According to the RPI, the all empowered rating system that plays a giant role in determining the fate of teams in regards to admission for the NCAA Tournament and their eventual seed. This same rating also ranks the conferences as a whole; currently the Big Ten is second. You read that right, second, just behind the Atlantic Coast Conference and its slew of ranked teams. Obviously they are ranked ahead of the Big East, which many consider to be the nation’s top conference. They are ranked ahead of the Southeastern Conference, but then again, several mid-majors could also make a legitimate claim at this as well. And also ahead of the Pac Ten and Big XII, both which were thought to be much stronger than the Big Ten prior to the season,
However, if you look closely at the Big Ten, this will make sense. The reason is simple, parody. Currently the Big Ten more than likely only has one team that will be a top three seed, Michigan State. However, as of right now the entire conference aside from Iowa and Indiana (barring a miracle run by either) still have NCAA Tournament aspirations. Here is a snapshot of the contending conference members:
Without a doubt, the Spartans are the class of the Big Ten. They have a 16-3 overall record and more than likely will not lose more than three games the rest of the regular season. Offensively, Tom Izzo’s squad is paced by Kalin Lucas and Raymar Morgan, while also getting support in the post from Goran Suton. Morgan is also one of the best lockdown defenders in the country. Forecast: As mentioned earlier, the Spartans will probably win the Big Ten title and be the favorite heading into the conference tournament. Expect to see Michigan State with a protected seed, probably in the 2-3 range.
Illinois has surprised a lot of people with their success this season. Sitting at 17-3, the Illini have no bad losses and few nice wins on the road against Vanderbilt and Purdue, while defeating Missouri, Michigan, Ohio State, and Wisconsin at home. Much of their success can be attributed to the emergence of 7’1 center Mike Tisdale, although Demetri McCamey has once again supplied Illinois with very steady backcourt play. Forecast: Barring a monumental collapse, Illinois should finish with 24-26 wins, and that might even be a conservative estimate. This win total will obviously put them in the big dance and with an outside shot of reaching a protected seed. To be on the safe side, look for the Illini to be placed closer to the 5-6 seed line.
Thad Matta has done a phenomenal job keeping the Buckeyes near the top of the Big Ten after suffering early departures from his star players the past couple of years. However, Matta’s team is currently in a crossroads. After starting the season on a tear, beating Miami (Fl), Notre Dame and Butler, Ohio State has only gone 7-5 with a win over Michigan providing their only notable victory. Forecast: Thanks to their hot start, Ohio State probably only needs to reach 20-21 wins to conclude the regular season, which will keep them above .500 in the Big Ten, in order to receive a bid to the NCAA Tournament. Expect to see Ohio State dancing, but this team has all of the makings of a dreaded eight or nine seed.
Wisconsin finds themselves in even more of a freefall than Ohio State. After racing off to a 12-3 start, and 3-0 in the conference, Wisconsin has dropped four straight and finds itself in need of a win. The Badgers will surely be Virginia Tech’s biggest fans the rest of the season, as the Hokies are Wisconsin’s only notable win outside of the conference. Should the Badgers turn the tide on their season, it will more than likely be the senior leadership of Marcus Landry that guides them. Forecast: Bo Ryan will probably need to finish the season in a similar manner that was discussed above for Ohio State, although the Buckeyes have better wins. Ryan is one of the best coaches in the country and will find a way to get the Badgers into March, they will not garner the high seed that they had in years past, but the Badgers will find themselves on the right side of the bubble.
Tubby Smith wins basketball games, it is that simple. Minnesota was a mess when the legendary coach took over last season. Now the Gophers already have 17 wins and are back in the upper echelon of the Big Ten. Minnesota did not play the toughest non-conference schedule, but they do own a huge win over a Louisville team that looks to be one of the Big East’s top teams. Smith also has a lot of youth on his team, so the Gophers are only going to improve with each game. Forecast: Just looking at the schedule, Minnesota should get to 23 or 24 wins plus whatever they muster up in the Big Ten Tournament. The Gophers can feel good about their chances thus far, but have an important stretch against Illinois, Michigan State, and Ohio State coming up that could determine their fate. As is the case with Wisconsin, expect Tubby to be on the right side of the bubble, just not with a gaudy seed.
At the current time, Purdue probably lies somewhere between Ohio State and the duo of Wisconsin and Minnesota. They have decent wins in Boston College, Davidson, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. They have faced two potential number one seeds in Oklahoma and Duke, which never hurts, especially since they took the Sooners to overtime. The lack of size on Matt Painter’s roster could hurt Purdue down the stretch. The trio of E’Twuan Moore, Robbie Hummel, and JaJuan Johnson will be instrumental over the next two and a half weeks when the Boilermakers take on Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio State, Illinois, and a Penn State team that already nipped them earlier in the season. Forecast: Purdue strikes me as a team that will be inconsistent down the stretch and will finish the year with 20-21 wins and in need of probably 2 or 3 wins in the Big Ten Tournament to fall on the good side of the bubble.
The Wildcats looked impressive in the first part of the season as they defeated Florida State and played both Butler and Stanford incredibly tight. Then came four straight losses to open the Big Ten season; followed by two big wins over Minnesota and Michigan State. After a loss to Michigan, Northwestern will continue to fight an uphill climb in the Big Ten and will have a lot of trouble finding their way to 20 wins. Forecast: As previously mentioned, Northwestern probably will not win 20 games and more than likely will receive a bid to one of the lesser postseason tournaments, unless of course they can pull off a miracle in the Big Ten Tournament.
The Wolverines have wins over UCLA and Duke, so should they end up on the bubble, those wins will be tough to match. The problem is, after a 13-3 start, including those two wins, Michigan has managed to drop three straight recently to conferences foes. Manny Harris seems to be about as good a leader as a sophomore can be and more than likely will play a pivotal role in the Wolverines’ season. Forecast: The next five games will determine Michigan’s season. All five teams have legitimate tournament aspirations; including two huge opportunities to net wins over Connecticut and Michigan State. Expect Michigan to approach 20 wins and hoping for a couple more in the Big Ten Tournament. If they can somehow manage to take out Michigan State and Connecticut, it could be tough to keep a team with four top notch wins like Michigan will have out of the dance.
Taylor Battle is one of the grittiest players in the country, and that grit seems to have rubbed off on his fellow Nittany Lions. Outside of a win against Georgia Tech, Penn State has done nothing out of conference and could have done itself a favor by avoiding the Atlantic Ten after losses to Rhode Island and Temple. That being said, the Nits are 5-3 in the Big Ten and by simply playing .500 basketball, they will finish with 21 wins and a 10-8 record in conference. Forecast: If they do play .500 basketball, they will be on the bubble and hoping for some success at the Big Ten Tournament. Should they play over .500, they could be tough to keep out, but slide below that mark and they will be NIT bound. Pretty simple formula for Penn State, just win more than they lose.
Needless to say, the remainder of the Big Ten season is full of potential, where almost each game will be of importance. Michigan State and Illinois seem to be heading for March and a NCAA bid, but the rest of the conference has no guarantees and will have to play every game like it is a matter of life and death. As mentioned in the intro, the Big Ten was thought of as a second rate BCS conference at the start of the season, but they very well may receive six or seven bids with Penn State, Purdue, Northwestern, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Ohio State competing for four to five bids.