Big Ten Geeks: Huskers Keep Hope Alive

Michigan State used a run out of intermission to create separation from Iowa in an eventual 10-point win. Both teams scored nearly at will in this one, but the Spartans’ outstanding three-point shooting masked a high turnover rate that is becoming worrisome.

This has been Tom Izzo’s best-ever team at limiting turnovers (at least in the tempo-free era), but the past three games have seen Michigan State turn it over on nearly a quarter of its trips. Is this a temporary blip, the result of some long-absent players getting back into the groove? The Spartans had better hope so, as it won’t be easy to win NCAA tournament games when a quarter of your possessions don’t result in shots.

For Iowa, it is the defense that should be causing pre-tournament anxiety. For five straight games, the Hawkeyes have allowed their opponent to post an above-average efficiency, and much of it has stemmed from lackluster interior defense. Big Ten teams are now shooting an even 50 percent on twos against Iowa, a figure that makes little sense given the Hawkeyes’ surplus of big bodies that can block shots.

Roy Devyn Marble bolstered his strong case for all-conference honors, scoring 24 points and dishing five assists (against one turnover). Travis Trice led the Spartans with a 17-point effort that was efficient in spite of five turnovers.

**

On Wednesday, Nebraska picked up a huge road win over Indiana, continuing the Huskers’ improbable run to the NCAA tournament bubble. This game was tight heading into crunchtime, but it was Nebraska’s defense that would take control. The Hoosiers scored only eight points over the game’s final 10 minutes, and the Huskers kept their at-large hopes alive.

Speaking of those at-large hopes, let’s take an objective look at where we currently stand. We’ve used the Easy Bubble Solver to project the field in the past, and you can read about it here.

This is the field according to Easy Bubble Solver (using RPIforecast.com’s expected RPI rank including conference tournaments):

EBS Rank EBS Team
1 2.8 Arizona
2 6.4 Florida
3 9.7 Kansas
4 9.9 Wichita St.
5 12.8 Villanova
6 14.2 Virginia
7 18.4 Duke
8 19.4 Creighton
9 19.5 Wisconsin
10 21.4 Louisville
11 23.4 Michigan
12 32.0 Syracuse
13 34.6 VCU
14 38.3 Ohio St.
15 38.4 UCLA
16 38.7 Cincinnati
17 39.2 Gonzaga
18 40.8 San Diego St.
19 41.2 Kentucky
20 44.7 Michigan St.
21 44.9 Iowa
22 45.5 North Carolina
23 46.3 Iowa St.
24 47.8 New Mexico
25 55.3 Connecticut
26 57.5 Oklahoma St.
27 57.7 Oklahoma
28 59.3 Tennessee
29 60.3 Saint Louis
30 61.9 Oregon
31 64.5 Massachusetts
32 66.1 SMU
33 70.7 Arizona St.
34 72.1 George Washington
35 73.7 Texas
36 74.8 Baylor
37 77.6 Pittsburgh
38 77.6 Memphis
39 79.3 BYU
40 88.3 Harvard
41 88.9 Kansas St.
42 91.2 Florida St.
43 91.8 Saint Joseph’s
44 92.6 Colorado
45 93.0 Southern Miss
46 93.2 Stanford
47 93.3 Xavier
48 97.6 Louisiana Tech
49 98.1 Arkansas

That’s just five bids for the Big Ten, with all five falling in the 3/4/5/6 seed range (note that EBS isn’t necessarily a great predictor for seeding).

The cutoff above is assuming no bid stealers, which might actually end up being the case this season. Realignment has mostly eliminated the phenomenon of conferences with just one dominant at-large worthy team, so the odds of otherwise unworthy squads winning a conference tournament have dropped considerably. Think of it this way: if a conference has five at-large worthy teams, the odds are really high that one of those teams will win the conference tournament. If a conference has just one at-large worthy team, it only takes one upset for a bid-stealer to emerge.

So, how far out are Minnesota and Nebraska? Here are the first 10 teams out:

50 101.5 Dayton
51 102.3 Utah
52 107.7 St. John’s
53 108.8 Georgetown
54 108.8 North Dakota St.
55 110.4 Green Bay
56 110.5 Providence
57 113.5 Nebraska
58 114.2 Minnesota
59 119.3 Missouri

The Huskers and Gophers find themselves in near-identical circumstances as pertains to the bubble. Both teams have work to do, and I feel that each team needs two more victories (including the Big Ten tournament) to have a chance at a bid. This isn’t just some off-the-cuff statement – there’s data behind it.

Using RPIforecast.com again, we can estimate where Nebraska and Minnesota would rank in RPI given different scenarios. By adding that projected RPI to the team’s current KenPom rank, we can get a feel for whether that scenario might be good enough to get the team into the field.

Here’s the scenarios for Nebraska:

Wisconsin game BTT record Final record RPI Rank KenPom Rank EBS In/Out
Win 1-1 20-12 46 52 98 In
Lose 2-1 20-13 46 52 98 In
Win 0-1 19-12 59 52 111 Out
Lose 1-1 19-13 61 52 113 Out
Lose 0-1 18-13 74 52 126 Out

It appears that Nebraska needs two more wins to get into the Easy Bubble Solver field, and even that would put the Huskers right on the razor’s edge (an EBS total of 98 would basically tie Nebraska with Arkansas for the final spot).

Anything less than two more wins, and Nebraska is clearly not in the field.

Three more wins would seemingly make the Huskers a lock – that is not covered in the above table, but it would involve either beating Wisconsin and reaching the BTT final from the 4-seed (two BTT wins), or losing to Wisconsin and reaching the BTT final (three BTT wins). Either way, reaching the BTT final would make Nebraska a no-brainer.

What about the Gophers?

Penn State game BTT record Final record RPI Rank KenPom Rank EBS In/Out
Win 1-1 20-13 39 57 96 In
Lose 2-1 20-14 38 57 95 In
Win 0-1 19-13 51 57 108 Out
Lose 1-1 19-14 49 57 106 Out
Lose 0-1 18-14 63 57 120 Out

Minnesota’s outlook is nearly identical to that of Nebraska. Win two games, in any combination, and you’re just barely in the Easy Bubble Solver field (leaving your fate in the hands of the selection committee). Win fewer than two games, and you’re almost certainly out. As with Nebraska, the Gophers can remove all doubt by winning three more games.

It is with this backdrop that we enter the final weekend of conference play. The Gophers and Huskers both find themselves playing at home on Sunday, in desperate need of every win they can scrape together. Minnesota has a much easier assignment in hosting Penn State, compared to the Wisconsin matchup that Nebraska faces.

Both games project to be close, hard-fought affairs, and they should serve as a fitting flourish to the 2013-14 regular season. Enjoy the games, Big Ten fans – the Madness is nearly upon us.

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