The non-conference season is mercifully over, and Big Ten play is just around the corner. Every Big Ten team has 18 games to prove they belong in the NCAA tournament, and for a significant portion of the Big Ten, a chance to prove that strange losses against some bad teams were flukes. Fortunately for the Gophers, and unfortunately for some other teams, it turns out that what you see during the non-conference season is generally what you get during Big Ten play.
I was curious if non-conference performance could be used to predict what will happen during the Big Ten season. I’m fairly good at compiling data, but fully admit to being terrible at presenting data in a useful way. Luckily, Alex Cook from mgoblog was kind enough to sort a small mountain of data into something useful. So I compiled the kenpom rankings of every Big Ten team since the 2010-2011 season on the eve of Big Ten play and at the end of the season, to determine if teams can get better or worse.
It turns out, that teams don’t change much during conference play. That isn’t to say that teams can’t get better or worse, or can’t play themselves in or out of the NCAA tournament, but most team’s don’t.
A team’s KenPom rank (basically their national rank based on offensive and defensive efficiency) doesn’t shift by more than 10 by more than 10 spots the vast majority of the time, and therefore teams don’t often play themselves in or out of the tournament.
If a team is ranked in the Ken Pomeroy’s top 25 at the end of the non-conference season, it is a virtual certainty they will be in the NCAA tournament. If they are ranked in the top 35, they are still very likely to make the tournament, though there is small possibility they could lose their bid due to conference tournament chaos. With that as starting point, since the 2010-2011 season, the only Big Ten teams to play themselves into the NCAA tournament are Penn State and Michigan in 2010-2011 and Michigan in 2011-2012, and Nebraska in 2012-2014 That is it. Every other team that made the NCAA tournament over the last four seasons would have made the tournament if the bracket was set just before conference play begins. On the flip side, there is only one team that arguably played itself out of tournament contention, and that is last season’s Golden Gophers. However, they were only ranked 34th after non-conference play, so they weren’t really ever safely in the tournament field.
With so few teams playing themselves in or out of the tournament during conference play, it might be more interesting to look at the teams that didn’t impact their tournament prospects. Michigan State, absolutely collapsed towards the end of the 2010-2011 season, finishing 9-9 in the Big Ten after starting the conference season with a 4-1 record. They fell 32 places in the kenpom rankings, but still made the tournament. Iowa, which was arguably snubbed in 2013, improving their ranking by 20 places, was left out of the tournament after a 9-9 Big Ten season that started with losses in 7 of their first 10 conference games.
The cake is often baked during non-conference play. Other times, teams just don’t change that much. The Gophers were known for collapses during the Tubby Smith years, but the biggest collapse probably didn’t happen they way we thought it did. The 2010-2011 season saw the Gophers climb into the national rankings after winning the Puerto Rico tip-off, and then fall to pieces after Devoe Joseph transferred and Al Nolen was injured. The nationally ranked Gophers, with a 5-3 Big Ten record, only won one more game the rest of the season, and finished 6-12 and were left out of the NIT. Ken Pomeroy ranked them 56th before their first conference game, and 57th after they lost to Northwestern in the Big Ten tournament. The Gophers didn’t actually collapse. They merely did exactly what they were expected to do. Last season, Michigan was supposed to be dead in the water after four non-conference losses. After what was called a miraculous turn-around, they went on to win the Big Ten with a 15-3 conference record. They were ranked 21st by Ken Pomeroy after non-conference play, and 9th after they lost to Kentucky in the Elite Eight. They got a bit better during conference play, but their improvement was neither major nor miraculous. They should have been a five seed if the NCAA tournament bracket was set at the end of December, and ended up a two seed when the bracket was eventually announced.
Which brings us to the present. At the end of non-conference play, keeping in mind that most of the time, most teams don’t change much during conference play, here is how the Big Ten looks.
NCAA Tournament Locks
Wisconsin (#4) and Ohio State (#10) would need to collapse, at least as badly as Michigan State in 2011, to miss out on the tournament. Wisconsin already has enough good wins that they could probably make the tournament if they somehow lost 10 Big Ten games. Ohio State hasn’t beaten anyone of significance yet, but has demolished most of their non-conference competition. Their losses to Louisville and North Carolina won’t hurt them in March.
In great shape
Michigan State (#22), Maryland (#24) and Minnesota (#27) would all safely make the tournament if their non-conference performance matched their conference play, and they could all afford to get slightly worse too and still feel comfortable to get invited to the Big Dance in March. Of the three teams, Michigan State is in the worst shape with a loss to Texas Southern (#177) and their best win against Marquette (#99) isn’t all that great. But Michigan State isn’t in bad shape either, and is projected to win 11 conference games. Maryland’s lone loss is to Virginia (#2) and they have a win against Iowa State (#20). Minnesota’s losses to Louisville (#6) and St. John’s (#18) aren’t damaging, and what felt like a pointless win over Georgia (#36) keeps getting better and better.
Need to get better, but aren’t lost causes.
Iowa (#41), Illinois (#43), and Indiana (#44) would likely all be on the wrong side of the bubble if the season ended today, and will need to improve by 10 or so spots to comfortably make the field. This is by no means impossible, as around two teams per season make that sort of improvement. Unfortunately, the teams that usually improve by at least 10 spots are bad (Nebraska improved their ranking by 70 spots in 2013, and still finished the season at #130). These teams will need to play themselves into the tournament, and it is unlikely more than one will make it.
Need a miracle
Michigan (#80), Penn State (#85), Purdue (#86), and Nebraska (#87) have pretty much played themselves out of the tournament already. Miracles can happen, and Nebraska is actually in slightly better position than they were at the end of the non-conference season last year when they were ranked #89, before improving all they way to #45 when they snuck into the tournament as a 10 seed. That team won eight of their final nine regular season games, in one of the biggest conference season turnarounds you’ll likely ever see. All that means this season is it probably won’t happen again. Penn State may seem like a bit of an outlier in this group, since they have a 12-1 record behind numerous close wins. Close wins are better than closes losses, but single possession victories over the likes of Cornell (#196), USC (#150), and Duquesne (#238) point to significant problems. Those would be blow out wins for any bubble team.
Not a chance
The best Northwestern (#139) and Rutgers (#152) can realistically hope for is a trip to the NIT, and that isn’t likely either. Since 2010-2011, the biggest improvement a team has ever made was Nebraska’s 71 spot improvement from #201 to #130. If either Northwestern or Rutgers improved that much, they’d be NIT bubble teams, and still along way from the NCAA tournament.
The Big Ten in the post-season
The Big Ten looks like a six bid conference right now, with Wisconsin, Ohio State, Michigan State, Maryland, Minnesota in the dance along with one of Illinois, Iowa, and Indiana. The I-schools that don’t make the tournament should be in the NIT, with Michigan and Penn State.
On the hot seat
A Big Ten coach isn’t fired every year. However, when they are fired, it seems to be because they underperform in conference play. Tubby Smith and Bill Carmody were fired in 2013, and they happened to coach the two teams that underperformed the most during the Big Ten season. Bruce Weber and Doc Sadler were fired in 2012, and you guessed it, their teams got worse more than anyone else in the Big Ten. No one was fired last season in the Big Ten, but there are some coaches on the hot seat this season. Pat Chamber has never had a winning season at Penn State. While his team has a 12-1 record now, they are also the 30th most lucky team in the country. If their luck changes, Chambers might need a new job. Matt Painter’s team is already in NCAA tournament trouble, and has lost three straight games. If that free-fall continues, Painter will probably be done. Tom Crean’s Indiana Hoosiers are within striking distance of the tournament, and may have done enough to save his job unless things go very, very wrong.