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Breaking Down The Big Ten’s Bracket Hopes

How many teams can the Big Ten land in the Big Dance?

NCAA Basketball: Maryland at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

With us now approaching the end of January, it’s finally time for Bubble Season to start. We’re close enough to March to have a general idea about where things are trending in the Big Ten and nationally. As such, it seemed like a good time to check in on the Big Ten and its postseason hopes.

Let’s break things down.

-Tier 1 - NCAA Locks.

None of these teams need much explanation. They’re all presently ranked in the top 25 and well on pace to having great seeds in March. It would take monumental collapses for any of these teams to even end up on the bubble on Selection Sunday.

-Tier 2 - Highly Likely

  • Indiana
  • Iowa

Unlike Tier 1, both Indiana and Iowa have some chance of missing the Tournament on Selection Sunday. The Hawkeyes have a pretty soft strength of schedule (118th nationally, per KenPom) and Indiana presently sits outside the top 40 in the NET rankings. However, it would take something pretty significant as both teams are currently on pace to cross the 20-win mark, which would be more than enough to make the cut in this year’s Big Ten.

-Tier 3 - Bubble Teams

  • Michigan

The Wolverines enter the final weekend of January squarely on the bubble. That’s not where fans thought this team would be when the season began, but it’s reality now. Michigan limped through much of non-conference play, losing to virtually all of the team’s best opponents. However, the Wolverines have gained some momentum in recent weeks, having now won three in a row, including a notable one on the road against Indiana last Sunday. The win over the Hoosiers pushed Michigan into the “First Four Out” in Jon Lunardi’s latest bracketology.

KenPom now projects Michigan to finish the regular season at 16-12 overall, which would put the Wolverines squarely on the bubble. Perhaps the most notable part of the discussion is whether Michigan’s previously cancelled games against Michigan State and Purdue end up being rescheduled. If so, the Wolverines will get two more marquee opportunities.

-Tier 4 - Work To Do.

  • Maryland
  • Minnesota
  • Northwestern
  • Penn State
  • Rutgers

While these teams had wildly different expectations and paths toward now, all of them enter the final days in January in relatively similar position, needing some big wins down the stretch to get into serious NCAA consideration. However, even if there’s work to be done, there’s still a path for all five of these teams to make the cut.

The team best positioned to make the cut is likely Minnesota. While the Gophers had relatively underwhelming advanced numbers thanks to an incredibly soft opening slate, Minnesota enters the final days of January without a bad loss and some great opportunities to grab a marquee win in the coming days. Get one big win and Minnesota’s position will start looking significantly better. We’ll see if the team can beat Ohio State on Thursday.

Maryland and Northwestern are probably next. The Terps have two really solid wins (Illinois and Florida) and have generally taken care of business against bad teams. Likewise, the Wildcats have an underwhelming 9-9 record, but feel much better than that mark, losing most of the team’s games against tough opponents in competitive games. Both will need an upset or two, but the pathway is there.

A step or two behind there are Penn State and Rutgers. It’s still a tad too early to throw in the towel on either, but the hill is starting to get pretty steep. Penn State is now below .500 at 8-9 overall and has lost four of its last five games. Similarly, Rutgers has lost three of its last five and has some genuine black marks on its resume. It’s one thing to lose a game here or there, but another to drop a home game to Lafayette.

There’s still time for any of these five to change the narrative and make a Tournament run. However, work needs to be done . . . and soon. Every loss from here on out will be extremely detrimental to their postseason hopes, especially for teams like Penn State and Rutgers. Even two or three losses in a row could end any at-large hopes. More likely than not, these five are likely look at the NIT or no postseason.

-Tier 5 - Nope.

  • Nebraska

Sorry, Husker fans. While hopes were high coming into the season, things just haven’t gone well for Nebraska so far. The team is just 6-13 overall and the program looks destined for another rough offseason. Nebraska would need to win the Big Ten Tournament to make the cut.