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By the numbers: Do pre-season rankings indicate how many Big Ten teams will make the NCAA Tournament?

Ohio State will start the season unranked as the Big Ten lands just three teams in the initial AP Poll.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 06 Big Ten Women’s Tournament - Indiana v Iowa

As we navigate the college basketball pre-season waters, the shared sentiment among many people who cover the game is that the Big Ten could be — potentially — looking at a down year.

The conference put nine teams in the NCAA Tournament last season, which ties the most they’ve had in the last decade. But of those nine, only two of them — Michigan, which ironically was an 11-seed, and Purdue — made the Sweet Sixteen. Neither Michigan nor Purdue advanced to the next round, with the Wolverines falling to Villanova and Purdue losing to 15-seed St. Peter’s. For the first time since 2017, the B1G failed to put a single team in the Elite Eight.

Saint Peter’s v Purdue Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Last week, Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim — whose team missed the NCAA Tournament last season — commented on the Big Ten’s failure in March Madness:

“At the end of the day, you play for the [NCAA] Tournament,” Boeheim said Friday at his team’s media day. “You can say what you want about the Big Ten. They sucked in the tournament. To me, that’s what they did. All of their wins were in their league. If you can’t play in the [NCAA] Tournament, then you’re not good.”

The conference saw an extraordinary exodus of talent following the season that rivals any of the past decade. Trevion Williams, Jaden Ivey, Johnny Davis, Kofi Cockburn, Keegan Murray, E.J. Liddell, Malaki Branham, Ron Harper Jr., and Bryce McGowens all left for the NBA — as well as several others I did not name here.

On the whole, the Big Ten appears to be less talented, not as deep, and not likely to be the dominant conference in the NCAA Tournament. This idea was reinforced on Monday afternoon, when the preseason AP Top 25 Poll was released, and included only three B1G teams:

  • Indiana (13)
  • Michigan (22)
  • Illinois (23)

Over the past 10 seasons, the B1G has never had fewer than three teams in the preseason AP Poll. It had three teams in the preseason Top-25 in 2018 as well, but the conference got it together and still put eight teams in the NCAA Tournament by season’s end. But has the number of ranked teams (in the preseason poll) been indicative of NCAA Tournament teams recently? I pulled the numbers from the last 10 years (nine tournaments) to find out:

Big Ten’s Preseason Ranked Teams vs NCAA Tournament Teams

Year Pre-Season Ranked Teams NCAA Tournament Teams
Year Pre-Season Ranked Teams NCAA Tournament Teams
2022-23 3 -
2021-22 5 9
2020-2021 7 9
2019-2020 4 No Tournament
2018-2019 3 8
2017-2018 4 4
2016-2017 5 7
2015-2016 6 7
2014-2015 5 7
2013-2014 4 6
2012-2013 5 7

Only putting three teams in the very first poll indicates that the media does not think the conference has many “great” teams. This notion, however, does not necessarily coincide with an invitation to the NCAA Tournament. In actuality, a team does not need to be one of the best 25 teams in the country to make it to the NCAA Tournament. They don’t even need to be “good”, since another path to punch a tournament ticket is to get hot and win your conference tournament — see Oregon State, two years ago, who went 10-10 in Pac-12 play, but won their conference tournament and made it all the way to the Elite Eight.

For the Big Ten conference specifically, the last time it only had three teams ranked in the initial poll — 2018 — the B1G still put eight teams in the NCAA Tournament. Conversely, the B1G had six teams ranked in the first AP Poll in 2015 — double what they have this season and in 2018. However, that only led to the conference punching seven NCAA Tournament tickets — one fewer than 2018.

What should concern fans who follow the Big Ten is the fact that there isn’t a single B1G team in the top-10 this season, as statistics show that teams who begin the season in the top-10 are more or less a lock to make the NCAA Tournament. This infers that the B1G once again does not appear to have a team strong enough to break the 22-year national championship draught that’s been hanging over the conference since Michigan State cut down the nets in 2000.

MSU v Florida X Celebration

The very first AP Poll is based on predictions, assumptions, and educated guesses. By the end of December, the list will be erased and will look completely different from what we see now. And — as history shows us — only having three teams in that very first poll does not mean the Big Ten conference will struggle to produce NCAA Tournament-caliber teams.

Final Four-caliber teams, though? Well, we’ll see about that.