NCAA Tournament Bubble Prospects: Big Ten

by Nelly's Sports

Coming off a very disappointing NCAA Tournament last season the Big Ten will be in the spotlight again this season, projecting to lead the nation with as many as nine bids in the Big Dance depending on how the bubble lands. 

Last season the Big Ten produced two #1 seeds and two #2 seeds, in effect holding four of the top eight spots in the nation at the start of the NCAA Tournament. Only one of those teams made it out of the opening weekend and the conference failed to produce a final four team. The Big Ten did display some depth as Wisconsin, Rutgers, and Maryland all won Round of 64 games from #9 or #10 seeds. Michigan State was a #11 seed in the First Four and lost a very close game to UCLA before the Bruins made an incredible run to the Final Four. 

This year five Big Ten teams look certain to have spots in the NCAA Tournament at this point in the season (Purdue, Illinois, Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Iowa) while four more are likely to be on the right side of the bubble for the moment. The Big Ten will not likely have a #1 seed however and may not even earn a #2 seed depending on how the season shakes out as the overall strength of the conference is considerably lower than last season. The conference rating is the worst for the Big Ten since 2017-18, a season where the Big Ten produced only four NCAA Tournament teams. That season Michigan made it to the national championship game as a #3 seed however and there are teams in the Big Ten this year capable of making a similar run. 

Here is a look at the four teams sitting on the edge of the bubble and the remaining paths they will face, as each has work to do the next two weeks and could face a high-pressure game(s) in Indianapolis for the Big Ten tournament. 

Michigan State: 18-9 overall, 9-7 Big Ten

Best Wins: (N) Loyola-Chicago, (N) Connecticut, (A) Wisconsin, (H) Michigan

Michigan State is in the field right now, projecting as high as a #7 seed but the Spartans are on a 1-5 slide in the past six games to fall from 8-2 in conference play to 9-7. The remaining schedule is very difficult facing three of the top teams in the conference in the next three games with two of those games on the road. A realistic scenario is the Spartans falling to 10-10 in conference play with a closing run of 2-8 in the final 10 games. 

Michigan State’s inclusion in the field was a bit controversial last season but that group put together a 5-2 run to close the season including beating two teams that earned #1 seeds and a team that earned a #2 seed before losing its first Big Ten Tournament game. This year’s team doesn’t have that caliber of wins to fall back on unless they pick them up in the next two weeks. The best win of the Big Ten season came at Wisconsin and that was a bit of a fluke as Tyler Wahl didn’t play for the Badgers and the Spartans had a huge shooting and free throw edge. 

Michigan State gets credit for playing Kansas and Baylor, but they lost those games by double-digits with uncompetitive second halves. Non-conference wins over Loyola-Chicago and Connecticut are helping the profile but the Big Ten path has bene favorable and losses to Northwestern and Penn State are blemishes. This year’s team has Tom Izzo’s worst defensive efficiency ranking since 2005-06 and this is the worst team in the Big Ten in turnovers on both sides of the ball as this has not been a typical year for the Spartans. 

Rutgers: 16-11 overall, 10-7 Big Ten

Best Wins: (H) Purdue, (H) Michigan, (H) Iowa, (H) Michigan State, (H) Ohio State, (A) Wisconsin, (H) Illinois

Rutgers has some bad losses from November to work through and has had mixed results in the Big Ten season, losing to non-tournament contenders Penn State, Minnesota, Northwestern, and Maryland. The Scarlet Knights have put together several quality wins however to offset some of those misses and still a great shot to reach 12-8 in Big Ten play, a record that would make it tough to exclude them. 

Five Big Ten teams are certain to make the field and Rutgers has defeated all five of those teams. Most of the wins came at home but Rutgers did win at Wisconsin to match Michigan State’s best current Big Ten win. Holding home court this weekend to sweep the Badgers would provide a big boost to the resume. After that game, Rutgers is at Indiana in a big bubble comparison game before a finale hosting Penn State. Winning two of the final three should be enough for Rutgers to stay on the right side of the bubble in most scenarios. 

Early season losses to DePaul and Massachusetts on the road are damaging but the home loss to Lafayette just before Thanksgiving is the real sore spot for Rutgers. Rutgers did beat Clemson in the ACC/Big Ten challenge and has some of the best defensive numbers in the conference while also being a top three 3-point shooting team. Rutgers won its Round of 64 game as a #10 seed last March and had #2 seed and eventual Final Four team Houston on the ropes before a late collapse as this is a group that has shown it can play with anyone. 

Michigan: 15-11 overall, 9-7 Big Ten

Best Wins: (H) San Diego State, (A) Indiana, (H) Purdue, (A) Iowa 

Michigan has been in the headlines for the wrong reasons after the incident in Madison last week, leading to Juwan Howard’s suspension for the rest of the regular season. Michigan picked up a big win hosting Rutgers on Wednesday in a key battle of likely bubble teams, offsetting a loss at Rutgers from earlier in the Big Ten season. The Wolverines are still trending upward late in the season going 8-4 in the past 12 games including wins over Purdue and Iowa, but the remaining schedule is difficult.

Michigan is at home for three of the final four regular season games, but they draw Illinois, Michigan State, Iowa, and Ohio State in those games as finishing 10-10 in the Big Ten might be a realistic outcome. Michigan doesn’t have any terrible losses with defats against Minnesota and UCF being the worst, but the only non-conference wins of note came against UNLV and San Diego State. Michigan also doesn’t have the depth of quality wins in conference play of some of the other Big Ten teams, getting two wins against Nebraska among the current nine in the win column. 

Head-to-head wins in the only meetings with Indiana and Rutgers could be critical for the Wolverines but they also may need to even the series with rival Michigan State next week. Michigan is going to need a strong finish to the season to stay on the right side of the bubble, likely needing to win at least two of four in a very difficult closing two weeks before the Big Ten tournament, even while dealing with the recent drama while now being led by Phil Martelli. 

Indiana: 17-10 overall, 8-9 Big Ten

Best Wins: (N) Notre Dame, (H) Ohio State, (H) Purdue 

Indiana broke a five-game slide this week beating Maryland at home and the Hoosiers may need to win out to hold a NCAA Tournament spot, barring a great Big Ten tournament run. Indiana has only two wins against Big Ten teams that will make the tournament and while Notre Dame is one of the ACC contenders, the Irish don’t even qualify as a top 50 team in the win column as the best win from a very weak non-conference schedule. 

Indiana has lost several close games and has a well-regarded defense but even through one of the weakest paths in the Big Ten, the Hoosiers are still below .500. Upcoming games against Minnesota and Rutgers will be critical for Indiana unless they can upset Purdue for a second time this season in the regular season finale.  Six of eight Big Ten wins for Indiana came against Maryland, Nebraska, Penn State, and Minnesota as there is not much quality depth in the win column but they did defeat both Ohio State and Purdue in Bloomington for two high-end results that are currently stronger than the top two Big Ten wins for either Michigan State or Michigan. 

Indiana last made the NCAA Tournament in 2015-16, delivering a Sweet 16 run as it has been a long absence for the storied program. With the top-rated defense in the Big Ten the Hoosiers are capable of a March run. Mike Woodson’s team has rarely looked out of place in tough games but having double-digits losses may be difficult to overcome. Getting a head-to-head win vs. Rutgers next week in the home finale will be critically important to keeping hopes alive for a bid. 

All photographic images used for editorial content have been licensed from the Associated Press.

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