You can see the complaint coming from a mile away. Or six weeks, whichever is closer.
The Big Ten Conference could put as many as 10 teams in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament in mid-March and people aren’t going to like it.
The mid-major schools will be upset — what’s new? — because so many middle-of-the-pack Big Ten teams will get in. The Big Ten’s sister conference, the Pac-12, will be ticked off because it might only get one or two teams in. The Big East will be angry when it doesn’t get its usual haul on Selection Sunday.
But here’s the reality for anyone who is gearing up to complain when the Big Ten floods the NCAA field with teams: The computers are head over heels in love with the Big Ten. The NCAA has replaced the RPI with the NET as a measuring tool for the selection committee this year and the latest NET rankings have seven Big Ten teams in the top 28 and 10 in the top 50.
The carnage from the first half of the 20-game conference season has dropped some Big Ten teams in the human polls, but its strong non-conference showing — 121-30 record, 33 victories over power-conference opponents — is still strongly reflected in the computer polls. And not just the NET. The RPI, KenPom and Sagarin ratings all hold the conference teams in high regard as well.
There is hope for the would-be complainers because Big Ten teams, as expected, are cannibalizing themselves in conference play. Other than Michigan and Michigan State, almost every potential tournament team has a stretch of five, six or seven games it would like to forget. Most got past it but one or two might not.
The latest brackets from ESPN’s Joe Lunardi show 10 Big Ten teams in the NCAA tournament, though Nebraska, Ohio State, Indiana and Minnesota are far from locks. The way things are going with some of those teams, eight or nine bids seems more realistic than 10.
At the midpoint of the conference season, here is one view of how the Big Ten might end up:
1. Michigan State: (18-3, 9-1): The Spartans’ 13-game winning streak ended with a loss at red-hot Purdue, but chalk that one up to the schedule (it was their third game in seven days). More important, the impressive wins have continued even without injured shooting guard Joshua Langford.
2. Michigan (20-1, 9-1): Only a loss at the University of Wisconsin has marred the season for a balanced Wolverines team coming off a loss in the NCAA final in April. Behind its best-in-the-conference defense, Michigan rebounded quickly from that loss with three straight wins.
3. Purdue (14-6, 7-2): The Boilermakers started the season 6-5 and are 8-1 since behind some 3-point bombers and a developing inside game. With a favorable remaining schedule that doesn’t have Michigan, Michigan State or UW, Purdue might be the only team that can catch Michigan or Michigan State in the conference race.
4. UW (15-6, 7-3): The Badgers lost four out of five games at one point, but have re-established themselves with four straight wins, including the upset of Michigan. The defense gets stronger by the game and, when Ethan Happ’s supporting cast shows up, UW is tough to beat. That, however, will be severely tested by the schedule the next two weeks.
5. Maryland (17-5, 8-3): The young Terps, with five freshmen in the rotation, were rolling until they lost at Michigan State, as expected, and to Illinois at Madison Square Garden, which was a shocker. They’re back on track, but Friday night’s game at UW could ultimately determine the No. 4 seed in the Big Ten tournament.
6. Iowa (16-5, 5-5): Defense continues to be a problem — the Hawkeyes gave up 87 points per game in two losses last week — but there is plenty of firepower. A home upset of Michigan Friday night would put Iowa solidly in the mix for a first-division finish.
7. Minnesota (15-5, 5-4): The Gophers are the Big Ten’s most inconsistent team, but they have enough talent to contend for a top-four spot in the conference. They also have a difficult schedule in February and a 50th ranking in the NET, which means they’re on the bubble.
8. Ohio State (13-7, 3-6): The Buckeyes, along with the remaining teams on this list, need to finish out strong because they too are on the NCAA tournament bubble. Offensively challenged and turnover prone, they’ve lost six of their past seven games, but are hitting a soft spot in the schedule and could get back on track.
9. Indiana (12-8, 3-6): The Hoosiers were rolling along with a 12-2 record, then lost their past six, bookended by losses to Michigan. Indiana had better find scoring help for freshman sensation Romeo Langford and Juwan Morgan because the remaining schedule is brutal and they’ve already fallen to 44th in the NET.
10. Nebraska (13-8, 3-7): Another team that started fast, going 11-2, before hitting hard times. The veteran Cornhuskers have dropped four in a row, one of them to Rutgers, and lost senior forward Isaac Copeland for the season. They’re still 28th in the NET, but they’re heading in the wrong direction.
11. Northwestern (12-9, 3-7): The Wildcats are hard to beat but have a lot of ground to make up. That’ll be hard to do for a team that is struggling mightily on offense.
12. Illinois (6-14, 2-7): Unfortunately for the Illini, two big wins — Minnesota and Maryland — do not make a season. Still, the schedule does get more favorable.
13. Rutgers (10-9, 3-6): The Scarlet Knights managed two Big Ten wins in a row last week for the first time since it joined the conference in 2014. That represents progress, but that’s all.
14. Penn State (7-13, 0-9): Was Tony Carr that good? With Carr at the point, the Nittany Lions won the NIT last season. Without him, they’re winless in the Big Ten.