We’ve reached the halfway point of the Big Ten basketball schedule. Well, most of us have anyway. Northwestern has only played 9 while Purdue, Michigan State, and Nebraska have played 11. Despite Northwestern clearly ducking Iowa, this week is as good a time as any to check in on the state of the Big Ten race. Today we will look at the standings and how teams are doing. Later in the week, we’ll talk about some milestones, and player of the year races.
The Beautiful Standings
First place: Purdue Boilermakers
In first place stands the Purdue Boilermakers. Their only blemish is a one point home loss to Rutgers. With a two game lead on Northwestern and a three game lead on the pack, it will be difficult for anyone to catch them. If you are looking for reasons to believe Purdue is catchable, they have played the easiest slate in the conference to date. Their remaining games rank the third hardest.
MaximumSam: They are not catchable.
Second place: Northwestern Wildcats
Our second place team is the program that everybody expected to win the conference - oh wait, never mind - it’s the Northwestern Wildcats! Let’s check in on MNW’s Saturday thoughts (with some light editing):
MNW: Quietly a decent deal: no true landmine left on the schedule. The ‘Cats (NET 44) only drew UNL (NET 98) and Minnesota (NET 365227) once each, meaning the rest of the schedule breaks out this way with regard to Quad 1/2/3/4 wins:
- @Iowa (41): Q1
- vsMich (72): Q2, though Q3 if they slip below 75
- @wisc (69): Q1, though Q2 if they slip below 75
- @OSU (27): Q1
- vsPurdue (4): Q1
- vsInd (22): Q1
- vsIowa (41): Q2 [cutoff for Q1 at home is 30]
- @Illinois (28): Q1
- @MD (38): Q1
- vsPSU (60): Q2
- @Rutg (20): Q1
Unless there are some real nosedives (a caveat that is true for the ‘Cats, too), Northwestern has put itself in a spot where it could have no Q3/Q4 losses and really, to my mind, just needs to get to 10-10 or so. As of Saturday, 4 Q1 wins is solid even nationally — winning 4 of Northwestern’s remaining would give them at least one more Q1 win and set them up quite well come bubble time.
Of course, me taking time to do this means it’ll come crashing down spectacularly, but in the meantime it’s jarring, at least for this skeptic, to see how well they’re set up to make a case.
BoilerUp89: This may be THE YEARTM again! The Wildcat faithful are dreaming of another NCAA Tournament bid and at 6-3 they’ve put themselves in really good position to do so. The schedule does get harder (2nd most difficult remaining in the B1G), but Northwestern’s nonconference was okay enough that 10-10 probably gets them in. Needing only 4 wins in the next 11, you’ve got to like their odds at the moment.
Thumpasaurus: If Northwestern really has taken you to the top of a roller coaster only to let you down at high velocity down the stretch, you can blame Brad Underwood among others for letting things get to this point. Whatever in the fuck happened between the Texas game and Skyy Clark leaving the team has given some serious confidence to the teams that got to play the Illini during that timeframe.
The four loss teams: Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Indiana Hoosiers, and Illinois Fighting Illini
At various points this season, all three of these 6-4 teams have appeared to be the best or second best team in the conference. Rutgers took down Purdue and has the best defense in the conference. Indiana is as hot as any team in the country right now and has perhaps the most talented roster when healthy. Illinois has the top two non-conference wins in the Big Ten by collecting the UCLA and Texas scalps. Consistency has been a problem for all three programs at times this season, and a three game hole in the conference race is a big one to make up, but all have the horses to compete for a share if Purdue stumbles. If Purdue doesn’t stumble in the regular season, these are also your other favorites to win the Big Ten tournament or make some noise in the NCAA tournament.
Thumpasaurus: We’re now seeing who these Illini really are after a stretch lasting most of December into January where they played virtually every game in a fugue state, as though they were playing 2K online over a 56K dial-up connection. Does this mean they’ve solved their problems through the loss of their 5 star point guard and are ready to live up to the hype?
No. No, it does not. Underwood put on a coaching clinic at home against Indiana just leaving single coverage on Trayce Jackson-Davis for 40 minutes despite how effortlessly he got to the bucket against Dainja and Hawkins. This team could still beat just about anyone and lose to just about anyone except Wisconsin. The energy and motivation levels appear to be substantially elevated from their December levels though, which is good because I don’t think I’ve ever been angrier about an Illini basketball game than I was about their totally lifeless 18-point Braggin’ Rights loss.
I’m still pretty mad about that one. It’s gonna take one hell of a postseason to make up for that.
The bubbly teams: Michigan State Spartans, Maryland Terrapins, Iowa Hawkeyes, Penn State Nittany Lions, Michigan Wolverines
Michigan State is the surest tournament team of this group, as they’ve already played the 5 teams in front of them in the standings 6 times! Sparty also has the least objectionable non-conference resume of the group.
Maryland is next highest in the pecking order. Although their non-conference wins were mostly empty calories, they have a good win against Miami (FL) and at 5-5 still have two games against Minnesota and one against Nebraska. So long as they take care of business in those three, going just 2-5 in their other 7 games probably gets them into the tournament in a weak year for the bubble.
After a late December to forget, Iowa has played themselves back into the tournament conversation. Their Iowa State win is currently balancing out the Eastern Illinois loss, but 10-10 may not be good enough to get them in without another resume defining win - especially if Iowa State goes on a losing streak in Big 12 play, a distinct possibility. Fortunately for the Hawkeyes, road opportunities for a statement win are everywhere - Iowa still travels to Indiana, Purdue, and Northwestern.
Penn State has lived and died by the three. Their shooting is good enough they probably have one more upset in them, but can they avoid a let down loss to the teams below .500 in conference? They have four of those remaining. With a weak non-conference slate, they can’t afford taking a bad loss.
misdreavus79: Penn State is exactly halfway to my predicted 10-10 prediction at the beginning of the year. They’ll need to win at least one more on the road to do so, as they played six home games in the first half of the conference schedule. Luckily enough, they have Nebraska and Minnesota on the road still, and, to a lesser extent, an Ohio State team that, while talented, is as vulnerable as it has been in recent memory. Pick up one of those and continue to sweep the home slate, and you’re in business.
All that said, with Furman being their best non-conference win, the Lions probably want to be above .500 in conference play at season’s end to avoid needing multiple Big Ten Tournament wins to make it. What helps the Lions’ case is having no real bad losses to date, something other bubble teams won’t be able to claim.
Michigan isn’t really still in the bubble conversation. The metrics hate them and their only road win all year is at Minnesota. Missed opportunities in non-conference against Virginia, North Carolina, and Kentucky will haunt the Wolverines while the loss to Central Michigan cratered their tournament resume. I include them in this group only because of where they are in the standings.
In search of answers: Wisconsin Badgers, Ohio State Buckeyes, Nebraska Cornhuskers
Wisconsin has the best record of this group at 4-6, but the advanced metrics hate them while the rest of us merely hate their style of play. The schedule is friendly enough that I can see a late push for .500 in Big Ten play but the next two weeks are crucial as their momentum is headed in the wrong direction.
Ohio State has a NBA first rounder in Brice Sensabaugh. Advanced metrics still love them, but they’ve lost 7 of their last 8 and after their next two games, their final eight will be against teams trying to secure an at-large bid or secure a Big Ten championship.
MaximumSam: I’d probably move Michigan to this spot, too. We’ll see if the Buckeyes can get things worked out. The main issue is they haven’t improved on defense, and their offense has been inconsistent as Justice Sueing and Zed Key have struggled in conference play. They do have six home games remaining - if they can find their shot again they might get somewhere.
Nebraska is headed to another losing season. They’ve played better, but the most interesting thing to watch for is whether they can scrape together enough wins to justify keeping Hoiberg around.
Golden Gophers tier: Minnesota Gophers
They won’t go winless in Big Ten play thanks to their road victory over Ohio State. And they didn’t embarrass themselves or the conference by losing to one of the very bad teams that gave them a game this year. Let’s see what they do with the two four stars coming in next year before we completely write off Ben Johnson.
Northwestern. I talked about the Wildcats above, but this was a team everyone had pegged at either 12th or 13th in the conference preseason and most of us thought this would be Chris Collins last season on the Northwestern sideline. They may not hold onto second place in the B1G, but they are in really good shape to make the NCAA tournament for just the second time in program history barring a complete collapse down the stretch. The defense is for real and the offense is just good enough.
Ohio State was considered a dark horse for winning the conference. Instead they are 3-7 and not in the bubble conversation at the moment.