Big Ten Title Race: Wisconsin With Inside Track, But Watch the BuckeyesPosted by Alex Moscoso (@AlexPMoscoso) on January 9th, 2014
Wisconsin dominated Illinois on Wednesday night to move to 3-0 in the Big Ten and 16-0 overall, making this the best start to a season in Badgers history. As of now, Bo Ryan’s team looks primed to win its first sole possession of the Big Ten championship since 2007 and likely to secure a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. This notion is based on the Badgers’ great play thus far and a seeming advantage in their draw in an unbalanced Big Ten schedule. But when we look a little more closely at Wisconsin’s schedule, Ohio State may be right there challenging the Badgers for the conference title in early March.
First, let’s start with acknowledging some conventional wisdom. Even this early in conference play, it seems apparent that there are only four teams that have a realistic shot at winning at least a share of the regular season title: Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan State, and Ohio State. It’s also conventional wisdom that the Badgers have a leg up in the title race due to their favorable scheduling, as last night’s announcers pointed out many times throughout the broadcast. Scheduling 12 teams to play an eighteen-game season means not every team will play each other an equal number of times. Fortunately for Wisconsin this season, the Badgers only face Michigan State and Ohio State once, with both games coming on their home court. Unfortunately for Iowa, Michigan State, and Ohio State, they all play each other twice and will have to battle Wisconsin at the Kohl Center. (Iowa plays Wisconsin twice, and has already lost to them in Madison). This is doubly beneficial for Bo Ryan due to the fact that his team not only avoids additional games with the other top teams, but they get to pad their schedule with fewer intimidating teams. Wisconsin, based upon this train of thought, should have the inside track to a conference title.
However, if we look at the remaining schedule and use the KenPom’s prediction metrics, we find that Ohio State actually has a very favorable schedule as well. The table below displays the remaining games for each of the top four teams where there is a less than 70 percent likelihood that they will win. From this table, we can see that if things play out as they do in Pomeroy’s expected outcomes (“Outcome” column), Wisconsin will win the Big Ten with only two losses and Ohio State will be the runner-up with three losses. But since we know upsets are bound to happen, we can look at the table and compare the number of games for each team where there is a moderate probability of an upset. The table shows that the Buckeyes only have three games in which there is a less than 70 percent likelihood of winning (at Minnesota, at Wisconsin, and at Iowa), while Wisconsin has twice that amount (at Minnesota, Ohio State, at Illinois, Michigan State, and at Iowa).
The table shows the following: While it’s true that Wisconsin has a favorable schedule because they only play Michigan State and Ohio State once and at home, a healthy share of the Badgers’ schedule is made up of mid-level teams that are more than capable of pulling an upset. The Buckeyes, on the other hand, are less vulnerable to being picked off. Any way you slice it, the Big Ten race is going to be tight among these four teams and protecting home court could ultimately be the difference.