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Tier Talk Vol. 4: The race for the Big Ten crown begins to narrow

With five games to go, it’s looking like a four-horse race to cut down the nets in Indy.

NCAA Basketball: Ohio State at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

With fewer than 10 games remaining in the regular season, the margin for error atop the Big Ten has all but disappeared. What started with 13 chipper and hopeful teams (not now, Nebraska) believing that they would eventually raise the hardware in Chicago has faded, and only four true challengers remain. With only a few games left, every loss is crucial and each win brings you one inch closer to glory.

Most teams have five games left on their schedule plus the potential of rescheduling postponed games, if that applies. Michigan, for example, has five games that were postponed in January and February during a university-wide shutdown after a student-athlete in Ann Arbor tested positive for the B. 1. 1. 7 COVID-variant. With less than a month until Selection Sunday, it’s highly unlikely that all five of those games will be rescheduled. If they were, it would mean Michigan plays 10 games over the final 26 days of the season. That ain’t happening.

However, Michigan’s game against Illinois that was scheduled for Feb. 6, in Ann Arbor has a good chance to be played. The Wolverines (14-1, 9-1) lead the conference, but Illinois (15-5, 11-3) is right on their heels in the Big Ten race. It’s become obvious that all B1G teams will not finish with the same number of games played, and a few teams will gripe when all is said and done. Illinois will want the opportunity to make up ground on the Wolverines, and Michigan should seize the chance to knock some wind out of the surging Illini’s championship hopes. Hopefully we get to see that one.

Ohio State (17-4, 11-4) started the season 2-3 in conference play before catching fire. They’ve now won 9 of their last 10 games and carry a six-game wining streak into Thursday night’s matchup with Penn State. Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, their B1G chances hinge just as much on Michigan as they do on themselves. Even if Ohio State wins out and finishes 16-4, the Wolverines could survive a loss to the Buckeyes this weekend as long as they win their other four games. At 13-2, Michigan would still have the edge over Ohio State based on winning percentage. Not only do the Buckeyes need to win out, they’ll need help from whoever is playing Illinois and Michigan for the final three weeks or so.

And then there’s Iowa. With the No. 1 offense in the nation according to KenPom, the Hawkeyes’ (15-6, 9-5) Big Ten title hopes took a tumble after losing four games in a three-week span in late January/early February. But they’ve rebounded nicely to win their last two games, including thumping Michigan State by 30 points in East Lansing — Tom Izzo’s worst home loss since he arrived at MSU in 1995. The Hawkeyes would need help too, and obviously would need to win out to have a chance.

But what about the ~ rest ~ of the conference? A double-bye in the Big Ten Tournament is still in play for eight — maybe even nine — teams in the conference, and 11 of the 14 teams have a chance to make the NCAA Tournament. And are the four contenders for the crown all on the same level? I don’t think so.


Tier 1: The Favorites

The clear best teams in the conference.

Michigan

NCAA Basketball: Michigan at Wisconsin Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

Record: 14-1 (9-1)
KenPom Rank: 3
Big wins: No. 16 Minnesota, No. 9 Wisconsin, at No. 21 Wisconsin
Bad losses: None
Current NCAA Tournament seed (according to FOX): 1

There were questions about if Michigan would return from their three-week shutdown playing at the same high level they were before the pause. Those questions were answered on Sunday afternoon against Wisconsin. Trailing by a dozen at halftime, Michigan muzzled the Badgers in the second half, outscoring them by 20-points in the second half and escaped the Kohl Center with their fourth win over a ranked team this season.

Isaiah Livers has scored 20 or more points in three straight games, and Michigan’s defense resembles that of a pack of hungry dogs more than it does a college basketball team. As it stands now, they’re in the driver’s seat to win the title.

Illinois

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Nebraska Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Record: 14-5 (10-3)
KenPom Rank: 5
Big wins: Minnesota (by 27), No. 7 Iowa, No. 19 Wisconsin
Bad losses: None
Current NCAA Tournament seed (according to FOX): 2

Illinois started the season 5-3 in conference play, which is fine for most teams but not at all reflective of how talented this team is. Since losing to Ohio State on Jan. 16, Illinois has won six straight games, vaulting themselves right back into the mix for the regular season title. I picked the Illini to win the Big Ten before the season started, but they have two things working against them.

First off, four of their final six games are on the road, including trips to Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Minnesota. Winning on the road is difficult, even with no fans. But Ohio State and Minnesota have been particularly tough at home, so the odds of Illinois winning both of those games seems slim.

Second, Michigan only has five games remaining, and at 9-1 they can survive a loss and still finish ahead of Illinois. If Michigan’s game with Illinois is rescheduled, however, things could get interesting. The Illini could leapfrog the Wolverines if they avoid stumbling elsewhere and beat Michigan.

Ohio State

NCAA Basketball: Ohio State at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Record: 17-4 (11-4)
KenPom Rank: 7
Big wins: At No. 15 Rutgers, at No. 14 Illinois, at No. 10 Wisconsin, at No. 8 Iowa
Bad losses: At Northwestern
Current NCAA Tournament seed (according to FOX): 1

One of the biggest surprises in all of college basketball this season, the Buckeyes don’t possess one superstar like many other top teams. While E.J. Liddell has been lights-out recently (17.6 PPG over his last eight games), Ohio State’s rotation goes 11-deep, which is something you rarely see from elite teams.

From the top down, nearly every Buckeye has had one game this season where his contributions proved to be the difference between winning or losing a game. Liddell and Duane Washington Jr. (14.6 PPG) have been Ohio State’s go-to guys, but Zed Key, Seth Towns, Eugene Brown, and even 17-year old Meechie Johnson have had stellar single-game performances that got their team over the hump.

This Sunday’s matchup with No. 3 Michigan is the biggest Big Ten meeting of the season to date, as the teams will not see each other again during the regular season. With the Wolverines sitting on the B1G perch currently, Ohio State will have an opportunity to yank them back in line with themselves and No. 5 Illinois.


Tier 2: The Troublemakers

Not the best of the conference, but quality teams capable of making a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.

Iowa

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Record: 15-6 (9-5)
KenPom Rank: 4
Big wins: Purdue, At No. 14 Rutgers, No. 25 Rutgers
Bad losses: Indiana
Current NCAA Tournament seed (according to FOX): 3

Some poor team is going to bump into Iowa as a 3 or 4-seed in the NCAA Tournament and get absolutely mauled. The Hawkeyes appear to be out of their mid-season swoon, but it may be too late for them to collect themselves and compete for a Big Ten Crown. With five losses already, winning out and finishing 15-5 may not be enough, with Michigan currently possessing one loss and Illinois with three. However, Iowa is just one game behind Ohio State, and they’re still in a great position to get a double-bye in the Big Ten Tournament.

Wisconsin

NCAA Basketball: Wisconsin at Nebraska Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Record: 15-7 (9-6)
KenPom Rank: 14
Big wins: Loyola Chicago, No. 23 Louisville (by 37)
Bad losses: At Marquette, at Penn State
Current NCAA Tournament seed (according to FOX): 6

If you’re going to pick a Big Ten team to get upset in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, I think Wisconsin is your best bet. At one point they looked like legitimate contenders to win the B1G, but the Badgers haven’t strung together multiple wins in a row in a month. They’re 3-4 over their last seven games, alternating between winning and losing each time out.

While they are the most experienced team in the conference, their offense has noticeably regressed over the past several weeks. They’ve scored fewer than 70 points in eight of their last 10 games, and their three-point shooting has dropped nearly five percent as a team during that period. Sell, sell, sell!


Tier 3: The ‘Tweeners

Talented teams that are pretty close to being locked into the NCAA Tournament, but clearly a tick or two below best.

Rutgers

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Rutgers Catalina Fragoso-USA TODAY Sports

Record: 12-7 (8-7)
KenPom Rank: 26
Big wins: No. 13 Illinois
Bad losses: At Penn State
Current NCAA Tournament seed (according to FOX): 7

Rutgers was having the type of January Ohio State fans are accustomed to seeing from their team, as the Scarlet Knights lost five in a row last month and looked like one of the worst teams in the conference. Since then, they’ve ripped off five wins in six games, although two of them were over Northwestern (more on them later). Rutgers’ starting five can hang with just about anyone, but their depth and free-throw shooting (61.6% as a team) are both causes for concern.

Purdue

NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Purdue Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

Record: 14-8 (9-6)
KenPom Rank: 22
Big wins: No. 20 Ohio State, at No. 15 Ohio State
Bad losses: At Miami
Current NCAA Tournament seed (according to FOX): 5

Trevion Williams is the main reason to tune in and watch the Boilermakers, as he’s having another All-Big Ten caliber season (16.4 PPG, 9.4 REB) and is one of the best passing bigs in the nation. He makes any shot that’s within six feet of the basket, and his creativity and footwork in the painted area are unmatched in the Big Ten.

Purdue is starting to surround him with talent, namely their freshman class of Jaden Ivey, Zach Edey, and Brandon Newman. The three have been solid, but inconsistent. For Matt Painter’s squad to step up and lock in a double-bye in the BTT, they’ll need one of those freshmen to play a consistent robin to Williams’ batman.

Minnesota

NCAA Basketball: Purdue at Minnesota Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports

Record: 13-8 (6-8)
KenPom Rank: 40
Big wins: St. Louis, No. 4 Iowa, No. 25 Ohio State, No. 7 Michigan, No. 24 Purdue
Bad losses: None
Current NCAA Tournament seed (according to FOX): 10

As I’m writing this, Minnesota has a one-point halftime lead over Indiana on the road, which is noteworthy because the Gophers have yet to win a road game this season. That’s not a typo, Minnesota is 0-7 on the road this year, compared to 13-1 at home. I’ve never seen a team split home/road so drastically, and Minnesota doesn’t even hide it! They’re dominant at home, beating Ohio State and Michigan by a combined 36 points, as well as defeating Iowa when they were ranked in the top-five in the nation.

By the time this publishes Minnesota may have secured their first road victory, but news flash: the NCAA Tournament isn’t being played at the Barn.


Tier 4: Danger Zone

Could be NCAA Tournament teams, but their fate hinges on how they perform in these final few weeks + the Big Ten Tournament.

Indiana

NCAA Basketball: Iowa at Indiana Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

Record: 11-9 (6-7)
KenPom Rank: 28
Big wins: At No. 4 Iowa, No. 8 Iowa
Bad losses: Northwestern
Current NCAA Tournament seed (according to FOX): Last four in

Indiana is better than their record would imply, as they played a rigid non-conference schedule, losing to Texas and Florida State, who are both Sweet 16 caliber teams. However, a loss to a Northwestern team that’s currently on a 12-game losing streak hurts their resume. Indiana doesn’t do anything particularly well, but they also don’t do anything too terribly either. Have you ever had skim milk? That’s Indiana basketball right now.

Michigan State

NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Purdue Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

Record: 10-9 (4-9)
KenPom Rank: 71
Big wins: No. 15 Rutgers
Bad losses: At Northwestern
Current NCAA Tournament seed (according to FOX): OUT

I’ll call it right now: Michigan State is going to miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 22 years.

They’ve won four Big Ten games, but half of those were against Nebraska, so do they even count? The Spartans don’t have one go-to scorer, nor do they have a point guard. Marcus Bingham is a fine player and he’ll improve, but he’s subpar at center in a wild and unforgiving Big Ten conference full of great big men. This Michigan State team is as flawed as any Michigan State team I’ve ever seen. They’re toast.

Maryland

NCAA Basketball: Nebraska at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Record: 13-10 (7-9)
KenPom Rank: 32
Big wins: At No. 6 Wisconsin, at No. 12 Illinois, at No. 17 Minnesota, No. 24 Purdue
Bad losses: At Penn State
Current NCAA Tournament seed (according to FOX): FIRST FOUR OUT

While two wins against Nebraska this week don’t carry much weight in terms of tournament standing, simply avoiding disaster and making their overall record look better increases their chances of getting an at-large bid to the tournament. Maryland is one of the most flexible teams in the conference, often times starting five guys who all stand between 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-8. Their position-less brand of basketball can sometimes prove troublesome when facing an elite guard or center, but it can also give teams fits, as noted with their four quality wins this season. Maryland isn’t a great team, but they’re trending upwards at the right time.


Tier 4: Bottom Feeders

Their chances of winning the Big Ten or making the NCAA Tournament are all but gone. But hey, they’re not Nebraska!

Penn State

NCAA Basketball: Maryland at Penn State Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

Record: 7-10 (4-9)
KenPom Rank: 39
Big wins: No. 14 Wisconsin, VCU, at No. 15 Virginia Tech,
Bad losses: Nebraska
Current NCAA Tournament seed (according to FOX): OUT

KenPom loves Penn State’s efficient offense and their competitiveness against quality teams, but unfortunately keeping games tight doesn’t look good on paper if you don’t...you know...win some of the games. Technically Penn State isn’t out of tournament consideration, but with their next two games coming against Ohio State and Iowa they’re basically done.

At least KenPom loves you, Penn State ♥

Northwestern

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Record: 6-13 (3-12)
KenPom Rank: 70
Big wins: No. 23 Ohio State
Bad losses: At Penn State
Current NCAA Tournament seed (according to FOX): OUT

Despite having some fun and talented players on this roster (Boo Buie, Miller Kopp, Pete Nance, etc.), Northwestern has somehow found a way to lose 12-straight games. They probably won’t reach the all-time record of 28 straight conference losses (also set by Northwestern in 2001), but after their 3-0 start in conference play this season, it’s hard not to view the Wildcats as this season’s biggest disappointment.


Tier 5: Nebraska

Pain.

NCAA Basketball: Nebraska at Penn State Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

Record: 5-14 (1-11)
KenPom Rank: 119
Big wins: At Penn State (every win is a big win for Big Red)
Bad losses: None
Current NCAA Tournament seed (according to FOX): OUT

Nebraska snapped a 26-game losing streak in Big Ten play this week.