The Good, the Bad & the Ugly: Big Ten Running Out of Non-Conference Chances

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on December 15th, 2017

Michigan’s 59-52 win at Texas on Tuesday was important for the Big Ten, and not just because it could use some respect after taking a beating in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Rather, the road victory was big because it helps provide some much-needed heft to the league’s overall non-conference resume. With several bad losses under its belt and an underachieving middle tier, the Big Ten needs every quality win it can get before for turning on itself in conference play.

Iowa, like several Big Ten teams, has struggled during non-conference play. (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

The Good. As of Thursday, the Big Ten has eight teams ranked in both the KenPom and Sagarin top 50, which suggests there is some depth of quality in the league. In fact, Michigan State and Purdue rank second and third overall in the latter ranking system. Although the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) remains the most widely-referenced metric, the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee has been increasingly influenced by advanced metrics in recent years. The more teams viewed favorably by advanced analytical tools, the more opportunities for quality intra-conference wins in the committee’s view. What’s more, the league does have a few quality non-conference true road wins to its name. Minnesota beat Providence (KenPom #52) by double-figures in the Dunkin’ Donuts Center. Purdue pounded Marquette (KenPom #52). Michigan topped them both by upending Texas this week (KenPom #31). According to reports last summer, the committee will be “placing greater emphasis on winning road games.” Victories like these — on the road against NCAA Tournament-caliber opponents — will go a long way towards boosting the the Big Ten’s overall profile.

The Bad. The Big Ten is just 6-29 against the current RPI top 50, which — compared to conferences like the SEC (14-17) and Big 12 (10-13) — is not good. The picture looks even uglier (comparatively) when including teams ranked #51-#100. As for those eight teams ranked among the KenPom top 50? At present, only Michigan State and Purdue are ranked in the top 25 (or even 35). The conference as whole, in fact, sits fifth overall in adjusted efficiency margin — well behind the Big 12, ACC, Big East and SEC. Excluding Michigan State and Purdue, Michigan’s win at Texas was just the league’s third victory over a non-conference opponent currently ranked in the KenPom top 50. Simply looking at its overall non-conference loss total should provide some indication of just how much the Big Ten has struggled: its 2.6 losses per team considerably trails that of the Big 12 (1.6), ACC (1.8), Big East (1.8), and SEC (2.14). Only the Pac-12, with its remarkably dismal bottom-half, lags behind the Big Ten in that category.

The Ugly. As if its 3-11 record in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge wasn’t ugly enough, several of the Big Ten’s so-called “contenders” have suffered indefensible losses in non-conference play. Northwestern, picked fourth in the preseason media poll, lost to a mediocre Georgia Tech team without its best player. Maryland fell to St. Bonaventure without its star point guard, Jaylen Adams. Iowa lost to South Dakota State and Louisiana-Lafayette on a neutral court, while Indiana — though not pegged as a “contender,” per se — got pounded by Indiana State on its home floor. As for Wisconsin, the program that hasn’t finished worse than fourth in the Big Ten since 1999-2000? The Badgers struck out in non-conference play, losing all six of their games versus NCAA Tournament-caliber opponents. The bad losses and general lack of quality wins has rendered the league’s middle-tier somewhat impotent; in his latest bracket, Joe Lunardi projects only three NCAA Tournament teams from the league outside of Michigan State and Purdue, two of which are #9 seeds (Michigan and Minnesota) and the other of which, Maryland, is among his “Last Four In.” With so few sure-fire NCAA Tournament teams in the league, that puts a lot of pressure on potential bubble-dwellers like the Wolverines and Terrapins to notch a win or two against the Spartans or Boilermakers — in addition to each other — once conference play resumes.

What’s Left. Luckily, there’s still time for some corrective action. With its conference play “sampler platter” in the rearview mirror, the Big Ten has a couple weeks — and a handful of big matchups — left to make up for lost time. Here are the biggest among them:

  • 12/16: #17 Purdue vs. Butler, Noon ET, FOX (Indianapolis)
  • 12/16: Indiana vs. #18 Notre Dame, 2:30 PM ET, FOX (Indianapolis)
  • 12/16: #13 Kansas at Nebraska, 8:00 PM ET, FS1
  • 12/22: Northwestern at Oklahoma, 7:00 PM ET, ESPN2
  • 12/23: Ohio State vs. #7 North Carolina, 1:30 PM ET, CBS (New Orleans)
  • 12/23: Illinois vs. Missouri, 8:00 PM ET, ESPN (St. Louis)

If, say, Ohio State knocks off the Tar Heels and Northwestern beats Oklahoma on the road, that could vault a couple more teams into the NCAA Tournament discussion. That, in turn, will provide more opportunity for good wins in conference that will carry weight with the Selection Committee.

Tommy Lemoine (250 Posts)

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