BTN.com staff, March 11, 2014
The Big Ten tournament tips off Thursday at noon ET, and it appears to be a wide open field, at least if you trust efficiency margin as a predictive tool. The last time the conference had only one team ranked in the KenPom top 10 was in 2010, when 6-seed Minnesota made a run to the tournament final to secure an unlikely at-large bid. Might we see something similar this time around?
You can view the official bracket here.
The teams with the most to gain (and lose) in Indianapolis are obvious.
Minnesota is believed by many to currently reside on the wrong side of the NCAA tournament bubble, and I'd agree with that assessment. The Gophers figure to need at least a Thursday victory over Penn State to keep their at-large hopes alive.
A Thursday win and a Friday loss to Wisconsin would give Minnesota an RPI rank around 49th (according to RPIForecast.com), which would put the Gophers right on the Easy Bubble Solver cutoff line (which happens to fall at a combined KenPom and RPI rank of 100 this year). The situation would still be tenuous.
Clearly, Minnesota needs to reach the BTT semifinals to feel safely in the NCAA tournament. Wins over Penn State and Wisconsin, followed by a semifinal loss, would give the Gophers an RPI rank around 39th, and an at-large bid would be completely secure.
Nebraska is in a better spot than Minnesota, as the Huskers are currently in 79 of 96 brackets on the Bracket Matrix, but they aren't a lock just yet. Using the same methodology as before, Nebraska would be looking at an RPI rank around 55th if it loses its first game on Friday. Combined with a KenPom rank that currently sits at 47th, the Easy Bubble Solver would have the Huskers right on the razor's edge.
Nebraska can lock up a bid by reaching the BTT semifinals, which makes Friday afternoon's quarterfinal the biggest game for Nebrasketball since the 1990's. If Ohio State is indeed the opponent for that game, it will be one intriguing rubber match.
The conventional wisdom is that, beyond those two bubble teams, we're looking at two groups: at-large locks playing only for NCAA seeding, and teams that need to win the whole thing to reach the Big Dance.
I actually feel there's at least one other team that doesn't fit into those buckets. The possible exceptions are facing off in the tournament's tipoff game, as Indiana and Illinois both still harbor minuscule at-large hopes.
Illinois is in better position, and the Illini might even warrant bubble consideration with a run to the semifinals. Wins over Indiana and Michigan (followed by a semifinal loss) would land Illinois somewhere around 57th in RPI, so it's at least conceivable that the Illini could sneak into the NCAA field with that profile. It would require some serious toe-stubbing by other bubble teams around the nation, but it's at least possible.
A run to the BTT final would give Illinois an RPI rank around 45th, with a presumably-similar KenPom rank, so I'd almost go so far as to call Illinois an at-large lock with three wins in three days, as crazy as that sounds.
Indiana, on the other hand, would be looking at an RPI rank around 59th with a title game loss. The Easy Bubble Solver would probably have the Hoosiers out of the field in that scenario, but there would at least be some small chance of an at-large bid. Most likely, Indiana falls into the same boat as Penn State, Northwestern, and Purdue – win four games or you're out.
Of course, the Big Ten tournament is about much more than teams scraping for one last reprieve. We should see some fantastic pairings of very good teams that are gearing up for a postseason run.
The aforementioned Nebraska/Ohio State quarterfinal would be a dandy, as would a Friday night matchup between Michigan State and Iowa.
A Wisconsin/Minnesota quarterfinal (with a bid on the line for the Gophers, no less) would be intense. And we haven't even talked about the fun potential title game matchups (Michigan State looking for revenge against Michigan, anyone?).
This Big Ten tournament should be a lot of fun, and it also marks the end of an era. Beginning next season, the Big Ten will be even bigger, with Rutgers and Maryland joining the fray.
But we'll have plenty of time to consider those implications later. For now, let the Madness begin.