The Drive for Five: What Lies Ahead for the Big Ten Bubble Dwellers

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 2nd, 2018

The Big Ten has put at least five teams in the NCAA Tournament in every season since 2008, four years before the league expanded to 12 schools and seven years before it expanded to 14. In fact, you’d have to go back to the pre-Rutgers era (2013-14) to reach the last time the conference sent fewer than seven teams to the Big Dance. That will almost certainly change this season. According to Bracket Matrix, only three of 68 recently-updated bracket projections have more than four Big Ten schools in the NCAA Tournament. The fact is, outside of Purdue, Michigan State, Ohio State and Michigan, the league’s bubble hopefuls still have considerable work to do before earning serious consideration. With February now upon us, let’s examine which teams still have a shot and what they’ll need to do in order to punch a ticket.

It’s been all smiles for Nebraska lately. But will the Huskers go dancing? (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

Nebraska (17-8, 8-4) RPI: 57 | KenPom: 56. Nebraska turned a nine-point second-half deficit at Wisconsin on Monday into a runaway 11-point win, the type of season-saving — perhaps season-defining — win its fans won’t soon forget. The Huskers have no RPI sub-150 losses to their name, but also don’t have much to speak of in the “good win” category. Outside of its home win over Michigan, Nebraska is winless against the RPI top 50. With four of their final six games at home — including contests against fellow NCAA Tournament hopefuls Maryland and Penn State — the Huskers will probably need to hold court and avoid a road loss at Illinois on February 18. Even then, at least one quality Big Ten Tournament win (think Michigan or Ohio State) might be necessary for Tim Miles’ group to feel good heading into Selection Sunday. Considering how well James Palmer Jr. and Isaac Copeland have played in recent weeks, that’s certainly within the realm of possibility.

  • RPI Top 50 Wins: vs. Michigan
  • RPI Sub 150 Losses: None
  • Opportunities Left: vs. Maryland (February 13); vs. Penn State (February 25)

Penn State (15-9, 5-6) RPI: 105 | KenPom: 53. Up by 11 points with 15 minutes to play, Penn State crumbled down the stretch at Michigan State on Wednesday. An opportunity lost, no doubt. Still, the Nittany Lions have looked like a force to be reckoned with since quick-handed guard Josh Reaves (2.5 SPG) returned from injury on January 25, beating Ohio State on the road (in thrilling fashion) and holding Rutgers to a ridiculous 0.63 points per possession. The bad news is that Penn State’s non-conference schedule was incredibly soft (#272 nationally), resulting in no quality wins to speak of outside of the Buckeyes, and an RPI north of triple-digits. The good news is that there’s plenty of opportunity left: Penn State will soon play host to Maryland, Ohio State and Michigan, in addition to road tilts at Purdue and Nebraska. Considering how good the Nittany Lions have looked lately — soon-to-be all-Big Ten point guard Tony Carr, in particular (22.6 PPG since January 9) — it’s not crazy to think Pat Chambers’ team can win out at home. Then again, the Nittany Lions lost to Rider in State College earlier this season, so who can say for sure.

  • RPI Top 50 Wins: at Ohio State
  • RPI Sub 150 Losses: None
  • Opportunities Left: vs. Maryland (February 7); vs. Ohio State (February 15); at Purdue (February 18); vs. Michigan February 21; at Nebraska (February 25)

Mark Turgeon’s Terrapins look NIT-bound. (Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports)

Maryland (15-9, 4-7) RPI: 56 | KenPom: 36. The Terrapins missed a huge opportunity against Michigan State last Saturday, squandering a 13-point halftime lead and losing a game that likely would’ve vaulted them into many a mock bracket. Their subsequent loss at Purdue on Wednesday could also be considered a “missed opportunity,” although they were double-figure underdogs heading into the game. In any case, Mayland is now left with just a lone win against the RPI top 50, with a troubling loss to St. Bonaventure (which was without its best player) to boot. Moreover, the Terrapins’ best win — a 14-point home victory over Butler on November 15 — pre-dated injuries to starting forward Justin Jackson and key reserve Ivan Bender, who were both lost for the season in late December. With road games at Penn State, Nebraska and Northwestern left, Maryland probably needs to win at least two of those three, then beat Michigan at home to close out the year. Oh, and it can’t afford to suffer any bad losses along the way (looking at you, Rutgers). Even then, Mark Turgeon’s hard-luck group might still be found wanting.

  • RPI Top 50 Wins: vs. Butler
  • RPI Sub 150 Losses: None
  • Opportunities Left: at Penn State (February 7); at Nebraska (February 13); vs. Michigan (February 24)

Minnesota (14-10, 3-8) RPI: 120 | KenPom: 92. Who knew Reggie Lynch was so important? Since the Big Ten’s top shot-blocker (4.1 RPG) was suspended on January 5, Minnesota has dropped seven of its last eight games, including Tuesday night’s blowout loss at Iowa. The Gophers’ non-conference wins over Providence and Alabama are nice, but barring an epic turnaround — including a win over Michigan State or Purdue (or both) — it’s hard to imagine Richard Pitino’s group even re-entering the conversation.

  • RPI Top 50 Wins: at Providence; vs. Alabama (neutral)
  • RPI Sub 150 Losses: None
  • Opportunities Left: at Michigan (February 3); vs. Michigan State (February 13); at Purdue (February 25)

Northwestern (14-10, 5-6) RPI: 101 | KenPom: 80. Northwestern has looked better in recent weeks, but the fact remains that last season’s feel-good team simply hasn’t done enough this season to warrant NCAA Tournament consideration. The Wildcats have zero wins against the RPI top 100 and just three against the RPI top 150. In order to crack the discussion, they need to go at least 6-2 down the stretch — maybe even 7-1 or 8-0 — and probably must beat Michigan State on February 17. Don’t count on more March magic from the Wildcats this season.

  • RPI Top-50 Wins: at Providence; vs. Alabama (neutral)
  • RPI Sub-150 Losses: None
  • Opportunities Left: vs. Michigan (February 6); vs. Michigan State (February 17)
Tommy Lemoine (250 Posts)

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