The Battle for Sixth Place in the Big Ten is More Important Than You ThinkPosted by KTrahan on February 11th, 2013
The battle for the top of the Big Ten this season has been well-documented. Indiana and Michigan look like the front-runners right now, but Michigan State has a chance to threaten for the conference crown as well. Then there’s Ohio State and Wisconsin, both of which have knocked off and hung with the top tier teams this season. Unless there’s a major turn of events in the next few weeks, those five teams will occupy the #1-#5 seeds in the Big Ten Tournament, although the order is completely up in the air. The jockeying for position among those teams will certainly be interesting to watch, but after seeing this comment on Twitter last night, the battle for the #6 seed looks almost as compelling.
@thebstiles Esp when Minn won in Champaign.This run to the 6 seed is going to be a fun battle – Minn, Illinois, Iowa, Purdue.
— Justin VanLaere (@storminspank) February 11, 2013
I hadn’t thought about it before, but that race should be extremely interesting and close the rest of the way. All four teams are either 4-7 or 5-6 in conference play right now, but the #6 seed figures to need to finish at 10-8 or 9-9. Purdue’s road to the position is the toughest — the Boilermakers have trips to Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and Wisconsin and visits from Michigan and Minnesota. Still, the jockeying among Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota with the Boilers should be very close. Right now, Iowa and Illinois sit at 4-7 while Minnesota is 5-6. Iowa has the toughest part of its schedule behind it, while Illinois has plenty of momentum looking forward.
First, it’s important to understand why this is important. The difference between being a #6 or #8 seed in the Big Ten Tournament this year really could mean the season for any of these teams. A top-half seed in the toughest conference in college basketball means that team would likely have a strong enough resume to make the NCAA Tournament. That isn’t to say the selection committee will necessarily choose a team based off of its position in the conference standings — it doesn’t work that way — but it will take a number of quality wins to get to that slot in the Big Ten race, which enhances that team’s resume. It’s also important to draw the #6 seed for match-up and bubble reasons — it’s much easier to have to play #11 seed Nebraska than inconsistent but dangerous teams like possible #9 or #10 seeds Purdue and Northwestern. Let’s take a look at the road to get to the elusive #6 slot for the three teams we’re considering.
Illinois: Illinois’ outstanding week, which included wins over Indiana and Minnesota, helps put the Illini back in position for the #6 seed. Illinois might have more momentum than any other team in the conference, but its remaining schedule is a tough one.
- Likely wins: vs. Penn State, vs. Nebraska
- Likely losses: at Michigan, at Ohio State
- Question marks: vs. Purdue, at Northwestern, at Iowa
The good news for Illinois is that if it wins the games that it will be favored in, it should go 8-10 in conference play. The bad news for Illinois is that it’s been extremely inconsistent, and projected wins against Purdue and Northwestern are not guaranteed. The biggest game will be the one at Iowa, since it’s the only meeting between the two teams this season and represents a head-to-head tiebreaker.
Iowa: Considering its remaining schedule, Iowa isn’t in bad shape at 4-7. However, the Hawkeyes are on the wrong side of the NCAA Tournament because they failed to finish off a number of close games — Ohio State, Indiana, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan State — that could have given them a premier win. But with a solid end to the remainder of the season, Iowa can work itself back into the picture.
- Likely wins: at Penn State, at Nebraska, vs. Nebraska
- Likely losses: at Indiana
- Question marks: vs. Purdue, vs. Minnesota, vs. Illinois
Once you add in the likely wins and losses, Iowa would stand at 7-8 with three other games to factor in. The Hawkeyes get all three of those games at home, and the contest against Purdue, in particular, is winnable though not quite a “likely win.” The other two games against Minnesota and Illinois are huge. Iowa has been a better team at home, so that helps, but it needs to win at least one of those games to stay in the NCAA Tournament conversation and probably needs to win both to ease the pressure a little bit heading into the Big Ten Tournament. It’s not likely that Iowa wins all three of its question mark games, but the Hawkeyes are in the best position they could possibly be in here with the games against Minnesota and Illinois at home.
Minnesota: The Gophers’ fall has been incredible, but when you consider what has happened before to Minnesota, some fans there aren’t the least bit surprised. Luckily for Tubby Smith and his team, they already have a one-game advantage on Iowa and Illinois at this point, but there are still some tough, crucial games left on the schedule.
Likely wins: vs. Penn State, at Nebraska
Likely losses: None
Question marks: vs. Wisconsin, at Iowa, at Ohio State, vs. Indiana, at Purdue
The Gophers have the most question marks of any of these three teams because of how erratic they are. They’re more talented and more complete than either Iowa or Illinois, but also have had a lot of trouble recently. If Minnesota can win three of its toss-up games, it’s likely in as the #6 seed. If it can win two, then things get interesting depending on which teams those wins come against.
What to Make of This
If there’s one thing we’ve learned this Big Ten season, it’s that it’s impossible to try to predict the conference race. However, all three of these teams have as good a shot as their counterparts in winning their way to the #6 seed in the Big Ten Tournament. What we know for sure is that the road likely goes through Iowa City. Iowa probably needs to win both of its games against Illinois and Minnesota to feel good about its chances for the #6 slot. Those games are also huge for the Gophers and Illini, who have tougher remaining schedules and will need a win in Iowa City to grab an edge in the race. Every game is important, but the first of those games in Iowa City is next Sunday, when Minnesota comes to town with more than just mid-pack jockeying on its mind.