This is the part of the show in which, ordinarily, we’d tell you to stick a fork in Rutgers early. The part where we yap about how it stands to reason to march Purdue steadily, methodically, along the bracket in ink.
One problem: Reason, bless her, told the Big Ten 2016-17 basketball season to get bent a long time ago.
Actually, she dumped it like it was a radioactive urinal cake. The way the late, great John Belushi plopped the late, great Carrie Fisher in the muck at the end of “The Blues Brothers”:
With the exception of the Scarlet Knights — the poor souls (and soles) who’ll help to lift the lid on the box of ferrets that is the 2017 Big Ten men’s basketball tournament — each of the other bottom five seeds managed to pick up at least one victory in the regular season over at least one of the top 5 seeds in the field.
And two of the four schools stuck in Wednesday purgatory — Ohio State, the No. 12 seed and Penn State, the No. 13 — have racked up three wins each over the schools among the aforementioned top 5.
On January 29, the Boilermakers, with a KenPom.com rank of 14th nationally, lost at Nebraska and its KenPom rank of 105. That same Huskers team won at Maryland (KenPom: 38) on New Year’s Day — and promptly dropped eight of its next nine.
The Terrapins, the 3 seed and presumptive “home” team as the Big Ten wades into Washington, D.C., for the first time in league tourney history, have wins at Michigan, at Iowa, at Minnesota, and at Northwestern, yet lost to the Big Red (12-18) at home and to the Nittany Lions (14-17) on the road.
So, yeah, basically, welcome to Bizarro World. On the surface, everything about this Big Ten tournament, the 20th in league annals, feels a bit … well … off. From the venue (the Verizon Center) to the backdrop (the first along the Eastern seaboard after the initial 19 were held in Chicago or Indianapolis) to the bracket itself.
The Buckeyes (17-14), a program with the second-most wins posted at the event (26, even after a tourney title in 2002 was wiped out by NCAA shenanigans) are the 11 seed here, banished to Wednesday’s play-in first round, stuck on the long road. Northwestern (21-10), which is tied with Indiana and Penn State for the most all-time losses on this stage (19), is the 6 seed. The 10 seed, Indiana (17-14), owns two of the Big Ten’s most impressive nonconference victories with wins over Kansas (KenPom: 9) in Hawaii and over North Carolina (KenPom: 4) in Bloomington. Annnnnnnnd … not much else.
‘When you go around the Big Ten, I think the players all get a sense that there’s nobody that is invincible.’
— ESPN analyst Tim McCormick
What’s down is up, what’s up is down, and it means at least a dozen teams — again, sorry, Rutgers — jump into the cage thinking they’ve got better than a half a chance to slug all the way to Sunday.
And hell, they might be right.
“I would imagine there’s so much parity in that second tier that you’re going to have a lot of upsets,” ESPN analyst Tim McCormick said.
“Teams like Minnesota, Northwestern, Michigan and Michigan State are going to be playing with greater (urgency) as they know that one win probably helps to put them in. Minnesota and Northwestern may be in good shape, anyway.”
The Wolverines (20-11) and Spartans (18-13) are, too, barring a collapse that puts the ’64 Phillies to shame. The two teams with the most work to do in D.C. to get off the bubble are probably hard-charging Iowa (18-13) and Illinois (18-13), each looking to nail that closing kick.
The Hawkeyes (KenPom: 67) have won four in a row — snatching road pelts at Maryland and Wisconsin along the way — and seven of their last 10. The Fighting Illini (KenPom: 68) have won five of their last seven and topped Iowa twice between Jan. 25 and Feb. 18.
“There are a lot of teams that have a lot at stake,” McCormick continued. “But I also think that players know when they play against somebody they’re as good as, or better than they are. And when you go around the Big Ten, I think the players all get a sense that there’s nobody that is invincible.”
The bracket’s bottom five seeds — Rutgers, Penn State, Nebraska, Ohio State and Indiana — have a combined record of just 2-13 against the top-seeded Boilermakers and the second-seeded Badgers. But they’re 7-14, collectively, against seeds 3-5.
Not great, granted. But not miles out of reach, either.
“So that adds swagger and confidence,” McCormick said. “I think it’ll do nothing but make it even more competitive.”
In other words, more completely bonkers.
Then again, outside of West Lafayette, the last nine weeks generally haven’t made a whole lot of sense. Why start now?
“I still think the championship will come out of Purdue or Wisconsin,” McCormick said. “Those are the two best teams, to me.”
After that, kids, you’re on your own. Because in 2017, logic is out the window. And it’s a 37-floor drop to the pavement below.