How many teams will the Big Ten get into the NCAA tournament?
It seems fairly safe to say that there are five locks in the conference: Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State, Iowa and Ohio State. Of course, those teams are all doing plenty to impact their seeding. The Badgers have been red-hot, improving their chances at a top seed. The Wolverines seem destined to grab the top seed in the Big Ten Tournament next week. Meanwhile, the Spartans, Hawkeyes and Buckeyes keep suffering untimely defeats, and their seeds won’t be as high as originally anticipated.
But what happens after those five teams is anyone’s guess. Likely, if there is another spot open for a Big Ten team, there will only be one. So who’s going to get it?
Just a week ago, it looked like there were two teams — Nebraska and Minnesota — battling for that final spot. But a pair of other teams are making late pushes for tournament inclusion: Indiana and Illinois. It might be too late for the Hoosiers and Illini, but that’s not preventing them from trying.
Illinois has won three in a row, including wins over Nebraska and Michigan State. That victory against the Spartans was particularly eye-catching, and when that gets coupled with a non-conference win against Missouri (another bubble team), there’s an outside chance sheer strength of schedule could get the Illini there, though a few more impressive wins are likely necessary. There’s an opportunity for that Tuesday night against Michigan, another Saturday against Iowa, and then there’s the conference tournament. Pull a couple stunners in that stretch, and the orange and blue could be back in the conversation.
The Hoosiers, meanwhile, have a better resume than the Illini thus far. They looked all but finished after a third consecutive loss to Purdue on Feb. 15, but they’ve won three of their last four, including back-to-back wins against Iowa and Ohio State. Plus, they beat ranked Wisconsin and Michigan teams earlier in the year. Indiana has two games remaining: Wednesday vs. Nebraska and Saturday at Michigan. The hope is definitely still there.
But the most likely candidates still appear to be the Huskers and Gophers.
While Minnesota doesn’t have quite as many impressive conference wins as Indiana, the Gophers have defeated Wisconsin, Ohio State and Iowa (all at home). The unfortunate thing for Richard Pitino’s team is that it has just one more game on the regular-season schedule, and it comes against conference bottom-feeder Penn State while the other Big Ten bubble teams face off with competition that could get them the wins they need to get in. That leaves the conference tournament the final opportunity to score a big win and impress the selection committee.
The Huskers might have the best shot of the four teams. The non-conference schedule didn’t provide many wins, but it did provide a ton of tough competition. Nebraska has losses to Creighton, Cincinnati and UMass to go along with their conference losses to the Big Ten elite. As far as wins go, the Huskers have knocked off Ohio State and Michigan State. What could go against them is their drastic home-road splits. Nebraska’s lost just once on their first-year home floor at Pinnacle Bank Arena, but conversely it’s grabbed just one win of note on the road, the victory over the Spartans. The good news? The last game of the regular season gives the Huskers an opportunity against the ninth-ranked Badgers. And it comes in Lincoln.
Others seem to see Nebraska and Minnesota as the most likely options, with ESPN’s Joe Lunardi putting the Gophers in (his last team in) and the Huskers out (his second team out). CBS’ Jerry Palm has both the Gophers and the Huskers in his first four out, as do the folks at College Basketball Talk. Ken Pomeroy has all four of the aforementioned Big Ten teams in bubble territory, with all four falling between Nos. 54 and 59 in his rankings.
Whether the Big Ten sends five or six teams to the Big Dance remains to be seen, and the way the conference has played out this season, the favorite for the final spot could change several times before the conference tournament crowns a champion at the end of next week.