Breaking down the Big Ten basketball race and NCAA predictions

Top-ranked league could set its high mark for teams in the Big Dance this year

Published: February 13 2012 | 3:40 pm - Updated: 3 April 2014 | 12:19 pm in

IOWA CITY — The Big Ten continues to rank as the best league nationally, with nine teams fitting among the top 61 in the latest RPI (Ratings Performance Index) rankings.

The question is, how many of those teams will compete in the NCAA Tournament?

Three times in its history the Big Ten has qualified seven teams for the NCAA Tournament, including last year. In 2009, all seven NCAA squads ranked 45th or better in RPI, a measurement based on wins, losses and strength-of-schedule that often determines NCAA Tournament invitations. Last year, all seven ranked 52 or better.

The Big Ten could set its league high for most schools qualifying for the NCAA. Joe Lunardi, who conducts "Bracketology" on ESPN, has the league sending eight teams. CBS Sports' Jerry Palm projects nine schools to the tournament.

Either way it shows the Big Ten is balanced. Five teams are ranked in the top 18 by the Associated Press. Every Big Ten school has beaten a ranked opponent this year, even last-place Penn State and Nebraska.

"I think it's important that all the teams get a tremendous amount of notoriety right now for what they're doing inside this league," Indiana Coach Tom Crean said. " I think what happens sometimes is one or two games can make you jump out, it can be a big week or a big game, instead of really focusing on how good this league is.

"It's a unique preparation every time you play somebody in this league. If there's a league that prepares you any better for what you will see in the NCAA Tournament other than the Big Ten, I haven't seen it."

The AP's five ranked teams — Ohio State (6), Michigan State (7), Wisconsin (15), Michigan (17) and Indiana (18) — all are in prime position to make the NCAA Tournament. Four other teams — Purdue, Illinois, Minnesota and Northwestern — are battling for positioning.

Purdue boasts a 6-6 league record and has five wins against top-50 RPI teams. The other three have 5-7 Big Ten records. Minnesota has the best overall record at 17-8, while Northwestern has the best RPI of the four at 44.

Illinois once was leading the Big Ten with a 4-1 league record, but has lost six of seven. The Illini have beaten both Ohio State and Michigan, both of which are top 10 in RPI.

"We're trying to win games to finish up in the top part of the league to have a chance to get in the NCAA," Illinois Coach Bruce Weber said. "Part of that is the seeding of the Big Ten Tournament. I think last season it went down for, I think, Michigan, us, Michigan State, and it all went down to the last day.

"We have to win games. It's plain and simple. We want to get in the NCAA Tournament; we're just trying to focus on that. That's the biggest thing."

For Crean, in order to think about the NCAA Tournament it's best to not think about the tournament.

"If you get a head of yourself for even a segment of practice and start thinking about something down the road rather than where you're at and the task at hand, it can go away on you quickly," he said.

Here's a quick rundown of the Big Ten and where each team could fit into the postseason:

OHIO STATE

  • Record: 21-4
  • Conference: 9-3
  • RPI: 10
  • Remaining schedule: at Minnesota, at Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, at Northwestern, at Michigan State
  • Prediction: The Buckeyes have a tough stretch to finish the season with all six Big Ten opponents contending for the NCAA Tournament. A 5-1 record likely earns at least a share of the Big Ten title. Sharing the Big Ten title and winning the Big Ten Tournament likely gets Ohio State a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. NCAA lock

MICHIGAN STATE

  • Record: 20-5
  • Conference: 9-3
  • RPI: 4
  • Remaining schedule: Wisconsin, at Purdue, at Minnesota, Nebraska, at Indiana, Ohio State
  • Prediction: Michigan State has a slightly less imposing schedule than Ohio State to finish the regular season. A win against Ohio State in the season finale likely sews up a Big Ten title. Should the Spartans get to 26 or more wins, they're in contention for a No. 2 NCAA Tournament seed. NCAA lock

MICHIGAN

  • Record: 19-7
  • Conference: 9-4
  • RPI: 14
  • Remaining schedule: Ohio State, at Northwestern, Purdue, at Illinois, at Penn State
  • Prediction: The Wolverines face only one team (Ohio State) that has a winning Big Ten record, and that game is at home, where Michigan is unbeaten. It's possible the Wolverines could win all five games. Michigan likely is a 2-4 NCAA Tournament seed depending on its regular-season finish and Big Ten Tournament result. NCAA lock

WISCONSIN

  • Record: 19-6
  • Conference: 8-4
  • RPI: 24
  • Remaining schedule: at Michigan State, Penn State, at Iowa, at Ohio State, Minnesota, Illinois
  • Prediction: Barring a big finish with wins over the co-leaders and later against two bubble teams to finish the season, the Badgers are more than likely a first-division Big Ten squad that's competitive for a No. 4 NCAA seed. NCAA lock

INDIANA

  • Record: 19-6
  • Conference: 7-6
  • RPI: 15
  • Remaining schedule: Northwestern, at Iowa, North Carolina Central (non-conference), at Minnesota, Michigan State, Purdue
  • Prediction: The Hoosiers, with wins over Kentucky and Ohio State, are solidly an NCAA Tournament team. Indiana is within range of a No. 4 seed but could stumble to a No. 7 seed depending on the final six games and Big Ten Tournament. NCAA lock

PURDUE

  • Record: 16-9
  • Conference: 6-6
  • RPI: 56
  • Remaining schedule: at Illinois, Michigan State, Nebraska, at Michigan, Penn State, at Indiana
  • Prediction: An NCAA bubble team that owns six wins against top-60 RPI teams. A 3-3 finish means at least one more win against a top-50 squad and a likely NCAA tourney berth. NCAA (on the bubble)

MINNESOTA

  • Record: 17-8
  • Conference: 5-7
  • RPI: 61
  • Remaining schedule: Ohio State, at Northwestern, Michigan State, Indiana, at Wisconsin, Nebraska
  • Prediction: The Gophers face perhaps the toughest road of the Big Ten's bubble foursome. The Gophers have the lowest RPI and have two conference losses against Iowa (RPI 130). But Minnesota plays four of its final six at home and three wins earn a 20th win. The game against Northwestern might be an NCAA Tournament elimination game, if the records are equal. NIT (on the bubble)

ILLINOIS

  • Record: 16-9
  • Conference: 5-7
  • RPI: 46
  • Remaining schedule: Purdue, at Nebraska, at Ohio State, Iowa, Michigan, at Wisconsin
  • Prediction: The Illini surprised many with a 10-0 start and were leading the Big Ten with a 4-1 record just a month ago. But Illinois has hit a swoon, losing six of seven and now have become a bubble team. But the Illini have beaten Ohio State and Michigan State so 19 wins should get them into the NCAA Tournament. NCAA (on the bubble)

NORTHWESTERN

  • Record: 15-9
  • Conference: 5-7
  • RPI: 44
  • Remaining schedule: at Indiana, Minnesota, Michigan, at Penn State, Ohio State, Iowa
  • Prediction: Northwestern should earn its first NCAA Tournament berth with a 3-3 regular-season finish. But the Wildcats need to take care of business against Penn State and Iowa and win one of the other four, most likely Minnesota at home. An 18-13 record puts the Wildcats on the bubble, and it could come down to the Northwestern-Minnesota game on Feb. 18. NCAA (on the bubble)

IOWA

  • Record: 13-12
  • Conference: 5-7
  • RPI: 130
  • Remaining schedule: at Penn State, Indiana, Wisconsin, at Illinois, at Nebraska, Northwestern
  • Prediction: Iowa's NCAA hopes likely are gone but the Hawkeyes still have a shot at the NIT. A winning record in the nation's top conference (according to RPI and strength-of-schedule) put Iowa in decent shape for the NIT, depending on the number of conference champions not advancing to the NCAA Tournament. If not, the CBI is a good bet. NIT

NEBRASKA

  • Record: 11-13
  • Conference: 3-10
  • RPI: 127
  • Remaining schedule: Illinois, at Purdue, at Michigan State, Iowa, at Minnesota
  • Prediction: It's been a tough year in Lincoln coming off an NIT season. Maybe a couple of more wins earns a CBI bid, but that's doubtful.

PENN STATE

  • Record: 11-15
  • Conference: 3-10
  • RPI: 131
  • Remaining schedule: Iowa, at Wisconsin, Northwestern, at Purdue, Michigan
  • Prediction: Despite the record, Pat Chambers' squad is hardly an easy out for most squads. The Nittany Lions could definitely pop tournament hopes for Northwestern or Purdue with an upset.

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