IOWA CITY, Ia. – Trying to predict the outcomes of Big Ten Conference men’s basketball games this season has been an exercise in folly.
Nebraska won at Michigan State. Indiana lost at home to Northwestern and Penn State, but beat Michigan and Wisconsin. The Nittany Lions won at Ohio State. Wisconsin won at Northwestern, and the Wildcats returned the favor in Madison. Iowa won at Ohio State. The Buckeyes won in Iowa City. That’s just a small sample size of the craziness.
“This is the most competitive league in the country,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said.
The question remains: How will this fratricide shake out come NCAA Tournament time? Will teams get lower seeds, or be left out of the Big Dance altogether, because of the infighting?
That is a question only the NCAA selection committee can, and will, answer. Selection Sunday is the nitty-gritty culmination of an intense and tireless study of wins and losses, strength of schedules, home vs. road results, stretch-drive success and more.
The Big Ten looks to have five teams on solid footing: Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Iowa and Ohio State. Red-hot Nebraska is closing fast at the right time, and Minnesota has cooled off at the wrong time. One of those could make it a Big Ten six-pack.
The numbers bear out McCaffery’s “competitive” opinion. All 12 teams have won on the road. All 12 have lost at home. Road teams this season are 38-47. Michigan State is 6-2 on the road, 5-2 at home. Wisconsin is 5-2 on the road, just 4-3 at home.
“The talent level and abilities of the teams one through 12 contribute to road teams winning more,” said Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan, whose team just beat rated foes on the road (Michigan, Iowa) in back-to-back games for the first time in school history.
Iowa plays at Minnesota today, looking for a fourth consecutive road win for the first time since the 1986-87 season. The Hawkeyes also could notch their fifth Big Ten road triumph for the first time since 1997-98. Michigan and Nebraska are the only teams to lose just once at home. Joining Iowa with winning road records are Michigan State, Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio State.
Who has the best conference — the debate this season has centered on the Big Ten vs. the Big 12 — is a conversation that will ultimately be determined during the NCAA Tournament.
Nebraska was an NCAA afterthought earlier in the season, when it started 0-4 in Big Ten play. But a Big 12 transfer and a stunning Feb. 16 win at Michigan State have moved the Cornhuskers into the conversation.
Terran Petteway averaged 3.3 points as a freshman at Texas Tech. After a redshirt season, he’s leading the Big Ten in scoring at 19.4 points.
Picked to finish last in the league, the Cornhuskers have won seven of their last eight games to improve to 8-6 in the Big Ten and 16-10 overall. With games remaining at Illinois and Indiana and home against Indiana and Wisconsin, it is not a leap of faith to see Nebraska get to the 10-win mark in conference play.
Since the Big Ten went from 16 to 18 league games in 2007-08, only three teams have been left out of the NCAA Tournament with at least 10 victories: Ohio State in 2008, Penn State in 2009 and Illinois in 2010.
In the latest NCAA RPI released Monday, Minnesota is 46th and Nebraska 48th. The Gophers have lost six of their last eight games to drop to 6-9 in the Big Ten and 17-11 overall. USA TODAY’s most recent tournament projections have the Gophers in. Joe Lunardi’s Bracketology on ESPN has them one of the last four teams out.
That makes the game with Iowa at Williams Arena a must-win — barring a deep run in the Big Ten Tournament — for the Gophers. Especially with a trip to Michigan still on the schedule. On Sunday, first-year coach Richard Pitino tweeted, “Stick with us Gopher fans. We need everybody on Tuesday!”
It’s an important, but not make-or-break, game for the Hawkeyes. Iowa is poised to make its first NCAA Tournament since 2006. The Hawkeyes face the daunting task of three games in six days this week, also traveling to Indiana on Thursday and hosting Purdue on Sunday.
Dropping from 26th to 28th on the NCAA’s RPI after Saturday’s loss to Wisconsin, Iowa won’t get many chances to get a positive bump since four of the five remaining games are against teams in the second division. And with each loss, the Hawkeyes’ NCAA seed will take a hit.
Iowa is a curious case study. The Hawkeyes are ranked 10th by Ken Pomeroy and 11th on ESPN’s Basketball Percentage Index. These are more analytical studies that factor in game outcomes and location. The NCAA’s RPI doesn’t factor in actual scores.
Numbers aside, it really comes down to one thing at this point in the season. Just win, baby.
Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year and covers Hawkeye basketball Follow on Twitter: @ByRickBrown