The Big Ten’s decision to play its conference tournament a week early to wiggle into Madison Square Garden’s calendar — at the expense of compressing each team’s 18-game league slate — was poised to serve as one of this season’s great curiosities.
How would teams handle it going in? Would the one-time move of the conference tournament to New York prove worthwhile? And, maybe most intriguingly, would power-conference programs benefit or struggle as a result of the extra week of rest in the early stages of the NCAA tournament?
That latter question is already on the verge of being much less fascinating on account of a lack of teams that appear set to make the field.
When the Big Ten’s 14 schools convene in New York, an NCAA-bound team might not even take the floor in the first two days of the event. The numbers, coupled with player absences and some untimely down seasons, converge to paint a bleak picture for the conference beyond its top four teams.
Take a look at the league from top to bottom, with Rating Percentage Index and KenPom.com rankings along with performance against the top 50 and top 100 of the RPI as well as road and neutral-court records. It isn’t pleasant beyond Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Purdue:
While the NCAA is moving away this season from strictly emphasizing performance against the top 50 and top 100, the numbers are still instructive. The conference’s bottom 10 teams are a combined 13-56 against the top 100 of the RPI. There simply isn’t much of a base of success over the last two-plus months to build upon.
Effectively, there are two paths for any team to improve its postseason prospects. One is to run the table (or come close to it) against everyone other than Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Purdue and hope there’s enough quantity of wins to offset the lack of quality. Call it the Indiana Plan; the Hoosiers are 4-1 against the rest of the bottom 10 so far.
The other route is to collect victories against the top tier, something those four schools have steadfastly refused to permit so far. The league’s elite are a combined 15-0 against the other 10 programs in the conference, creating a chasm that grows by the week.
The numbers suggest the teams best positioned to make a push are Maryland and Minnesota, but the data doesn’t dive into mitigating factors. Maryland is without two rotation pieces for the remainder of the season because of injuries (wing Justin Jackson and forward Ivan Bender). Minnesota is without one injured starter (Amir Coffey) and another who is suspended (Reggie Lynch). Since Jan. 4, the Terrapins and Golden Gophers are a combined 2-6 entering their meeting Thursday.
Penn State is in a similar situation with guard Josh Reaves missing the last three games because of an academic issue. His absence has further exposed a limited bench for the Nittany Lions, who lean heavily on three sophomore starters.
There’s also some poor cyclical luck in play this season. Wisconsin’s run of 19 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances is in serious peril a year after the last pieces of their back-to-back Final Four teams (Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig) graduated.
Historically, the Big Ten could count on Illinois or Indiana to be a tournament-caliber team, and often both have obliged. Since the NCAA field expanded to 64 in 1985, both have missed the tournament just three times (2010, 2014 and 2017). If it happens again this season, it will mark the first time neither team earned inclusion in the field in consecutive years since 1968-72.
Indiana has limitations, but it is arguably the best bet to emerge as a fifth NCAA-bound team. The Hoosiers are prone to an occasional poor outing (losses to Indiana State and IPFW stand out), but they’ve also been competitive with Duke and Louisville and beat a healthy Notre Dame. Archie Miller’s bunch also benefits from remaining opportunities. The Hoosiers have upcoming home-and-homes with Michigan State and Ohio State still to come, as well as a home date with Purdue.
A team on the opposite end of that is Nebraska, which will face Michigan on Thursday and visit Ohio State on Monday. After that, the Cornhuskers won’t see one of the league’s current top four teams until the Big Ten tournament, if at all.
Toss in Northwestern’s surprise nosedive, and a tame Selection Sunday for the Big Ten is easily imagined.
For those who declare “Well, there’s no way the committee would take only four teams from [name a power conference],” it’s time to issue a reminder certain to be on repeat for the next seven weeks. The selection committee picks the 36 best at-large teams, regardless of conference affiliation. Even if the committee’s choices have tilted further toward power leagues the last few years, there’s no quota system in place.
That might be difficult for Big Ten partisans to accept, considering every NCAA tournament since 2011 has included at least half the league’s membership. But there was a four-bid year as recently as 2008. Proportionally, 2004’s three-bid season (with an 11-team league) is slightly less flattering than a four-team contingent in the league’s current setup.
Ultimately, the question facing the Big Ten’s best teams might not be how an extra week of rest affects them heading into the NCAA tournament. Instead, it could be whether navigating a league that looks awfully pedestrian beyond its top four will fully prepare them for the rigors of March.
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