With the final push for the NCAA Tournament underway, we're going to take a closer look at the record and remaining schedule of the teams looking to secure a bid and see what more can be done to enhance their resume.
There are five teams for whom no research is necessary. Michigan State and Illinois were already in coming into this week. Purdue joined that list yesterday with their big win over the Spartans that turned the race for the championship into a lively three-team affair. On the other end, Indiana is out and Iowa is as well, though the 13-13 Hawkeyes can still push for an NIT bid.
That leaves Ohio State, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Penn State, Michigan and Northwestern. Please note this post is being prepared in advance of Wednesday's games. You can also take a look at how these teams fit into the overall national picture at the NCAA Bubble Landscape page here on Big Ten Country. However, also note that I can only update those RPI rankings once a week, so this past Saturday and Sunday isn't yet factored in for non-Big Ten teams.
Here's the Big Ten's Bubble Six, with record and RPI rank in parentheses, followed by a breakdown of their schedule and some comments. You'll notice that I stay pretty conservative in my guesses as to what a team needs to do, trying to think with the mindset of one of their diehard fans and leave as little room for error as is realistic.
Ohio State (17-6, 30)
Home: Illinois, Northwestern
Road: Northwestern, Purdue, Iowa
The Buckeyes are sitting in a very strong position. Going 3-2 down the stretch will lock it up and even if they fall short of that they can still get to 20 wins in the conference tournament. Further consider that even a record of 18-11 is tournament-caliber, and Thad Matta's team arguably only needs one more win. I wouldn't be comfortable if that happened, but given that remaining schedule and how well Evan Turner is playing, such a collapse doesn't rate real high on the probability scale.
Minnesota (19-6, 36)
Home: Northwestern, Wisconsin, Michigan
Road: Michigan, Illinois
The Gophers are also on the verge of cashing their ticket. They should be favored in all three remaining home games and possibly the road trip to Ann Arbor. Just win two of those and even the slightest doubt is removed. And like Ohio State, the only way they remove themselves entirely is to fall apart and lose out the rest of the way. Tubby's going back to the Dance. We don't yet know if that can be said for his old employer in Lexington. How are those ridiculously high expectations working for you, 'Cat fans?
Penn State (18-8, 71)
Home: Indiana, Illinois
Road: Illinois, Ohio State, Iowa
That RPI number is very problematic and consequently the Nittany Lions aren't in as good a shape as one might presume by glancing at their record. Certainly, winning 20 games is the bare minimum they need to do and you might even go a step further and say they need three wins so as to avoid finishing the season on a bad note and creating another black mark. The best focus for Penn State fans is to make sure they win both home games and the road trip to Iowa. A home win over the Illini will help the RPI and just playing the road games at Champaign and Columbus will also boost that number. Going 4-1 by stealing one of the two difficult road tests would be icing on the cake.
Wisconsin (16-9, 31)
Home: Michigan, Indiana
Road: Indiana, Michigan State, Minnesota
The reverse of Penn State. The record isn't flashy, but the RPI number is looking good. 19 wins probably gets the Badgers in, and taking care of two winnable home games, plus Thursday's road trip to Bloomington gets them there. 20 wins removes all doubt and they still have the conference tournament to do that if they can't win at Michigan State or Minnesota.
Michigan (16-10, 53)
Home: Minnesota, Purdue
Road: Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota
Those numbers are the very definition of the bubble. Recall that the Wolverines played Duke twice in non-conference play, so the Devils' slide isn't helping Michigan's RPI ranking right now. And that's a bear of a schedule, with no home games you can count on for sure and two road trips that will be very difficult to win in. On the flip side of that coin though, is that three wins against that slate would have to get them in, or at the very least put them in commanding position to just win one game in the league tourney.
Northwestern (13-10, 83)
Home: Ohio State, Iowa
Road: Minnesota, Indiana, Purdue, Ohio State
The 'Cats are a major longshot and by the time the midweek's games are over, so could their faint NCAA hopes. But they have a pulse right now and if they can go 4-2, that would at least give them a reasonable chance in the conference tournament (i.e., make the semifinals). That scenario would get them to 19-13 and put them squarely on the bubble. It also means they'd only have to win one of three on their remaining tough road games. That puts them in the discussion on Selection Sunday. But if they really want to make it, 20 wins are a safer bet, which means either a)winning 2 of the 3 tough games, or b)making the final of the conference tourney, while all the while sweeping both home games and making sure they don't slip up at IU.
The Big Ten has a good case to make for getting a large number of bids. The conference is ranked #2 in the RPI, ahead of the Big East, and no one bats an eye when pundits mention possibly 10 bids coming out of the 16-team conference. Seven bids for the Big Ten would be a similar proportion, and if you consider the Big Ten has the stronger rating, why should eight be out of the question? On a personal level, I'd cap all conferences to having just their top halves being eligible, but the rules are what they are, and the Big Ten has earned the right to have a big number of bids called on March 15.