We're about two thirds of the way through the Big Ten season, and right now, chaos reins supreme in the middle of the pack, as only three of the eleven teams are above .500. With Ohio State crushing the competition, and the bottom of the league tougher than expected, there aren't many easy wins to be had, and what once looked like a six or seven NCAA bid league could end up, in a worst case scenario, with only three teams in the dance. So let's look at how the teams stand, and rather than ranking them one through eleven, we'll group them into tiers.
Tier I: The National Title Contender
Ohio St. Buckeyes: 24-0 (11-0 Big Ten), KenPom #1, RPI #3
Not much to say about their continued dominance, so instead I'll use this space to rip ESPN. In the last edition of the Power Rankings on SI.com, Luke Winn broke down Ohio State game film to see which Buckeyes were feeding Jared Sullinger in the post. Then, during the telecast of Ohio State vs. Minnesota, ESPN ripped off Winn's research with no attribution. Pretty pathetic by ESPN; I guess shameless plagiarism is just par for the course at the self-proclaimed world wide leader.
Tier II: The Sweet 16 Contenders
Wisconsin Badgers: 17-5 (7-3) KenPom #5, RPI #20
Purdue Boilermakers: 18-5 (7-3), KenPom #9, RPI #11
These two have established themselves as lock NCAA teams, looking like they'll end up in the #3-#6 seed range. After Sunday's explosion against Michigan State, the Badgers are now the nation's most efficient offense per KenPom, as Jordan Taylor and Jon Leuer are proving to be unstoppable within Bo Ryan's swing offense. As usual, they're unbeatable at the Kohl Center, but their inconsistent road play raises questions about how deep a run they're capable of in March.
As for Purdue, they're entering a key stretch of their Big Ten schedule. Assuming they get past Indiana at home tomorrow, the Boilers face a three game stretch of at Illinois, then home vs Wisconsin and Ohio State. Their performance in those three games will tell us whether Purdue is a potential Final Four team.
Tier III: In the NCAAs, For Now
Illinois Fighting Illini: 15-8 (5-5) KenPom #15, RPI #38
Minnesota Golden Gophers: 16-7 (5-6) KenPom #42, RPI #27
After yet another road loss to a less talented opponent, Illinois fans are starting to get antsy (and getting really upset with Bruce Weber, someone found this site with the google search "fire bruce weber"). At least the loss to Northwestern wasn't unexpected; Hail to the Orange's Joe Kutsinis saw it coming a mile away in this frighteningly accurate preview.
As much as I'd like to hope Illinois comes up short of the tournament, I don't really see it happening. They've been tough at home all season, and their high KenPom ranking indicates they can easily get the 4 or 5 wins they need to lock up an at-large bid. They certainly won't be making the Final Four or winning the Big Ten though, I'd hate to be the guy who predicted that (cough-cough, Doug Gottlieb, cough-cough).
Minnesota, on the other hand, could be in some trouble, as losing Al Nolen and Devoe Joseph may prove too much to overcome. The non-conference wins over West Virginia and UNC along with the home win over Purdue look very good, but they'll need a 4-3 finish to the Big Ten season to sneak in. The Gophers host Illinois on Thursday, and whoever loses will fall into bubble danger zone.
Tier IV: Get Ready for the NIT, or worse
Michigan Wolverines: 14-10 (4-7), KenPom #54, RPI #59
Michigan St. Spartans: 13-10 (5-6), KenPom #49, RPI #51
Northwestern Wildcats: 14-8 (4-7), KenPom #47 RPI #82
Penn St. Nittany Lions: 12-10 (5-6), KenPom #58, RPI #70
All four of these teams need to finish over .500 (and in some cases, well over .500) in their remaining 7 conference games, and none of the four have shown any indication that they're capable of such a run. I still can't get over how bad Michigan State has been, it makes no sense at all. It's quite possible that Michigan will finish ahead of the Spartans in the final standings, and I would have laid 1000 to 1 before the season against that happening and felt I was getting the best of it.
This week, we'll see a couple of bubble elimination games, as Northwestern heads to Michigan Wednesday night and Penn State goes to Michigan State on Thursday. The two losers will be all but eliminated from NCAA contention; the two winners will be pretty screwed as well, but at least keep hope alive. The injury to Jeff Brooks has really hurt the Nittany Lions, as I think they would have beaten Michigan on Sunday with him healthy, but without him they blew a double digit lead down the stretch and lost. I'm unsure of his status going forward, and if he has to miss any more games, Penn State is in danger of falling under .500 and missing the NIT.
Tier V: The Spoilers
Indiana Hoosiers: 12-12 (3-8), KenPom #63, RPI #152
Iowa Hawkeyes: 10-13 (3-8), KenPom #77, RPI #135
These two played one of the best games between last place teams I can ever recall on Saturday, with Iowa squeaking out a win at raucous Assembly Hall. Neither of these two figure to make the NIT; both struggled too much against weak non-conference foes, but as their KenPom rankings indicate, neither team is a pushover. Indiana has already hung "bad" losses on Minnesota, Illinois and Michigan at home, and they'll have a chance to do the same to Northwestern in a couple weeks. Iowa continues to improve under Fran McCaffery, and while they can't seem to win at any opposing Big Ten venues besides Assembly Hall (their last non-Indiana Big Ten road win was all the way back in 2008 against a last place Northwestern team), I can't say I'd be shocked to see them win at Welsh-Ryan in a couple weeks. But if they don't, get ready for the "Just Like Football" chants from the just Northwestern faithful.