College basketball season hits its stride in the next few weeks with the start of conference play. So it’s time to take stock of where the Big Ten teams stand in regards to the NCAA Tournament.
ESPN offered up its take on Thursday with Joe Lunardi’s latest Bracketology, and he has nine Big Ten teams in the 68-team field. But none are higher than a No. 4 seed.
Here’s where Lunardi sees things for the Big Ten at the moment:
No. 4 Purdue (vs. No. 13 San Diego State)
The Boilermakers are off to a terrific start at 11-2 with their only losses to Villanova and Louisville by a combined 10 points. Caleb Swanigan is a serious contender for national player of the year, averaging 18.3 points and 12.5 rebounds per game.
Purdue opens Big Ten play at home against Iowa on Dec. 28.
No. 11 Minnesota (vs. Seton Hall in play-in; winner vs. No. 6 Notre Dame)
The Gophers haven’t been challenged too much in nonconference play, but sit at 11-1 with their only loss to Florida State. If they finish at .500 or slightly below in Big Ten play, they can get in the NCAA Tournament.
Right now, Lunardi has Minnesota as one of his last four teams in.
No. 4 Wisconsin (vs. No. 13 Valparaiso)
The Badgers, the preseason favorites in the Big Ten, didn’t pass their two toughest nonconference tests — Creighton and UNC — but took care of business otherwise. Greg Gard’s team is loaded with talent and experience, so there’s little reason to believe the Badgers won’t be a No. 5 seed or better come March.
No. 10 Michigan State (vs. No. 7 USC)
The Spartans are off to a slow start at 8-5, albeit with losses to four top-20 teams — Duke, Baylor, Arizona and Kentucky. They also have a bad one to Northeastern on their résumé. They will get freshman star Miles Bridges back soon; he averaged 16.6 points and 8.8 boards per game before going down against Duke with an ankle injury.
Tom Izzo’s group opens Big Ten play at Minnesota before home games against Northwestern, Rutgers, Penn State and Minnesota again. So if the Spartans need a strong start to league play to make a 20th straight NCAA Tournament, appearance, the opportunity is there.
No. 9 Michigan (vs. No. 8 Texas A&M)
The Wolverines should be back in the NCAA Tournament again; they’ve made it in five of the last six seasons. They can shoot with anyone, ranking 25th nationally in effective field goal percentage.
Michigan will be favored in its first five Big Ten games — against Iowa, Maryland, Penn State, Illinois, Nebraska — so a good to start to league play is crucial (and possible).
No. 12 Northwestern (play-in vs. No 12 Arkansas; winner vs. No. 5 Saint Mary’s)
Northwestern has never made the NCAA Tournament. Not once. Even at 20-12 a season ago, the Wildcats couldn’t get in.
They’ll enter Big Ten play this year at 11-2 with their only losses to Notre Dame and Butler. They boast strong interior defense and a balanced offense.
This just might be the year.
No. 7 Maryland (vs. No. 10 TCU)
Maryland is 12-1 with a handful of top-40 wins (Georgetown, Kansas State, Oklahoma State), but its nonconference slate was largely a cakewalk. The Terps will have to earn some respect in Big Ten play.
No. 5 Indiana (vs. No. 12 UNC Wilmington)
Indiana’s season thus far has been very erratic, with wins over Kansas and North Carolina but loses to Fort Wayne and Butler. Still, the Hoosiers shouldn’t have much trouble cracking the NCAA Tournament field. They boast the 10th-best offense in country, per KenPom.com, and have the third-best effective field goal percentage.
No. 10 Ohio State (vs. No. 7 Miami)
Ohio State’s best win thus far is against a borderline top-50 team in Providence. And then there are losses to Virginia, UCLA and Florida Atlantic (gulp). Now, the Buckeyes get thrown into the Big Ten fire with games against Purdue, Wisconsin and Michigan State coming in their first five conference games.