The regular season is at an end, and fans across the Big Ten are gearing up for the final push into March Madness. Only a few regular season games and the Big Ten Tournament remain for the teams to shore up their tournament resumes, and while this hasn't quite been the dominant basketball season the Big Ten expected, there are still eight teams that are in the running for tournament bids.
According to SB Nation's excellent bracketologist, Chris Dobbertean, if the season ended today, six teams from the Big Ten would make the field, but of those teams only three are absolute locks.
Ohio State Buckeyes: Holding the No.1 ranking for most of the season and clinching your second straight Big Ten championship must be nice, so also must be knowing that even if the Buckeyes lose to Wisconsin on Sunday, they are still probably a shoe in for a No.1 seed in the NCAA tournament, most likely in the very Buckeye friendly friendly venue of Cleveland. The Buckeyes would have to lose to both Wisconsin at home, and lose their first round match up in the Big Ten tournament for any of this to be in jeopardy, and who here really thinks that will happen?
Purdue Boilermakers: Matt Painter is garnering serious Coach of the Year talk right now after bringing the Boilers to a No.6 national ranking and within a game of a Big Ten Championship, all after his team was left for dead last fall, having lost Robbie Hummel for the season. While playing with three All American caliber seniors would have been nice Painter and the Boilers have made do with just two, E'Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson, winning seven in a row to close the season, including huge home wins over Wisconsin and Ohio State. Purdue still has its sights set high for the NCAA tournament though, and believes that it is still alive for a No.1 seed. For that to happen, Purdue would need to win out the season, beating Iowa this weekend and winning the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis, all the while having Duke or BYU slip up along the way.
Wisconsin Badgers: Bo Ryan's team has finished in the top three of the Big Ten yet again, overcoming low expectations to guide his team to likely another high seed in the NCAA tournament, possibly a 4 or even a 3. Wisconsin has a lot more to lose right now than it has to gain, and with games left against Indiana and Ohio State, the Badgers could secure themselves a 3 seed but likely no higher. Let this be a lesson to all of you, even if Bo Ryan comes out of the gate with the Washington Generals, he will find a way to make the season a successful one.
The second tier, teams who cannot be confident that they are in the field of 68. After the top three teams, there is a very large bulge of mediocrity in the Big Ten conference with four teams all hovering around a .500 record in conference, and fighting over three conference bids that could easily shrink to two with upsets in other leagues. Each of these five teams need to win some games in the Big Ten tournament, or failing that hope that the other four don't, to feel at all confident about making the dance this year.
Illinois Fighting Illini: Quite possibly the definition of backing into the post season, the Illini started the year with a top 20 ranking, but have lost an astonishing nine of their last fourteen games in conference, bringing them to an 8-9 conference record. The Illini have one regular season game remaining, Saturday against bitter rival but probably over matched Indiana on Saturday, and then a Friday match up in the Big Ten tournament. Currently predicted by Dobbertean as a No.9 seed, conventional wisdom tells us that if the Illini beat Indiana, they will likely still be safely in the field, with their RPI of 40, their 3-8 record against the RPI top 50, and No. 11 ranked strength of schedule. Illinois fans were confident last year too, thinking that a winning conference record and a win against Wisconsin in the Big Ten Tournament were enough to get them to the dance, but it wasn't. Illinois would be best served to not only win against Indiana on Saturday but also win one or two games in the Big Ten Tournament, if they really want to be comfortable.
Michigan State Spartans: What a difficult season this must be for MSU fans, coming off of two straight Final Fours and heading into the season as the consensus No.2 ranked team, the eight losses in conference isn't at all what was expected. At 16-12 the Spartans are relying on the fact that there are two winnable games in front of them, Iowa and Michigan and that their No. 5 SOS and their 4-10 record against the RPI top 50 should be enough for them to squeak in. Dobbertean has the Spartans as a No. 11 seed, but don't be surprised if this team makes a run in the Big Ten Tournament to cement their place in the field.
Michigan Wolverines: Picked as a bottom feeder before the season, John Beilein's Wolverines have made a very good showing in the Big Ten, despite losing stars Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims in the off season. Still Michigan is the quintessential bubble team this year, currently projected as one of the four teams playing in the "First Round" in Dayton Ohio. The Wolverines have had their chances this year, with heartbreaking last second losses to Kansas, Illinois and Wisconsin probably hurting all the worse given the small margin of error on their resume. Michigan needs to beat MSU on Saturday to get to .500 in conference and if they want to make sure a bid isn't stolen out from under them they will need to win in the Big Ten Tournament.
Penn State Nittany Lions: It will be one of the great tragedies of basketball if standout PSU guard Talor Battle never plays an NCAA tournament game. Right now Penn State is on the outside looking in, but could still find itself with a .500 conference record and a No.4 or 5 seed in the Big Ten tournament, if they win that game and the other teams on the Big Ten bubble flounder, it could be enough to finally let the Nittany Lions into the dance, unfortunately their resume on its own might not be enough.
Minnesota Golden Gophers: Tubby Smith has had an up and down tenure at Minnesota, losing players like Al Nolen to injury and Devoe Joseph to transfer, but having outstanding play from players like Trevor Mbakwe and Ralph Sampson III. With ten conference losses already, the tournament bubble for the Gophers may already have burst, but poor showings by the other four teams here mentioned and a decently deep Big Ten tournament run might be enough for Minnesota to sneak in again this year.
The Rest: Northwestern, Iowa, and Indiana.
The tournament dreams of these teams died long ago, unfortunately, and each would need to win the Big Ten tournament for that to happen. These teams shouldn't despair too much though, because out of the twelve Big Ten tournaments that have been held, six teams that played on Thursday managed to make the championship game on Sunday, with Iowa winning the thing in 2001. In a conference tournament, you never know what could happen.