It's crazy to think about, but the NCAA basketball regular season is already half over. There are a ton of games to be played, but we're already at the point where some Big Ten basketball teams might start thinking about the dreaded b-word...bubble.
With most teams having only played 3 league games, talking too seriously about the Big Ten championship race feels awfully premature. Everybody has finished their non-league slates though, and a few teams have already either notched a big conference win, or missed some critical opportunities for to improve their seeding, or get into the tournament as well. Let's take a look at where everybody is right now, and what they can do to improve their lot.
Michigan 16-0, 3-0
The Wolverines are one of only two undefeated teams in D1, and are obviously on track for a 1 seed, even if they lose a few games in the Big Ten. Their out of conference schedule was okay but not outstanding, as they've already picked up wins against likely tourney teams Kansas State, Pittsburgh, and NC State. Their Big Ten slate opened very softly, as a road win against a depleted Northwestern squad and Nebraska are not likely to impress anybody. A home blowout of Iowa might, but Michigan will start their true tests this weekend. In Michigan's next 7 games, they'll play Ohio State twice, and Minnesota, Indiana and Illinois on the road. A team that relies on so many freshman is unlikely to make it though that stretch unscathed, (especially that trip to Columbus, amirite bros?) but a loss or two won't keep Michigan from reaching their goals.
Minnesota 15-1, 3-0
No team in Big Ten play has surprised me as much as Minnesota, a squad that I thought would be a fringe tournament team. Even without Trevor Mbakwe being dominant, the Gophers have been able to ride great seasons from Andre Hollins and Rodney Williams to be a better than expected season so far, that ought to have them thinking top 3 seed. Minnesota has already beaten Memphis, Stanford and FSU on the road. More importantly, they've already beaten Michigan State and clobbered Illinois on the road. The Gophers only play Ohio State and Michigan once this season, and still have 5 games against suspect B1G doormats left. Baring a huge collapse, the Gophers will be in the Big Dance, and have a chance to grab a great seed. We'll get an idea of how great a seed tomorrow, when they play Indiana.
Indiana 14-1, 2-0
The Hoosiers might look a little more mortal now than in October, when they were ranked #1 in the preseason, but Indiana is still really darn good. They lead the nation in points scored per game, and probably have five guys on their roster that could "go off" at any time. Indiana's resume looks weaker when compared to the other two squads, as wins over Georgetown and North Carolina have lost a little luster given their recent struggles, and the Hoosiers have only a close win over Iowa and a victory over Penn State in B1G play. Indiana's league schedule is a little lighter on the creampuffs (only one Northwestern and Nebraska game), and is very backloaded. The Hooisers won't hit the teeth of their schedule until Dec 7th, when they will play 7 of their final 10 games against ranked foes. The Hoosiers should be able to compile a gaudy enough record before the 7th, but we won't know if we're looking at a 1 Seed or a very fancy 3 seed until then.
Wisconsin 11-4, 2-0
The good news for Wisconsin is that they have taken care of business in their first two league games, beating bottom feeders Nebraska and Penn State. The other good news is that they boast one of the most commanding home court advantages in the league, giving them a chance to compete even when the B1G's best squads come to town. The bad news is that thanks to a lackluster out of conference, their margin of error in league play is very small. Wisconsin has already blown a home game to Virginia, and lost to Marquette, Florida and Creighton. Those aren't really bad losses, but it does mean that Wisconsin's best win was maybe Arkansas. Not great. Wisconsin doesn't get Indiana at home, but will get a crack at Michigan, Ohio State and Minnesota in Madtown. If they can't steal one of those games, I don't think the Badgers are dancing.
Michigan State 13-3, 2-1
Sparty has a great Kansas win already in the bag, along with a victory over Texas. They were a little lucky to beat Iowa, and lost At Minnesota, but so will lots of people this year. Michigan State is listed as a 5 seed in the current Joe Lunardi bracket, which seems reasonable. On Jan 19th, Michigan state faces OSU, then road trips to Madison and Indiana before coming home to Illinois. Sparty will probably want to split that stretch, as the end of the year is brutal for them.
Ohio State 12-3, 2-1
Despite the lamentations of some fans, or even sportswriters, the Buckeyes are going to make the tournament. Their strength of schedule hasn't been very good, although Albany is 13-4 right now and should should easily win 20+ games, and Washington has improved. Losing At Duke, to Kansas and at Illinois are all forgivable losses. The Buckeyes need to at least get a split against the Michigan schools this week to maintain hopes of getting a high seed, but then get four every winnable games in a row before they hit the heart of their schedule. Hitting Feb 5th with 17 wins should help Buckeye fans relax. A 4 seed is not an unreasonable expectation.
Illinois 14-3, 1-2
Another candidate for a B1G surprise, Illinois has rode their hot three point shooting to a top 15 ranking and likely NCAA birth. Illinois has beaten Butler and Gonzaga (on the road!), as well as Ohio State, buying them some needed flexibility, as they've already dropped two league games. It'll be hard to forecast how Illinois might do the rest of the season. If their threes are falling, they can easily beat Michigan and Indiana. If they aren't, and they're not getting above average play from their big men, they can lose to Northwestern or Iowa. Right now, I'd imagine something in the middle, and a 5 seed for the Illini.
Iowa 11-5, 0-3
Iowa has been the big disappointment so far. After being tabbed as everybody's Big Ten Sleeper (including mine), the Hawkeyes lost both of their marquee out of conference games, then let winnable matches against Indiana and Michigan State slip away. Iowa won't get another chance with Indiana, Michigan or Ohio State at home, and only have one game against Illinois. The good news for Hawkeye fans is that their schedule is loaded with some of the Big Ten's weaker teams. The bad news is if they can't beat Minnesota at home, or find a way to steal a huge win on the road, 20 wins may not be enough to get them off the bubble.
Purdue, Penn State, Northwestern and Nebraska would be off the bubble, and would need to win some big games to play their way into the conversation.