At about this time last year, the Big Ten was widely considered to be the best conference in America. The Gophers were on the verge of being a top ten team, and Indiana, Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State all looked like national title contenders. The big questions entering the conference season involved how many Big Ten teams would make the final four. After a good but not great non-conference season, college basketball pundits are left with the much more pedestrian question of what various teams need to do just to make the NCAA tournament.
Instead of throwing out conference record predictions, or NCAA tournament seed projections, we’ll look at the non-conference performance of each Big Ten team, and the worst possible Big Ten record that could get each team in the tournament. That way, when your team starts struggling, you’ll know when to get nervous, and ultimately when to stop caring. In Minnesota, we have a word for this: February.
Ohio State Buckeyes Non-conference Record: 13-0. Big Ten record needed to dance: 10-8.
The Ohio State Buckeyes are one of two teams to enter Big Ten play without a loss. They are the number three team in the country in both polls, and should be a lock to make the NCAA tournament. However, their non-conference wins aren’t very impressive. Marquette, Maryland, and Notre Dame all looked to be potential quality wins before the season began, but games are played for a reason, and each of these teams has struggled more than expected. Notre Dame suspended their leading scorer, and struggled to beat Canisius. Marquette has five losses, and will probably be a bubble team. Maryland is in free-fall, and has some work to do to re-enter any discussion of bubble teams. The bottom line for the Buckeyes is that they are probably a very good team, but they’ll need to prove it in conference play.
Wisconsin Badgers Non-conference Record: 13-0. Big Ten record needed to dance: 6-12.
The dreaded Badgers have made the NCAA tournament in every season under Bo Ryan, and they have essentially already played themselves in to the 2014 tournament. They have six wins over teams ranked in the Ken Pomeroy top 60, meaning if they didn’t win another game this season, they would have more quality wins than most teams on the tournament bubble. A 13-18 team won’t make the dance, but an 18-12 team with at least six quality wins will. Unlike the Buckeyes, the Badgers are clearly one of the best teams in the country so far this season. We know it because they have shown it.
Iowa Hawkeyes Non-conference Record: 11-2. Big Ten record needed to dance: 9-9.
The Hawkeyes were left home last March because of their weak non-conference schedule, even though they were one of the better teams by the end of the Big Ten season. The phrase “body of work” gets thrown around a lot in the weeks leading up to selection Sunday, and it is absolutely true that tournament teams are chosen based on their performance during the season as a whole, and not their final few games. In an effort to avoid a repeat of last year, the Hawkeyes have significant upgraded their non-conference schedule. Like Ohio State, their win over Notre Dame loses some quality with each second that passes by. However, their win over Xavier, along with close losses to Iowa State and Villanova should get them into the tournament comfortably with a .500 record. Finishing the season with an 8-10 conference record and winning their first Big Ten Tournament game should be good enough too.
Michigan State Spartans Non-conference Record: 11-1. Big Ten record needed to dance: 8-10
The Spartans are a bit of an oddity because they don’t actually finish their non-conference schedule until February 1st when they play Georgetown. Even though there is that final game floating in the future, their non-conference performance has already been impressive enough to clear an easy path to another NCAA tournament under Tom Izzo. The Spartans’ season opening win over Kentucky looks all the more impressive as the young Wildcats continue to mature. Their lone loss to North Carolina won’t hold them back either.
Michigan Wolverines Non-conference Record: 8-4. Big Ten record needed to dance: 10-8
If last season’s Hawkeyes were guilty of under-scheduling, this season’s Wolverines are guilty of over-scheduling. Michigan has already played five quality opponents, but only beat Florida State and Stanford. If the Wolverines had simply beaten the teams they were supposed to beat, they would only need a .500 record to make the tournament. Unfortunately, the Wolverines have a bad loss to Charlotte that could haunt them come March. With the indefinite absence of Mitch McGary, finding that tenth conference win will be a challenge.
Minnesota Golden Gophers Non-conference Record: 11-2. Big Ten record needed to dance: 9-9
Things looked exceptionally bleak after two and half games in Maui. The Gophers had already lost to Syracuse and Arkansas, and there was no shame in that, but they appeared to be in real danger of losing to Chaminade. A loss to Chaminade would technically have been ignored by the selection committee, though I doubt it actually would have been ignored. Thankfully, the team bounced back against Florida State. Coupled with the win at Richmond, there are just enough quality wins and no bad losses, which should make a .500 record barely good enough to make the tournament. If the Gophers do finish the conference season at 9-9, they would be well advised to avoid a dreaded loss to a bad team in the first round of the Big Ten tournament.
Indiana Hoosiers Non-conference Record: 9-3. Big Ten record needed to dance:10-8
The Hoosiers didn’t do themselves any favors during the non-conference season by not beating a single quality opponent. Their best wins came against Washington on a neutral floor. In past seasons beating Washington might have been a good win. This season, UC-Irvine and a terrible Boston College team beat the Huskies. Indiana’s losses to Syracuse and Connecticut are respectable, but it may be their loss to Notre Dame that ruins their season. I’d have a hard time believing that Indiana would be left at home with a 10-8 conference record, but at this point I have a hard time believing that the Hoosiers win 10 conference games.
Illinois Fighting Illini Non-conference Record: 11-2 Big Ten record needed to dance:10-8
The Illini sit just outside the top 25 on the eve of the Big Ten season, based mostly on their win over Missouri, who sits just inside the top 25. That is the Illini’s only good win. They avoided what has become an annual bad loss against a bad team in the United Center this past weekend, leaving only their loss at Georgia Tech to potentially drag down their NCAA tournament plans. Unlike last season’s highly ranked but highly questionable team, this season’s Illini’s rely less on streaky three-point shooting, and more on a strong defense. Ten wins is certainly possible, and at least more possible than it was for last season’s team that was nationally ranked until January.
Penn State Nittany Lions Non-conference Record: 9-4 Big Ten record needed to dance:12-6
Penn State has two losses on their home court, to Princeton and Bucknell, that will inevitably keep them out of the NCAA tournament. In both games, the Nittany Lions blew second half leads. The loss to Princeton might be the biggest meltdown of the season, as an 18 point lead evaporated in the final five minutes of regulation. Losing to Pittsburgh was acceptable. The loss to Mississippi could have been canceled out by beating St. John’s, but home losses to bad teams don’t go away. With the worst defense in the Big Ten, every team will have a chance to beat Penn State, no matter how comfortable a Penn State lead might seem.
Purdue Boilermakers Non-conference Record: 10-3 Big Ten record needed to dance: 11-7
The Boilermakers have been living on the edge since the start of the season when they narrowly beat Division 1 newcomer Northern Kentucky by a single point. They beat Rider by four, Sienna twice by single digits, and Eastern Michigan by five. Their luck didn’t last forever, and a loss to Washington State will be problematic in March. Their best win against West Virginia could prove to be a quality win, but if they make the tournament it will be entirely based on their conference performance.
Nebraska Cornhuskers Non-conference Record: 8-4 Big Ten record needed to dance: 12-6
The good news is that the Cornhuskers shouldn’t be the worst Big Ten team this season, but they won’t come close to the NCAA tournament either. The first step in a rebuilding project is to perform as expected, winning against teams that are worse and losing to teams that are better. Nebraska has performed as expected. Unfortunately they aren’t good enough to beat good teams yet. Their worst loss to UAB isn’t particularly bad. Their best win against Miami leaves a lot to be desired. Avoiding bad losses at least gives Nebraska a path to the NIT, which could be a stepping stone for a brighter future.
Northwestern Wildcats Non-conference Record: 7-6 Big Ten record needed to dance: 13-5
Chris Collins, no matter how optimistic he is, has to be wondering what he has gotten himself into. The Wildcats are bad, with losses to Illinois State and Depaul. Their offense is bad, by far the worst in the Big Ten. They’ll need to somehow scratch and claw themselves to 13 conference wins, more than triple their total from last season. Realistically, winning more than a game or two in conference play looks like a real challenge, especially without a 1-3-1 zone and two games against Tubby Smith.