With Illinois' win at Minnesota two days ago and Indiana's sudden sprint to the bottom, along with Northwestern losing 4 straight, Penn St. eeking out 4 wins and Purdue not building on their strong performance against IU last Saturday, I've started to wonder a lot about how we should feel about the Big Ten this year. On one hand, the conference has 5 ranked teams. Then again none of them are in the top 10.
I think we can all see that those five teams that are ranked, Michigan State, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio State and Wisconsin are the power squads of the conference. They're the top five teams and there is little doubt about that. It's how they were expected to be coming into the season and it's where they sit now. The real question becomes what to make of the other 7. Nebraska on down to Penn St. have all shown flashes of something, but also had their share of disappointments and it's really hard to sort out who is who in that group.
If we were to take the easy way out and just go with what Ken Pomeroy's rankings say of the squads they fall as follows, Minnesota, Nebraska, Illinois, Indiana, Penn St., Purdue and Northwestern. However, with remaining schedules these teams aren't going to remain in that order if that's how you were to pick them out. Nebraska's schedule going forward is gravy. 4 of their final five come against teams with 5 or less current wins. With a home matchup against Wisconsin to finish the season. There is a very good chance that they can finish with 10 conference wins. If that's the case Tim Miles should be B1G Coach of the Year and it shouldn't be close.
Outside of Nebraska you've got a Minnesota team that is struggling. Starting out the conference 4-3 they have now lost 5 of 7 and are in a position to lose 3 more before they get Penn St. at home. More than likely Minnesota's wins are pretty well finished. 8 wins is their ceiling and it's likely going to peak at 7 assuming they haven't just wrapped it up and called it a season by the time Penn State comes to town on the final day of the season.
Next you have Illinois who suddenly has some life after losing 8 straight from the start of January to the second week of February. Unfortunately for them, their schedule is still brutal. A red hot Nebraska team comes into town next Wednesday and then they face the top 3 squads in the conference to wrap up the season. Like Minnesota there is a good chance they've finished their winning for the year. 5 wins is possible, 4 wins is most likely.
Indiana as we all know has fallen apart at the seams. They're now road dogs to Northwestern tomorrow and still have to venture out to Madison and Ann Arbor. They do have three remaining home bouts as well. So if they can get 2 of those, one against Nebraska in March and Iowa on a reschedule seem most likely, there's a chance to turn their season back in a respectable direction. Most likely they're looking at 2 more wins and peaking at 6 Ws on the season.
Penn State is projected to lose out and finish at 4 wins, but as this season has gone, I wouldn't see it as likely. Two home games against a team they beat on the road in Ohio State and one that's struggled with strong front courts in Wisconsin reek of upset potential. There's also that game in Minnesota where someone has to win after both teams potentially have called it a year. I'm going to take a shot in the dark and say they get one more.
Purdue's schedule also continues to get more difficult. They have to go to Nebraska on Saturday and don't have another obviously winnable game until their final one in a home game against Northwestern. 3 road games and 2 home. Michigan comes to town next week and the aforementioned Northwestern are games 1a and 1b for winability. I'll give them the W against Northwestern, but don't feel comfortable about anything else.
Finally we have Northwestern. NW is the only team in the conference that I feel comfortable in saying is actually a bad team. An elite defensive team, they can stay in more games than they should, but they cannot score the basketball. Luckily they have the softest remaining schedule with an away game at Nebraska being their toughest. Pomeroy likes them for two more wins, but I'm not seeing it. Only Penn St. will be seeing them for the first time. Everyone else will have experienced the Northwestern defense and won't be caught off guard. They'll get that home win against Penn St., but that's probably it.
If things pan out somewhat close to the previously stated, the Big Ten is going to have a ton of 5-6 win teams. Assuming that Illinois, Penn St and Indiana at least all find one more win and the Big Ten will have the highest floor since 1980. In a year, where not a ton of conference results have made sense the strength of the floor likely explains a lot of that. As things currently stand 4 wins by the worst team in the league has only been accomplished 4 times in the last 34. While the top probably hasn't been nearly as strong as the recent few years, the foundation has been the best it has been in years. So if you're a fan of IU, Purdue, Penn St., Minnesota, Illinois or Northwestern, don't feel so bad. At least you're a part of the best worst teams in conference history.