Bracketology: A closer look at the Big Ten’s non-conference struggles

  • 12/01/2017 8:46 am in

By virtually any measure, the Big Ten has not fared well early this season, culminating in their 11-3 beatdown in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge this week. Sure, some of that can be chalked up to matchups, which teams got home games, and the fact that Pitt didn’t participate, but the performance in those games is undoubtedly a red flag for the league’s NCAA tournament prospects this season.

I don’t have plans to do a set of bracket projections until after the first of the year, but given the Big Ten’s struggles and the fact that league play starts this weekend, it seems like a good time to take stock of how non-conference profiles are shaping up so far. In most cases, it’s not pretty, and what’s worse, there aren’t a ton of opportunities to pick up marquee non-conference wins from here on out.

Before the season, somewhere in the neighborhood of seven bids seemed reasonable with some projections even more bullish than that. But if the tournament started today, I have a feeling you might see just four or five. Still, it’s a long season and plenty can change, but the overall strength of the league matters, and some of the poor performances we’ve seen are the kind of thing that will ultimately cost a team multiple seed lines.

Need some numbers to show just how bad it’s been? At this point it’s too early to use RPI (although some of you might say anytime is too early to use RPI), so I’ll stick with KenPom for now.

As a league, the Big Ten ranks fifth behind the Big 12, ACC, SEC, and Big East. Against those four conferences as well as the Pac-12, Big Ten teams are just 13-23 with three of those wins coming against DePaul (twice) and Pitt, both of which are expected to finish at or near the bottom of their respective leagues.

Against teams currently in the Top 75 on KenPom, the Big Ten is just 8-22. That gets even worse against the Top 50 with a 6-18 mark. Michigan State, Purdue, and Minnesota boast eight of the league’s nine best wins, which lines up well with how those teams were projected preseason and confirms their status as the league’s top teams.

Here’s a team-by-team look at the league so far. Please note the records do not include victories over non-DI teams.

Illinois (5-1)

Heading into Tuesday’s matchup with Wake Forest, the Illini were undefeated but had yet to play on the road and had just one win over a team in the Top 200 (DePaul). Illinois dropped that game to a Wake team that had already lost to Georgia Southern, Liberty, and Drake.

The remaining non-conference slate features neutral court games along with three winnable home games. Of those opponents, Missouri is the only team harboring at-large hopes, which means the rivalry game will take on increased meaning for the Illini.

Ultimately I was never really sold on Illinois as a potential bubble team and the early results have done little to suggest otherwise. Perhaps they can change that perception by playing well in their upcoming Big Ten games at Northwestern and home against Maryland.

Indiana (4-3)

The Hoosiers got blown out by Indiana State in the season opener but have shown solid improvement since, culminating in Wednesday’s game against top-ranked Duke where the Hoosiers played a strong 35 minutes before struggling down the stretch. That improvement bodes well for the future but hasn’t resulted in any top-end victories so far this season.

Indiana is in the midst of a tough stretch with the next four games coming at Michigan, home against Iowa, at Louisville, and versus Notre Dame in Indianapolis. A split there would be a huge boon heading into the final three non-conference games, all of which are home dates with opponents IU should beat.

Failure to win one of the last two marquee non-conference games would leave the Hoosiers’ at-large hopes in a hole that may prove tough to dig out of.

Iowa (4-3)

Life in the post-Peter Jok era has not gotten off to a good start for the Hawkeyes. After beating up on three of the nation’s worst teams, Iowa dropped its first two games in the Cayman Islands to Louisiana-Lafayette and South Dakota State. The Hawkeyes did salvage a victory over UAB in the seventh place game, but any goodwill earned there evaporated on Tuesday night when they were outscored 41-17 in the second half at Virginia Tech.

Three of Iowa’s six remaining non-conference games come against sub-250 teams with another coming against Drake, who was projected by most to finish at or near the bottom of the Missouri Valley. The other two games take place away from home with a trip to an Iowa State team that struggled early on and a neutral court game against Colorado.

Even if the Hawkeyes win all of those games, they have still done some serious damage to the at-large case they hope to build in Big Ten play, which opens against Penn State on Saturday followed by a road trip to Indiana on Monday.

Maryland (6-2)

Home victories over Butler and Bucknell are Maryland’s only triumphs against Top 100 KenPom teams, the latter of which required a furious comeback to even pull off. Both of those wins should hold up well, but neither opponent projects as an at-large lock.

The Terps’ first loss came on a neutral court to St. Bonaventure, who played without injured star Jaylen Adams. The defeat also cost Maryland a shot at TCU in the final, instead leaving them to face a New Mexico team unlikely to finish in the top half of the Mountain West.

Poor late-game execution contributed to this week’s loss at Syracuse, which was the last meaningful game on the non-conference schedule. The Terps have just four games left against D-I opponents, with Ohio the only team inside the Top 200. Maryland doesn’t have an easy pair of league games coming up though, as they host Purdue on Friday before traveling to Illinois on Sunday.

Michigan (5-2)

A loss to LSU in the opener of the Maui Invitational will ultimately hurt Michigan’s strength of schedule, as it led to games against Chaminade and VCU instead of some combination of Notre Dame, Wichita State, and Marquette. Throw in Wednesday’s blowout loss at North Carolina and there’s not much to like on Michigan’s at-large profile so far.

The good news is that opportunities are still there with upcoming games at home against UCLA and on the road at Texas. The Wolverines will first need to bounce back from the UNC loss when league play opens against Indiana at home and on the road at Ohio State.

Michigan State (6-1)

Thursday’s 18-point win over Notre Dame was one of few bright spots for the Big Ten this week, and the Spartans have done little to suggest they aren’t still the favorite to win the league. They have picked up a pair of Top 15 victories already and the lone blemish on their record is a loss to Duke in the Champions Classic.

Michigan State has six non-conference games remaining with a neutral court game against Oakland the only one that might be remotely close. And with their first two Big Ten games at home against Nebraska and on the road against Rutgers, don’t look for Sparty to lose any games the rest of this month.

Minnesota (7-1)

With wins at Providence and on a neutral floor against Alabama, Minnesota was in a better position than most to absorb a loss in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge and they did just that by falling to a talented Miami team at home without starting guard Dupree McBrayer.

The Gophers have just one meaningful non-conference game left with a road trip to Arkansas coming on the heels of two winnable Big Ten games against Rutgers and Nebraska. At this point, Minnesota has established itself as one of the top three contenders in the league and boasts one of its best non-conference profiles.

Nebraska (6-2)

The Huskers provided what turned out to be one of just three wins in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge by knocking off Boston College at home. To date, that’s the only notable win for Nebraska.

A difficult four-game stretch starts on Sunday with a trip to Michigan State, which will be followed by games against Minnesota, on the road against Creighton and at home against Kansas. It’s hard to see the Huskers winning any of those games when you consider they’ve lost by a combined 32 points to the two best teams (St. John’s and Central Florida) they’ve played to date.

Northwestern (4-3)

A last-second loss at Georgia Tech on Wednesday places a ton of importance on Northwestern’s trip to Oklahoma on December 22nd. The Wildcats are currently just 4-3 with all three losses coming against tournament-caliber teams. Obviously the 36-point beatdown at the hands of Texas Tech is ugly, but what’s more concerning is that they simply don’t have any good wins right now.

Five non-conference games remain against D-I teams, but only the aforementioned road trip to Oklahoma and maybe a home date with Valparaiso give them a chance to move the needle. Matchups with Chicago State and Brown at home plus a road trip to DePaul are games Northwestern simply can’t afford to lose at this point.

The Wildcats open Big Ten play on Friday against Illinois before Sunday’s matchup at Purdue. They have to find a way to at least split those games.

Ohio State (5-3)

Like so many other Big Ten teams, quality wins are hard to come by when you look at OSU’s profile with the only candidate a win over Stanford in the PK80. That story would be different had they hung on to beat Butler in their PK80 finale last Sunday or even if they took care of business against Clemson at home on Wednesday night.

As it stands, the only tough game left on the non-conference slate comes on a neutral floor against North Carolina, but it’s extremely difficult to see them prevailing in that situation. Ohio State opens Big Ten play with a trip to Wisconsin and a home date with Michigan.

Penn State (6-2)

For the Nittany Lions, the non-conference season will end without anything close to a marquee win. Sure, they played well against a tough Texas A&M team in the Legends Classic, but they wound up losing by double digits. Penn State also got off to a hot start on Wednesday and jumped out to an 11-0 lead against North Carolina State before falling by seven on the road.

Next up are Big Ten games at Iowa and home against Wisconsin before five imminently winnable games to close out the non-con. I expect the Nittany Lions to be in the thick of things in what is shaping up to be an extremely crowded middle of the league, but this lack of quality non-conference wins may come back to haunt them.

Purdue (6-2)

Despite losing their first two games in the Battle 4 Atlantis to Tennessee (in overtime) and Western Kentucky, Purdue has still managed to put together a solid trio of victories. The Boilers won by 15 on the road against Marquette, salvaged their trip to the Bahamas by crushing Arizona and got the Big Ten on the board in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge by knocking off Louisville on Tuesday.

After opening league play with a trip to Maryland and a home date with Northwestern, Purdue still has two Top 100 teams on the non-con slate. They host currently unbeaten Valparaiso on December 7th and take on Butler in the Crossroads Classic later in the month.

Things were looking bleak after the loss to Western Kentucky and while that loss may still sting a bit come Selection Sunday, the Boilers have a great opportunity to close out the non-conference with a profile that won’t cost them multiple seed lines.

Rutgers (5-1)

With five cupcakes on the early schedule plus a matchup with CC of New York, Rutgers’ undefeated start was essentially smoke and mirrors. Their first test came at home against Florida State on Tuesday and the Scarlet Knights came up short in a five-point loss.

Things don’t get any easier as their Big Ten schedule opens with a trip to Minnesota on Sunday and a home game against Michigan State early next week. After what should be a 0-2 start in league play, six games remain on the non-conference slate. Five of those six come against teams ranked 190th or lower on KenPom and the sixth is a home date with Seton Hall that feels like a guaranteed loss.

Wisconsin (3-4)

The good news for the Badgers is that none of their four losses are bad with those defeats coming at home against Xavier, on the road against Virginia and on a neutral court to Baylor and UCLA. The bad news is they haven’t picked up any great wins though, as Yale and Milwaukee are currently their two best.

The remaining non-conference slate features what should be three sure wins as well as home games against Marquette and Western Kentucky and a trip to Temple. Marquette and Temple are both Top 60 teams and should be in the at-large discussion when it’s all said and done and Western Kentucky played well in the Battle 4 Atlantis. If the Badgers can run the table, their profile will be solid albeit unspectacular.

Wisconsin hosts Ohio State to open Big Ten play on Saturday before traveling to Penn State for what should be a tough game on Monday.

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  • RonMlarkey

    The B1G is exceptionally WEAK this year. This is the reason I was most surprised by the preseason prediction rankings for the Hoosiers which usually had them ending in the 8-9 spot in the B1G. While they are in a transition year and lost a lot of talent to the pros, there is little reason to believe teams like IOWA, Wisconsin, Penn st, Ohio St , Michigan and Northwestern have more talent than the Hoosiers. They do not. The Hoosiers are by no means a great team but they have what it takes to finish top 4 in the conference in an extreme off year for the big ten.

  • Ole Man

    Thanks for those stats. Knew the B1G was down this year, but didn’t realize how bad it was until I read your analysis.
    If IU only does okay, it means we’re not as good as some want to think we are.
    5th in the league might not get a bid!

  • bball at nick’s

    What happened to your 36 pt loss to Duke? Did you put it in safekeeping, in a tight, dark place? LOL.

  • RonMlarkey

    I never predicted a 36 point loss to Duke.

  • bball at nick’s

    You supported the poster who made that prediction, and happily did the math for him. LOL, you can’t weasel out so easily. Next time maybe you should have more faith in *your* team.

  • RonMlarkey

    HAHA never once did I say anything in “support” of his prediction, I simply did the math and was surprised at the margin leading me to comment “36 points!”. Next time maybe you should learn how to read without making wild assumptions.

  • bball at nick’s

    You asked where we would like to post the 36 pt result when it happens. If that’s not bashing your own team, then I don’t know what is. Just admit that you are a fair weather fan at best. Not to mention you demeaning our players. Who is your punching bag of the week? Curtis Jones was your last.

  • RonMlarkey

    Fake news, that was about my other post which stated Bagley would have 30 and 12 and that de’ron davis would be in foul trouble before the 14 minute mark (it was actually the 16 minute mark). You are my punching bag of the week.

  • Arch Puddington

    Happily, 4th might not be as much of a stretch as it seemed before the season began. Historically speaking, this team would not likely be a top 4 team in conference. But after MSU, PU, and MN, it’s not clear to me that anyone is just so much better than the Hoosiers that we can’t imagine finishing ahead of them. We won’t have quite as much energy and focus as we did against Duke, but on the other hand we will almost certainly keep fundamentally improving as the season goes on. The loss to ISU made me seriously doubt we could even dream of a bid, but the progress since then, plus the overall state of the league, has given me renewed hope.

  • bball at nick’s

    LOL, even worse.

  • Ivan Renko

    exaggerating to make a point, but the B1G is a glorified mid-major league this year. once Archie gets IU firing on all cylinders, Holtmann does the same at OSU, and Underwood gets rolling at UofI, B1G will be respectable again. not exciting at all to say “at least we’re not the PAC-12” haha

  • Koko

    I think you added to the 30, 12 that Bagley would come out of the game with 8 minutes left insinuating a blow out. He did play the last 8 minutes of the game….he had to to help secure a win.

  • Koko

    I think it is too soon to predict who does what in the B1G or any other conference (except for Duke). A lot can happen over the course of the conference season in every conference. We don’t know who gets injured, who comes out of no where winning games they shouldn’t. Way too many variables. I for one prefer to watch the first five or six games…not just ours but in the conference as a whole, to make any predictions for who finishes where and who goes to the tournament.

  • Koko

    It will get us to the NIT. For coach Miller’s first season that ain’t too bad.

  • sarge

    Actually, that isn’t what you said and none of your prediction came true. Bagley didn’t get 30 or 12 and played during the last 8 minutes because he HAD TO. He played 38 minutes. You said DD would be “in foul trouble the entire game, plays 13 minutes.” DD wasn’t in foul trouble the entire game, actually fouling out Carter Jr. instead and dominating Duke’s frontcourt. Duke was not in the double bonus by the 14 minute mark of each half either like you predicted. You are my punching bag of the season chump.

  • Kwang

    Maybe we finally win the B1G championship this year! I can dream.

  • Ole Man

    I think it will take 4th.
    After the debacle, I am now convinced that only 3 teams really deserve consideration.

  • vicbert caladipo

    This is a combination of too many bigten teams playing a soft schedule and the ACC just being a much better conference. ACC is deeper and gets better recruits. Take away MSU and more than half the ACC has better recruits than any team in the bigten. Peeyoo is strange team for instance. Lose to 2 middle tier teams, blow out one of the teams predicted to compete for the NCAA title, lose to a UL team finding their way under a new coach, then beating Maryland on the road today. MSU is the cream of the crop. The rest of the bigten, who knows. Anyone can rise to second. Why not us?