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Bracket Watch: Big Ten Still In Play For Double-Digit NCAA Bids

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

NCAA Basketball: Minnesota at Indiana Trevor Ruszkowski-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 two weeks away from the Big Ten Tournament and under three weeks 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:

  • Illinois
  • Iowa
  • Michigan
  • Ohio State
  • Purdue
  • 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 six 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, all six of these teams are 26th or higher in the NET rankings (many are much, much higher) and are currently sitting with at least 99 percent odds of making the field, per TRank. This is an unusual year, so your typical metrics like win totals are a bit off, but there just aren’t enough losses left to accrue for these teams to miss the field. 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:

  • Rutgers

Unlike the teams in the first group, Rutgers hasn’t “guaranteed” itself a spot in the field. The Scarlet Knights are projected to make the cut (73.1 percent odds on TRank), but it’s not as hard to project a scenario here where the team misses the field. Rutgers has simply let too many opportunities slip away to be locked into the field.

The good news for Rutgers is the schedule looks pretty manageable moving forward. The team is currently favored in each of its three remaining games and will probably be favored in its opening Big Ten Tournament game as well. Unfortunately, the tradeoff for more winnable games is the potential for rougher losses. Lose any of these three and it’s going to leave a make on the team’s NCAA resume. Win two of the three and fans should feel pretty good heading into Selection Sunday.

Bubble Teams:

  • Indiana
  • Maryland
  • Minnesota

So, this is where things start to get really interesting. The seven 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, Maryland, and Minnesota. All three are squarely on the bubble, meaning how they play over the next few weeks will determine whether they make the cut. If you don’t believe me, here’s where ESPN projects them:

  • Indiana - Last Four In
  • Maryland - Last Four Byes
  • Minnesota - Last Four In

Even if you believe ESPN is off, there’s little disputing all three of these teams are right in the middle of the bubble discussion. A win here or a loss there could move them in or outside the field.

For Indiana, things look pretty challenging. The team likely needs to split or win the majority of its remaining four games to feel good about things. Unfortunately, Indiana’s final four games include a game against Michigan at home and three road games. The Wolverines have looked incredible since returning from a COVID-19 pause and Indiana has largely struggled on the road this season. And those road games look even tougher when you consider Indiana has already lost to all three of those teams (Michigan State, Purdue, and Rutgers) this season. If Indiana can’t get the job done here, it’s likely going to need the Big Ten Tournament, which is always a dangerous gamble.

Maryland is probably in the best shape of the three after winning four in a row and seems to have a pretty manageable closing slate with home games against Michigan State and Penn State and a road trip to Northwestern. However, like my comments about Rutgers above, having a manageable slate will be a double-edged sword for the Terps. While Maryland is more likely to win, losses will come with additional danger. The team likely needs to win at least three more times to feel good about things.

The final team mentioned here is Minnesota, who seems to be nosediving. The Gophers enter this week having lost three straight and six of the team’s last eight games. All told, Minnesota is just 4-9 over its last 15 games and has still yet to win on the road this season. It’s been about as rough as a stretch as you’ll see for a potential NCAA team.

Nobody thought the Gophers would be a bubble team in December, but here we are. And it sets up a vital stretch to close the season. Minnesota will get four more opportunities to build its resume. Like a few of the others, things look manageable. The team gets home games against Northwestern and Rutgers and road trips to Nebraska and Penn State. This feels like another team who needs three more wins to feel good about things.

Work To Do:

  • Michigan State (12-9)
  • Penn State (8-12)

This is where the mountain starts getting steep. Unlike the 10 teams noted above, Michigan State and Penn State can’t back their way into NCAA bids. These teams are going to need some magic and exceptional performances to close the season to feel good about things. And even then, it might not be enough if crazy things happen elsewhere, such as a team to two surprising in their respective conference tournaments.

For Michigan State, the verdict seems simple. Tuesday’s win over Illinois was a game changer. It won’t get the Spartans through the door, but it opens up possibilities. And unlike some of the teams noted above, Michigan State can do more than just take care of business against a manageable slate with three more games against top five teams. It feels like Michigan State needs to close things at 3-2 and win a game in the Big Ten Tournament to make the cut. It won’t be easy, but the games are there.

The hill is admittedly steeper for Penn State. TRank projects the Nittany Lions as the 15th team out of the field and it’s hard to disagree, which means the team is going to need a nearly perfect close to the season to make the cut. Penn State gets Purdue, Minnesota, and Maryland to close the season and almost certainly needs to sweep all three and win a game in the Big Ten Tournament. And even then, it might not be enough. Five more wins would probably be enough, but that seems like a tall task.

Locked Out Of The Field:

  • Nebraska (5-16)
  • Northwestern (6-14)

Unfortunately for fans of these two, things are probably going to be wrapping up in the next two weeks. These two have no reasonable hopes of earning at-large bids, as each is well under .500 and don’t have particularly great resumes. Northwestern might be able to get into the NIT discussion with a strong finish, but that doesn’t seem all that likely. The only hope for these teams is to win the Big Ten Tournament.

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All told, it figures to be a great next few weeks for the Big Ten and the league is still very much in play for as many as 12 teams in this year’s NCAA Tournament. We’ll have to wait and see how things sort out.