There are two weeks left in the Big Ten basketball regular season and two interesting races to monitor before the schools convene in Washington, D.C. for the conference tournament.
It’s been a weird year in the Big Ten. Not only are there no clear NCAA title contenders, the various ratings systems are not in agreement about several of the top teams in the conference.
Teams like Maryland and Minnesota are strong in the RPI but not Ken Pomeroy’s analytics ratings. Wisconsin and Michigan are the opposite.
There isn’t a dominant team, but that has led to a late-season scrum for the conference title. Three teams — Wisconsin, Purdue and Maryland — are within one game of each other with four to play.
Northwestern, two games back of Wisconsin and Purdue, could even be in the mix by the final day of the regular season when the Boilermakers come to Evanston.
The parity and overall lack of strength for the conference has left everyone else with work still to do to secure an NCAA tournament bid. Michigan, Michigan State and Minnesota are all NCAA berth contenders, but a late-season slump could be fatal to those chances.
Even with as frustrating as this season has been for Indiana fans, the Hoosiers could get back into the at-large discussion with a strong two weeks. Everyone else is probably going to need a magical and improbable week in Washington to reach the tournament.
It could be a wild finish in the Big Ten, both at the top and in the muddled middle. Let’s take a look at the must-watch games between now and the March 8-12 conference tournament.
Purdue at Penn State, Big Ten Network
The Nittany Lions are really young and really talented. They’ve been a wild card in the league this year, and the Boilermakers could find themselves in a tough situation at Bryce Jordan Center if the “really talented” part of Penn State keeps the crowd engaged.
Minnesota at Maryland, Big Ten Network
The Gophers have two very winnable home games and two tough road games left. If they just win at home, they should easily make the field. Win at Maryland or Wisconsin, and there’s no doubt left. Given how well Richard Pitino’s team is playing right now, the Gophers could have a big impact on who wins the league title.
Purdue at Michigan, ESPN2
The Wolverines are currently in the tournament for all 111 experts being tracked by The Bracket Matrix. They also have the lowest average seed of any projected at-large team on all 111 brackets. Like Minnesota, Michigan probably just needs to avoid a bad loss to Nebraska or Rutgers, but this would be a huge addition to the resume.
Wisconsin at Michigan State, CBS
The Spartans are 8-6 in the Big Ten and have a great strength of schedule. They’re also No. 41 in the RPI but all the way back at No. 54 in the KenPom rankings. Their only top-40 RPI wins are against Minnesota, and they could probably use one more for it not to be a nervous Selection Sunday.
Indiana at Purdue, ESPN
This feels like a lost season for the Hoosiers, but let’s say they get hot for two weeks. They are currently 90th in the RPI but 45th in KenPom, and adding a top-50 win against Northwestern would help. A top-25 road win would really help. Getting to 19-12 with three top-25 RPI wins is not going to push them into the NCAA Tournament, but it would get them back in the discussion, and a couple of good wins in Washington would still give Indiana some hope.
Michigan at Northwestern, Big Ten Network
There’s another potentially important battle to monitor: The race for the final spot in the top four. Northwestern is two games behind the leaders in the conference, but Michigan State, Minnesota and Michigan are also within two games of the Wildcats.
Fourth place is worth an extra day off at the Big Ten tournament and only needing to win three games that weekend instead of four. All four of Northwestern’s final games are tricky, so the No. 4 seed could definitely be in play.
Michigan State at Maryland, Big Ten Network
The Terps need to beat Minnesota, Iowa and Rutgers before this, but let’s say that happens. It could set up a massive game in College Park, which was just moved to Saturday of the final weekend.
Even if Purdue and Wisconsin win their next three games, Maryland can still reach the final day with a chance at a share of the league title by winning the final four games. That certainly won’t be easy, especially if Tom Izzo’s club comes to town desperate for a big win to solidify its NCAA Tournament chances.
Purdue at Northwestern, CBS
Minnesota at Wisconsin, Big Ten Network
There are sorts of fun permutations for why these games could be huge on the final day of the regular season. Purdue and Northwestern will play earlier in the day, so Wisconsin will know what is at stake when it tips off at 6 p.m. ET.
The Big Ten title could be on the line. The No. 4 seed and final double-bye in D.C. could be in play.
Pitino and Chris Collins could make a big statement in the Big Ten Coach of the Year race, while “carrying Purdue to a league title” would look good on Caleb Swanigan’s National Player of the Year resume.
There’s a lot at stake in the final two weeks, maybe a little more than usual after a definitely unusual season in the Big Ten.