It’s been a wild run for the Big Ten so far this season. The league looked pretty good in the preseason projections, fell flat on its face out of the gates, and gradually started improving. We’re now roughly a month into conference play and it’s time to start taking a serious look at the Big Ten’s position for March Madness.
So, let’s break things down.
-Tier 1 - NCAA Locks.
The inclusion here is pretty self-explanatory. All three have stellar resumes, are nationally ranked, and are probably just a few weeks away from hitting that critical 20-win mark. Even with serious upheaval or injuries, these teams should make the cut. The only real question now is where they’ll be seeded, which is a subject for another day.
-Tier 2 - Highly Likely.
- Michigan State
Like the three teams in the first category, Michigan State and Nebraska enter the last days of January with solid resumes. The Spartans sit at 12-7 overall and 4-4 in Big Ten play and the team has quality wins against teams like Baylor and Indiana State. The team’s “worst” loss (James Madison) also looks better today than when it happened. The Huskers are 15-5 overall and 5-4 in Big Ten play and have wins over a handful of solid teams, including Purdue, Michigan State, and Ohio State.
However, both Michigan State and Nebraska have enough missteps to prevent them from moving into the “lock” category. The Spartans have taken care of business, but don’t have a ton outside of the Baylor win. Nebraska’s losses against Minnesota, Iowa, and Rutgers were also tough ones to swallow. Still, these fanbases should feel pretty confident. Just hold serve and they will make the NCAA cut, and likely by a pretty solid margin.
-Tier 3 - Bubble Teams.
- Ohio State
This is where we get the most interesting tier. These are the teams that should be in for some drama over the next month or so. Northwestern and Ohio State are both clearly sitting on the bubble right now, with the Wildcats on the right side of things and the Buckeyes on the wrong side. However, neither position is close to locked up. Northwestern has plenty of time to blow things and Ohio State still has a chance to get back on track.
It gets overstated, but this is going to come down to the “manageable” games for both sides. Northwestern has already played the majority of its most difficult matchups, at least on paper. The question is now whether the Wildcats can take care of teams like Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Penn State, and Rutgers. In fact, if Northwestern simply beats those five opponents and loses to everyone else from here on out, the Wildcats would finish the regular season at 20-11 overall and 11-9 in Big Ten play. That’s probably good enough to make the cut for the NCAAs, even with a loss in the Big Ten Tournament.
Ohio State probably needs to do a bit more, since the Buckeyes are a step or two behind the Wildcats. However, the team still has eight games remaining against teams rated 45th or lower on KenPom. Considering the Buckeyes are currently 50th in those ratings, those eight games all have to be in the winnable category. And if Ohio State were to sweep all eight (unlikely, but possible), the team would finish the regular season at 21-10 overall. That’s probably enough to make the Big Dance.
We’ll start to get a taste on how this will play out on Saturday when Ohio State travels to face Northwestern. It’s a crucial matchup for both sides.
-Tier 4 - Major Work To Do.
In most years, I’ve labeled this category “work to do” because there was a realistic possibility these teams could make a serious push for the NCAA Tournament. However, that’s not really the case here. None of these teams have a realistic pathway to making the field, so we needed to add “major” to the title. However, we’ve seen crazy things in the past and these four have some possibility of making the field, so they deserve their own tier.
According to TRank, the team with the best hope of making the cut is Iowa, who has just a 0.2 percent chance of earning a bid. However, that doesn’t feel accurate, especially after Wednesday night’s results, wherein Maryland beat Iowa on the road. The Terps seem to have the best chance of anyone here if it can improve its play just a few percent. The team already has some quality road wins and has won three of its last five games. The problem is consistency, which Maryland has lacked all season.
The other darkhorse here is probably Indiana. The Hoosiers have the worst stats of the four (93rd on KenPom), but there’s plenty of upside since the team really doesn’t have any “bad” losses. The loss at Rutgers was probably the worst, but at least it was on the road. The problem for Indiana is the schedule is brutal moving forward. Unless the team can start upsetting quality opponents, there’s not much to hope for. We’ll see how it starts with Illinois on the road on Saturday. Minnesota is in a relatively similar position and will need to score some quality wins if it has any chance.
-Tier 5 - Nope.
- Penn State
None of these three have any realistic hope of earning an at-large bid. Michigan and Penn State are currently under .500 and Rutgers is only a step ahead with a 10-8 overall record. These teams should be focused on building momentum for the Big Ten Tournament. That’s really their only hope.