First, the good news: It’s February. Everything’s in pencil, including the ceiling.
Starting with Sunday’s tussle with Northwestern, four of the Wisconsin Badgers’ last seven regular-season dates are against KenPom.com top 50 programs. The last few chapters, the good parts, are still blank pages, a limitless horizon, as wide open as imagination itself.
“I think the ceiling either for Wisconsin or Purdue, for different reasons, is probably around a 3 (seed),” CBS Sports bracketologist Jerry Palm told Land of 10 Saturday, shortly after the NCAA tournament’s first-ever “teaser” top 16 seeds were announced — a top 16 that featured, um, zero Big Ten schools.
“It’s just going to be hard for them to get the wins they need to get much higher than that against a pretty competitive top of the bracket.”
Saturday’s revelation of the NCAA tournament’s “working” Sweet 16 — the first time the selection committee has offered a sneak peek of the madness to come — was as notable for who wasn’t there as who was.
No Wisconsin (21-3, No. 7 AP Poll).
No Purdue (20-5, No. 16).
No Maryland (20-4, No. 21).
— Wisconsin Basketball (@BadgerMBB) February 11, 2017
“(The Big Ten middle) is better than the middle of the SEC,” Palm continued. “It’s better than the middle of the Pac-12. But (Wisconsin) didn’t get it done in November and December and they paid for it in (February).”
‘It’s not just the 0-3, it’s the three’
The case against the Badgers cracking the penthouse — the Big Ten hasn’t been shut out of a top 4 seed since 2004 — in the eyes of the selection types is fairly cut and dried: As of Saturday, Wisconsin is 0-3 versus the RPI top 25. More to the point, the three setbacks in question — at Creighton (unofficial RPI rank: 16), vs. North Carolina (5) and at the Boilermakers (20) — came by an average margin of 12.7 points.
“It’s not just the 0-3, it’s the three,” Palm explained. “It’s that they don’t have a lot of high-quality opponents and they haven’t beaten any of them.
“So the problem is a lack of quality opponents. They didn’t beat any of them and, honestly, weren’t competitive in any of those games. Any of them.”
In their defense, the Badgers are victims of elements outside their control, too. Unlike, say, West Virginia (the committee’s working 4 seed in the West), Butler (the 4 seed in the South), or Duke (the 4 seed in the Midwest), league play hasn’t provided them with many quality wins — or, for that matter, quality opportunities.
Since Christmas, Wisconsin has faced only three opponents, as of Saturday morning, who were ranked among the unofficial RPI top 60, all on the road. The Badgers won two of the three, with victories at Minnesota (RPI: 23) on Jan. 21 and at Illinois (RPI: 53) on Jan. 31 and a loss at Purdue (RPI: 20) on Jan. 8.
The Blue Devils, by comparison, had played eight RPI top 60 teams since Christmas and won five of those matchups. West Virginia, as of Saturday morning, had played seven and won five. Butler had played five and won three.
“In the Big 12, the middle is pretty similar to the Big Ten’s middle,” Palm continued.
“The problem for the Big Ten, and the difference, is that the Big 12’s middle gets (two) shots at Baylor and (two) shots at Kansas. Nobody in the Big Ten’s middle get a shot at anybody else of that quality.”
‘The fact they don’t get to play (Purdue) again hurts both of them’
So it becomes a volume quandary as much as anything else. The trickle-down effect of the imperfect storm, a season in which a huge swath of the league’s usual bar-setters — Michigan State (RPI: 50), Indiana (81), Ohio State (66), Michigan (74), Illinois (53) and Iowa (99) — are just flat-out down at the same time.
Or in a “transition” phase.
Or however you want to spin it.
That, and …
“(Wisconsin is) hurt by the unbalanced schedule,” Palm said. “The fact they don’t get to play (Purdue) again hurts both of them.”
Badgers, heal thyselves. Of Wisconsin’s next seven tests, four are against teams currently among the RPI top 60, with the red-letter dates being a visit from Maryland (RPI: 24) on Feb. 19 and a trip to Michigan State on Feb. 26.
If the Badgers want to sniff that ceiling — even if that ceiling is a 3 — it starts there.
“Who’s left that can help them?” Palm said. “Purdue, if they get (the Boilers) in the conference tournament.”
If. If. If. When it comes to Bracketville, you’ve got to make hay while the sun shines. But what the heck do you do when the forecast calls for a haze that can’t seem to take the freaking hint?