The Big Ten remains college basketball’s deepest league, with the most teams capable of winning on a given night. But its center might be south of the NCAA tournament bubble line, as once-elites (or so we ridiculously thought) Wisconsin and Ohio State start to flirt with the NIT. And partly because the bottom is rising.
Michigan State, Michigan and Iowa are NCAA tourney locks. But beyond that, after five losses in six games by the Badgers, there are no certainties.
ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi (I love that somehow that’s a professional title) had six Big Ten clubs in the field entering the weekend â€” MSU and U-M as 2 seeds, Iowa as a 4, Wisconsin a 5, Ohio State and Minnesota as 8s.
To again emphasize the strength of the league, by Lunardi’s early projections, no other conference had its top three seeds add up as low as 8. And no other league had four teams in last week’s top 15.
Of course, this week’s top 15 will look different. The Badgers will drop after two more defeats. The Spartans, Wolverines and Hawkeyes should hold about steady. And, all of that said, these rankings don’t really matter.
At some point, if six NCAA tournament teams is going to happen, the Badgers have to win again. The Buckeyes may have actually saved their season, to some extent, winning at Wisconsin Saturday.
Ohio State had also lost five of six, prior to this weekend.
What’s interesting about the Badgers and Buckeyes, is both are closer to what we (or I, at least) thought they’d be when the season began. By the end of December, after running through mostly lesser competition, both were top five teams. Again, tell me, why do we rank teams before conference play?
Wisconsin lost its best interior players from last season and can’t defend on the perimeter. Ohio State lost a 20-point scorer in Deshaun Thomas and didn’t add anything comparable. Why did we think they could actually be better?
Indiana bolstered its slim NCAA tournament hopes with Sunday’s home win against Michigan. And, of course, in doing so, did MSU a sizable favor.
As Adreian Payne gets set to return for MSU, the Spartans are back on the same line as the Wolverines at the top of the standings, with a winnable slate â€” Penn State, at Wisconsin, Northwestern, Nebraska, at Purdue â€” before the Feb. 23 rematch in Ann Arbor.
The team that’s a fun and frustrating story right now is Northwestern. The Wildcats are 5-5 in the Big Ten after winning at Wisconsin and at Minnesota last week. If they hadn’t began the season so awful â€” even if they’d only avoided losses to Illinois State and DePaul â€” they’d be in the NCAA tournament picture. Instead, they’re 12-11, probably needed to get to 17-12 (5-3 the rest of the way in the Big Ten) and then win a Big Ten tournament game to have a shot. But, the way the Wildcats are playing, they do have a shot.
It’s an interesting and entertaining league. Deeper than I thought. Different, too. Think about this: Northwestern and Minnesota could make the NCAA tournament field, while Ohio State and Wisconsin play in the NIT. Unlikely, but possible.