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Big Ten Bracketology: Where the conference stands in The Big Dance

Who’s in, who’s out, who’s on the bubble, and premature March Madness predictions.

Syndication: The Indianapolis Star
Purdue’s Zach Edey and Michigan State’s Marcus Bingham
Nick King/Lansing State Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK

The best month of the year for college basketball fans is upon us. The 2021-22 season has been a wild ride, with unpredictable twists and turns hiding around every corner. Following a year of utter domination by the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the nation—which culminated in their National Championship meeting—a year of good old-fashioned chaos feels inevitable. I mean, when every single one of the six top-ranked teams in the country goes down on a single day, that’s gotta be an omen, right?

As for the Big Ten, this season has been another strong one for the conference. 8 of the 14 teams in the Big Ten fall inside KenPom’s top 42 teams, and the conference ranks third in his conference rankings, behind only the Big 12 and SEC. While this doesn’t come close to last year’s historically good season, in which 4 Big Ten teams landed a top-2 seed in the NCAA tournament, I would still call it a solid year.

When it comes to March Madness, the Big Ten is projected to have 8-9 teams make the field at the moment. Big Ten teams fall pretty neatly into three buckets—virtual locks, bubble teams, and out of the field. Let’s break down where each team falls, what needs to go right for bubble teams to make the tourney and a prediction for each team’s march success.

-Virtual locks (6)

-On the bubble (3)

-Out of the field, barring Big Ten Tournament win (5)

  • Penn State
  • Northwestern
  • Maryland
  • Minnesota
  • Nebraska

Tournament Locks

-Purdue Boilermakers (24-5, 13-5)

  • NET: 12
  • KenPom: 13
  • Best Wins: Illinois (twice), Villanova (neutral), Iowa (twice), Ohio St
  • Worst Losses: @ Rutgers, @ Indiana, @ Michigan, Wisconsin
  • Projected Seed: 2
  • Prediction: R32/Sweet 16

Purdue is likely to be the highest seed from the Big Ten come Selection Sunday, and for good reason. They don’t really have any bad losses—their worst one is on the road at Rutgers, a notoriously difficult place to play. And their wins are very impressive; a sweep of Illinois and Iowa and a neutral victory at Villanova. The Boilermakers are 7-4 against Quad 1, 4-1 against Quad 2, and have no Q3/Q4 losses.

But the metrics don’t love Purdue. The NET has them at 12 and KenPom at 13. This is going to prevent them from even sniffing a No. 1 seed, even if they win out. Most brackets have Purdue as a 2-seed, but that isn’t necessarily safe. They’ll still need to finish the season strong to avoid dropping down to the 3-line.

Purdue has been fun to watch, but also frustrating at times. While their offense has been on fire all season (they rank No. 1 in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency), the Boilermakers haven’t exactly been a defensive powerhouse. They place outside the top-100 in defensive efficiency, and bottom-20 (yes, you read that right) in turnover percentage.

As much as I’ve wanted to love Purdue’s chances in the big dance, I just don’t see them advancing very far with how pedestrian their defense is. I’m seeing an early exit (round of 32 or sweet 16).

-Wisconsin Badgers (23-5, 14-4)

  • NET: 21
  • KenPom: 27
  • Best Wins: Houston (neutral), St. Mary’s (neutral) @ Purdue, Iowa, OSU, @ MSU
  • Worst Losses: Rutgers, Providence, MSU
  • Projected Seed: 3
  • Prediction: Sweet 16 (draw-dependent)
NCAA Basketball: Wisconsin at Rutgers
Wisconsin’s Johnny Davis
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Wisconsin has a really strong resume and seems to be a surefire top-4 seed in March Madness. I barely remembered because it seems so long ago, but this team won the Maui Invitational—beating Houston and St. Mary’s along the way! While they do have a Q3 loss (Rutgers at home), that looks a lot worse on paper than in actuality.

Wisconsin is one of the most balanced teams in the conference—they rank top-40 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. They are also smart with the basketball, ranking third in the country in turnover %.

With their slow style of play and success in close games (they’re fifth in KenPom’s luck metric), I’m guessing Wisconsin will be a popular upset pick. And I’m not saying I won’t be on that train; it really depends on their draw. But this team is rock-solid, experienced, and has one of the best players in the country in Johnny Davis. It’s not at all implausible to see a deep tourney run.

-Illinois Fighting Illini (20-8, 13-5)

  • NET: 14
  • KenPom: 16
  • Best Wins: @ Iowa, Wisconsin, MSU (twice), Indiana
  • Worst Losses: Cincinnatti (neutral), @ Maryland, @ Rutgers
  • Projected Seed: 4 or 5
  • Prediction: R64 or R32

Illinois has a pretty solid resume, but unlike Wisconsin and Purdue, there are holes you can poke if you want to. Their loss to Cincinnati is a pretty tough one, and the Illini are only 5-5 against Q1 competition. The Illini’s eight losses are the most of any projected top-4 seed, and while their wins are impressive, they don’t have a real marquee win to hang their hat on.

Still, the metrics love Illinois. They’re top 16 in the NET and KenPom, and they’re top-40 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. They have an All-American center in Kofi Cockburn, and their guard play has been productive—Alfonso Plummer and Trent Frazier have been excellent.

But I worry about Illinois’ chances in March. Their over-reliance on Cockburn can be a hindrance, and they’ve shown an inability to close out games. They can also struggle when three-pointers aren’t falling, and if they draw a tough 12/13 seed that is hitting shots, like a Chattanooga or Iona, I’m not sure they won’t get upset. And if they do win that first round, a four or five seed awaits in the next round, which is even scarier. I’m pulling for Illinois, but the cracks are showing and I can’t ignore them.

-Ohio State Buckeyes (18-8, 11-6)

  • NET: 20
  • KenPom: 23
  • Best Wins: Duke, @ Illinois, Wisconsin, Seton Hall (neutral), @ Michigan
  • Worst Losses: @ Maryland, @ Rutgers, Florida (neutral)
  • Projected Seed: 5
  • Prediction: Sweet 16 or Elite 8
Ohio State v Illinois
Ohio State’s EJ Liddell
Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

The Buckeyes had a rough game on Sunday in their loss to Maryland—what I’d say is their worst game of the season. They never looked comfortable, probably beat down by two hard-fought wins earlier in the week against Indiana (in OT) and Illinois.

Still, Ohio State’s resume is deserving of a high seed. Their win against Duke is as good as anyone’s in the conference, and they rank highly in NET and KenPom. OSU does struggle relatively with defensive efficiency; they are only 97th in the country. They aren’t able to turn the ball over, ranking a measly 316th in defensive turnover %. But the Buckeyes are top-60 in effective FG%, both offensive (22nd) and defensive (58th), and 12th in overall offensive efficiency.

I think the Buckeyes are poised for a Sweet 16 run, and depending on the 1-seed they draw, perhaps even an Elite 8 birth. They have one of the best post players in the country in EJ Liddell, and Malaki Branham & Zed Key have been coming into their own in the past few weeks. Ohio State’s success will come down to their role players—namely Kyle Young and Jamari Wheeler.

-Iowa Hawkeyes (20-8, 10-7)

  • NET: 19
  • KenPom: 15
  • Best Wins: @ Ohio State, Michigan St, @ Virginia, Utah State (neutral), Indiana
  • Worst Losses: @ Penn St, @ Rutgers, Michigan
  • Projected Seed: 7
  • Prediction: Sweet 16 or Elite 8

One year removed from the Luka Garza show at Iowa, the Hawkeyes have managed to reload and compete really impressively. They’re having a great year, thanks in large part to the emergence of sophomore forward Keegan Murray. Murray is averaging 23.2 ppg and 8.2 rpg, and his advanced numbers are just as impressive. He ranks 17th nationally in offensive rating, 7th in turnover rate, and top-60 in effective FG%. He is also currently 4th in KenPom’s player-of-the-year metric.

Iowa has underperformed against quality competition—they are only 1-5 against Q1. Other than their recent road win vs. Ohio State, they don’t have any truly great wins. But they don’t have any terrible losses; they are 6-3 against Q2 and undefeated against Q3/Q4.

While this prevents the Hawkeyes from getting any higher than the seven-line, they are still an analytical darling, ranking top-20 in KenPom and NET. They also rank fifth in adjusted offensive efficiency, first in turnover %, and eighth in offensive block %. They are, however, only 89th in defensive efficiency.

I quite like this Iowa team. They’re going to have the best player on the court in most matchups, they’re peaking at the right time (they’ve won seven of their last eight), and they pass the ‘eye-test’ for me. I’m interested to see how they do in the Big Ten Tournament, but I don’t think it’s unrealistic to project a strong March performance, depending on the draw. I have them as Sweet 16/Elite 8 dark horse.

-Michigan State Spartans (19-9, 10-7)

  • NET: 33
  • KenPom: 34
  • Best Wins: UConn (neutral), Purdue, @ Wisconsin, Loyola (neutral), Michigan
  • Worst Losses: Northwestern, @ Penn St, @ Rutgers, Wisconsin
  • Projected Seed: 7
  • Prediction: R64 or R32

Michigan State has had an up-and-down year. They cracked the AP top-10 at one point, but fell from voters’ graces once they hit the Big Ten gauntlet and started dropping games. The Spartans had a rough February, going 3-4, but pulled off a huge upset over Purdue on Saturday. Now, they pick up some much-needed momentum and confidence entering March, and we all know Tom Izzo’s reputation in March.

While the Spartans have had some really good wins (namely UConn and Purdue), they also have some bad losses in Northwestern and Penn St. They aren’t great metric-wise either, ranking 33rd and 34th in NET and KenPom, respectively. While they are top-45 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, it just feels like they don’t have much of an identity this year.

Even though “Mr. March” is their head coach, I’m not seeing any sort of run this year. I’m happy to be proven wrong, but Michigan State just hasn’t looked all that impressive to me. I’m predicting a first- or second-round exit.

On The Bubble

-Michigan Wolverines (15-12, 9-8)

  • NET: 37
  • KenPom: 38
  • Best Wins: Purdue, @ Iowa, San Diego St, @ Indiana
  • Worst Losses: Minnesota, @ UCF, @ Rutgers, @ North Carolina
  • Projected Seed: 11 or 12 (Last Four In)
  • Prediction: R64 or misses tournament

This season is one that Michigan fans will wish to soon forget. After being ranked 6th in the preseason, the Wolverines struggled instantly, going 7-7 in their first 14 games and making some wonder if they’d miss the tournament. It seems that head coach Juwan Howard has not been able to integrate the freshmen into the starting rotation as quickly as was hoped. And let’s not mince words, this team is extremely inexperienced, averaging just 1.41 years which is good for bottom-50 in the country.

Speaking of Juwan Howard, the Wolverines are going to have to play without him after he was suspended for the remainder of the season due to his physical altercation in the Wisconsin game. Whatever you think about the incident and the future of Michigan basketball, the reality is that it put his team in serious jeopardy of missing the tournament.

To be honest, I don’t think it matters at this point; it’s a lost year in my eyes. Michigan just doesn’t have second-weekend potential. They don’t have good enough guard play and it’s clear that Hunter Dickinson isn’t able to carry the team without help.

Michigan has a tough remaining schedule—Michigan State and Iowa at home and Ohio State on the road—and probably needs to win one of these games to feel good about being on the right side of the bubble on Selection Sunday. As of now, they are in 101 of 106 brackets, according to Bracket Matrix

-Indiana Hoosiers (18-10, 9-9)

  • NET: 44
  • KenPom: 42
  • Best Wins: Purdue, Ohio St, Notre Dame (neutral), St. John’s
  • Worst Losses: @ Northwestern, @ Syracuse, @ Penn St
  • Projected Seed: 11 or 12 (Last Four In)
  • Prediction: R64 or misses tournament

Two games ago, things were looking bleak in Bloomington. The Hoosiers had lost five straight and were in danger of missing the tournament. I even wrote a whole column about why Hoosier fans shouldn’t panic yet.

And to be fair, they still are in danger of missing the tourney—Bracket Matrix has them in 69 of 106 brackets. That’s about as bubble-y as it gets. They are pretty decent metrically and have no Q3 or Q4 losses. But they haven’t exactly inspired confidence against quality competition, going 6-10 against Q1 and Q2.

Indiana’s remaining schedule is home vs. Rutgers and away vs. Purdue. They need to go 1-1 over that stretch to make the tournament, in my eyes. Obviously, Rutgers is the easy target there, but a win @ Purdue would cement them in the tournament even if they didn’t pick up another win in the Big Ten tournament. If they beat Rutgers but lose to Purdue, I think they need at least one Big Ten Tournament win to feel good about their chances. Regardless, I don’t see Indiana beating the likely 5- or 6-seed that they draw. This just isn’t the year.

-Rutgers Scarlet Knights (16-12, 10-8)

  • NET: 83
  • KenPom: 76
  • Best Wins: Purdue, Illinois, @ Wisconsin, OSU, MSU, Iowa
  • Worst Losses: Lafayette, @ Massachusetts, @ DePaul, @ Minnesota, Maryland, @ PSU
  • Projected Seed: 11 or 12 (First Four Out)
  • Prediction: Sweet 16 or R32, or misses tournament

Three games ago, Rutgers looked positioned to do the highly implausible and overcome an atrocious early schedule to make the tournament. They had gone from 5-5 with three very bad losses, to 16-9 with several huge wins, including Purdue, Illinois, and @ Wisconsin. Unfortunately, the Scarlet Knights are now on a five-game slide and face a difficult road to the right side of the bubble.

Taking a step back and looking at Rutgers’ overall resume, it’s a tale of the aforementioned great wins and bad bad losses. Their three early losses to Lafayette (317 in KenPom), Massachusetts (204) and DePaul (106), along with later losses to Minnesota, Maryland, Penn State, and Northwestern make it difficult to justify putting the Knights in the tournament, regardless of their wins. Rutgers is poor metric-wise as well, sitting out of the top-75 in both KenPom and NET.

Realistically, Rutgers needs to win out, as well as pick up one or two wins in the Big Ten Tournament, in order to make March Madness. The Knights travel to Indiana and finish the season at home against Penn State. I hope they make it, because I actually think they’re capable of making a Sweet 16 run.

Need to win the Big Ten Tourney

  • Penn State
  • Northwestern
  • Maryland
  • Minnesota
  • Nebraska

Conclusions

As you may have gathered, I’m not optimistic that this is the year the Big Ten breaks its 22-year title drought. I thought that Purdue and Illinois would have a shot at it if they cleaned up their weaknesses and came together to peak at the right time. And maybe we haven’t seen the final form of these teams, but I doubt this is the case.

I think the conference has a lot of Sweet 16/Elite 8 potential, but as far as the Final Four, I don’t see any teams with the pedigree to string together that many difficult wins in a row. Maybe one of them gets lucky, but I certainly won’t have any of them advancing that far in my bracket.

Three teams lie squarely on the bubble, and I think it’s likely that two of them make the tournament. It’s difficult to see more, seeing as Rutgers and Indiana have one more game against each other. But if one of them puts together some solid wins in the Big Ten Tournament, it's certainly possible we see nine Big Ten teams in the field.

Unfortunately for the bottom tier of Penn State, Maryland, Northwestern, Minnesota, and Nebraska, they weren’t able to pull it together this year, for various reasons. Of these teams, I think Maryland has the potential to make a run at the Big Ten Tourney crown. The Terps’ have already beat Illinois and Ohio State this year. I’m not saying it’s probable, but if anyone in the Big Ten can be a bid-stealer, it’s them.