The case for and against the Big Ten bubble teams

Illinois’ Khalid Lewis gets blocked on a layup by Wisconsin’s Khalil Iverson during the game against Wisconsin at the State Farm Center on Sunday, January 31. The Illini lost 63-55.

By Dan Escalona

Over the next week or two, you will undoubtably hear a lot about bubbles. 

As it stands now, the Big Ten is guaranteed at least five spots in the tournament. For those five teams —Indiana, Michigan State, Maryland, Iowa and Purdue — the regular-season finales and the conference tournament are all about NCAA tournament seeding.

However, if the Big Ten wants eight teams throughout the bracket, three teams on bubble watch have no margin for error in improving their cases to the selection committee. Three of the conference’s previous four Final Four programs — Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio State — are in position to secure a berth, yet work can still be done to make their selection a formality.

It’s time for these three squads to prove if they are the next bubble team to get hot at just the right time, surprising everyone with a deep tournament run.

The Case of the Badgers:

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Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, here we have a team whose longtime head coach retired suddenly in December and prior to that lost to Western Illinois at home. At the start of the new year, most of us considered Wisconsin in rebuilding mode and en route to the NIT.

But right before the Badgers could escape from our collective psyches, interim coach Greg Gard willed his team back into the tournament conversation. Anyone with even limited knowledge of Big Ten basketball knows by now that Wisconsin began conference play 1-4, only to win 10 of the next 11 games.

Wisconsin’s run includes victories over Michigan State, Indiana, Maryland and Iowa. Four of its losses in conference play were by less than six points. The Badgers‘ nonconference schedule includes victories over VCU, Syracuse and Temple, and even a loss to Oklahoma. A simple glance at the Wisconsin schedule will reveal a tough schedule, yet a closer look at strength of schedule reveals a team with the fourth hardest schedule in the country.

A visit to Purdue on Saturday is a game Wisconsin must have to guarantee itself a spot in the final 68. It also wouldn’t hurt to win at least one game in the conference tournament.

It may have taken a few weeks for Wisconsin to adjust to the coaching change, but now it is more than ready to bust a few brackets. As bubble teams go, the Badgers have one of the stronger resumes to go by.

A March without a Badger sighting is a crime against the natural basketball order.

The Case of Michigan:

Your Honor, here we have a team that just lost senior Caris LeVert, its top scorer, for the remainder of the season. I ask that the Wolverines be judged not on injury to a star player but by a season-long resume.

We have a team before us that ranks a pedestrian 57th in the RPI and 69th in strength of schedule. The Wolverines are just 3-9 against the RPI top 50, including losses to Xavier, UConn and SMU. Michigan’s best nonconference win was over Texas.

Michigan’s conference resume is nothing terribly exciting, either. The team’s best Big Ten victories were over Maryland and Purdue. Yet, the Wolverines have lost by 10 points or more against Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan State, Iowa, Ohio State and Purdue.

Michigan is about as borderline as one could be with Selection Sunday looming. Saturday’s home game against Iowa is a must-win for the Wolverines, as is winning at least two games in the conference tournament. A loss to Iowa and early conference tournament exit will likely mean settling for the NIT for the Wolverines.

The Case of Ohio State:

Your Honor, here we have a team whose tournament resume is nearly identical to the resume of its rival Michigan. Ohio State may have a better strength of schedule at 53rd in the country, but they are only 2-8 against the RPI top 50.

The Buckeyes had a respectable nonconference slate against the likes of Virginia, UConn, Memphis and Kentucky. They lost to Virginia and Connecticut and in overtime to Memphis, yet did manage to beat Kentucky.

Inside the Big Ten, Ohio State’s only notable victory came last Sunday at home against Iowa. The rest of the Buckeye’ wins were over the conference bottom feeders. Some of the Buckeyes’ worst losses of the season were against conference foes in Maryland (35 points) and Indiana (25 points).

Ohio State’s saving grace in its tournament resume was the head-to-head win against Michigan. That game was in fact Ohio State’s third-best win of the season, according to the game’s BPI ranking. If the Buckeyes do nothing else to improve their resume, the victory over Michigan should be enough to put them into the tournament above their rival.

There you have it, the cases for each of the Big Ten’s bubble teams. Given the topsy-turvy nature of this Big Ten season, it would not be shocking to see one of these teams make it all the way to the conference title game. One never knows, one of these three squads — particularly Wisconsin — can spoil the season for an “objectively” better team in the tournament.

Dan is a senior in Media.

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