankings. The Hoosiers have some great wins over teams like Florida State, Michigan State, and Ohio State, but also have some hiccups and a relatively underwhelming non-conference strength of schedule, ranking 194th on KenPom. That’s the type of resume that often falls short on Selection Sunday, putting some major pressure on the team to get the job done in its remaining opportunities.

Unfortunately for the Hoosiers, things won’t be easy moving forward either. Indiana gets a red hot Wisconsin team at home on Saturday and is locked into either the 10th or 11th seed for next week’s Big Ten Tournament. That means the team will have to face Nebraska or Northwestern (a potential bad loss with little upside) or someone like Michigan, who Indiana didn’t seem to match up well against earlier this season. That doesn’t seem to be a great recipe for success, so there will be a lot of pressure on the Hoosiers to upset Wisconsin. Otherwise, it could be another stressful Selection Sunday.

And for Rutgers, the scenario is pretty similar. The Scarlet Knights seem to be on the right side of things at the moment, but not by a ton. Rutgers is 19-11 overall and seems to have decent advanced measurements, coming in at 27th on KenPom and 31st in the NET rankings. On its face, that seems like enough. The question is how that resume looks if Rutgers loses its two remaining games. And that seems like a reasonable possibility with a game against Purdue on the road waiting on Saturday and what should be a tough Thursday game in the Big Ten Tournament.

So, here’s my verdict. One more win and Rutgers locks up a bid. Two losses and it’s going to depend on auto bids and performances from teams elsewhere. Indiana seems in more precarious footing. The Hoosiers might need to win two to lock up a bid.

Work To Do:

  • Purdue (16-14)

This is where the mountain starts getting steep. Unlike the 10 teams noted above, Purdue can’t just back its way into an NCAA bid. Regardless of the year and strength of schedule, a 16-win resume just isn’t going to cut it, especially if the Boilermakers lose the team’s remaining games and drop to 16-16 overall.

However, I do think Purdue still has a chance at an at-large bid if it can really end the season on a tear. The Boilermakers will get a shot at a quality win on Saturday at home against Rutgers and will have the chance to earn a few more wins in the Big Ten Tournament, even without making it all the way to Sunday. Just look at one of the latest bracket projections for next week’s conference tournament:

We know that bracket will look significantly different after the games wrap up this weekend, but Purdue could theoretically beat Rutgers, Ohio State, and Michigan State in three straight games. The Boilermakers would suddenly be 19-14 overall and have added three great wins to a resume that already was decent. In short, Purdue still has some hope to of making it on Selection Sunday without winning the Big Ten Tournament outright.

But with all that said, you can see how tough that hill’s going to be to climb. Purdue probably needs three more wins to have any hope of an at-large bid and that might not even be enough if the Boilermakers face off against someone like Nebraska or Northwestern in Indianapolis, as beating them will do little to help Purdue’s overall resume. Still, I think three wins is a pretty good mark for fans to keep in mind going forward. We’ll have to wait and see if the Boilermakers can make some magic happen, or will head to the NIT.

Locked Out Of The Field:

  • Minnesota (13-16)
  • Nebraska (7-23)
  • Northwestern (7-22)

Unfortunately for fans of these three teams, things are probably going to be wrapping up in the next five or six days. These three have no reasonable hopes of earning at-large bids, as each is well under .500 and don’t have particularly great resumes.

The one thing to keep an eye on from this group is whether Minnesota can score three more wins and get back into the NIT conversation. However, even that might not be enough to get the Gophers in at this point. More likely than not, none of these three teams will play beyond next weekend unless they win the Big Ten Tournament.

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All told, it figures to be a great next week of action across the Big Ten and the league is still very much in play for as many as 11 teams in this year’s NCAA Tournament. We’ll have to wait and see how things sort out.