The Big Ten’s reputation continues taking hits with good reason, and there doesn’t appear to be a single team worthy of a top-four NCAA Tournament seed with Selection Sunday less than two weeks away.
We can look at the Big Ten one of two ways.
The supporters’ view goes something like this: “The reason the top teams in the conference are losing is because the Big Ten is so deep that any team can beat the other on any given night, regardless of record. That’s what makes the Big Ten so great.”
The critics will have a much different analysis along these lines: “The so-called best teams in the Big Ten simply aren’t that good, and that’s why mediocre teams in the conference are beating those at the top so often.”
Frankly, I’m not sure on which side I stand. The three teams thought to be the Big Ten’s best chances for a deep NCAA Tournament run – Purdue, Wisconsin and Maryland – are struggling, to put it nicely. Wisconsin and Maryland especially are falling apart, with the Badgers dropping four of their last five games and the Terrapins losing three in a row while going 2-5 in February.
The Boilermakers rallied at Penn State last Tuesday to win in overtime, but they were no match for Michigan in Saturday’s 82-70 road loss. Northwestern was considered a lock to make its first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance after winning at Wisconsin on Feb. 12, but the Wildcats have lost three of four since and have dropped games at Illinois and at Indiana their last two times out.
The NCAA Tournament selection committee foreshadowed this drop-off when it shut out the Big Ten from its initial top 16 teams a couple weeks ago. It’s clearly not impressed with what the “top teams” in the conference have to offer, and there’s zero reason to believe anything will change Selection Sunday.
The way it looks now, the Big Ten’s top teams will be heading into the Big Dance with two left feet.
… The Big Ten’s hottest team right now is Minnesota, which has won seven in a row after Saturday’s 81-71 victory over Penn State. The Golden Gophers are now 22-7 with a 10-6 mark in the Big Ten that ties them for third with Maryland and Michigan State. They were left for dead after a five-game losing streak that preceded their current run but now are on solid footing to make the NCAA Tournament, even if they don’t earn the double bye for the Big Ten tournament.
Minnesota could make some waves in March with coach Richard Pitino’s balanced attack. Nate Mason is erratic at times but can heat up quickly. Amir Coffey is one of the most talented freshmen in the conference and Jordan Murphy has been a double-double machine lately while averaging 17.2 points and 14 rebounds over his last six games. Don’t sleep on the Gophers if they get a good draw in the Tournament.
… Michigan State’s win over Wisconsin on Sunday locked up the 20th consecutive NCAA Tournament bid for Hall of Fame coach Tom Izzo, who lauded his team for the effort and said it is beginning to come together. Nick Ward swept Big Ten Player and Freshman of the Week awards after finishing with 20 points in Thursday’s win over Nebraska and 22 against the Badgers.
But even though the Spartans have Ward and fellow freshman star Miles Bridges leading the way, the loss of Eron Harris to a season-ending knee injury could haunt them in the Tournament. They’re going to need more confident and aggressive performances from Matt McQuaid, who finished with a season-high 15 points against the Badgers.
In an emotional scene toward the end of Sunday’s Senior Day game, Harris checked in as the clock wound down, limped to midcourt during a dead ball and acknowledge the cheering fans before bending to kiss the Spartan logo for the final time – a Michigan State tradition.
… Next up for the Spartans is an Illinois team that suddenly is creeping back into the NCAA Tournament conversation. Is that warranted? The Fighting Illini did sweep the season series from Northwestern, which isn’t as impressive as once thought. They’re 17-12 and their best win just might be one over VCU on a neutral court back on Dec. 3.
Illinois can better state its case with wins over Michigan State and Rutgers to get to 9-9 in the Big Ten heading into the conference tournament. And the Illini just might need to get into the Big Dance in order to save John Groce’s job.
… Speaking of coaches supposedly on the hot seat, Indiana’s Tom Crean got a win he badly needed with Saturday’s wild 63-62 victory over Northwestern. The Hoosiers went on a 22-0 run to end the first half, then overcame a seven-point deficit with 1:33 remaining in the game as Thomas Bryant’s free throw with 2.6 seconds left bounced high off the back of the rim and went in to break the tie.
Crean has come under fire with the Hoosiers sitting at 16-13 overall and 6-10 in the conference despite O.G. Anunoby out for the season and James Blackmon missing time with an injury. They own victories over Kansas and North Carolina but also have a loss to Fort Wayne on their resume. My guess is Crean will stick around in Bloomington, although fans are becoming restless. And that will only grow if the Hoosiers miss the NCAA Tournament.