Purdue hasn’t lost since late November. Michigan State boasts a pair of future lottery picks in its frontcourt. Ohio State is one of college basketball’s most pleasant surprises.
The top of the Big Ten appears as formidable as ever this season, but the success of that trio masks the league’s startling lack of depth behind them.
Only one Big Ten team besides the Boilermakers, Spartans and Buckeyes would feel good about its NCAA tournament chances if the season ended today. That’s Michigan, which improved to 17-5 overall and 6-3 in league play with a victory over Rutgers on Sunday.
The only other Big Ten team within striking distance is Maryland, but Monday night’s 71-68 loss at Indiana highlighted that the Terrapins (15-7, 4-5) have been trending in the wrong direction since losing forward Justin Jackson to a season-ending shoulder injury. They’ve dropped four of their past six games. Their only road win in league play came in overtime at last-place Illinois. All three of their top 100 KenPom wins this season have come at home, a solid victory over Butler way back on Nov. 15 and less impressive wins over middling Penn State and fading Minnesota.
The options behind Maryland are even less inspiring.
While Nebraska has exceeded expectations this season with a 14-8 record and a 5-4 mark in Big Ten play, the Huskers are likely to regret near misses against Kansas in mid-December and Ohio State on Monday night. Not only is last Thursday’s rout of Michigan their lone top 75 KenPom win this season, they won’t get another crack at Purdue, Michigan State, Ohio State or Michigan the rest of the regular season.
Preseason top 25 Minnesota has dropped five of six since losing forward Amir Coffey to a shoulder injury and center Reggie Lynch to suspension as a result of sexual assault allegations. All but one of those losses came by 18 or more points, signs that the Golden Gophers (14-8, 3-6) aren’t likely to recover even though Coffey has returned to the floor quicker than expected.
Northwestern (12-9, 3-5) has been an even bigger disappointment than Minnesota. Wisconsin (10-10, 3-4) isn’t even playing above .500 basketball. Indiana (12-8, 5-3) has a couple of respectable wins over Notre Dame and Maryland, but the Hoosiers’ profile is weighed down by brutal non-conference home losses against Fort Wayne and Indiana State.
If the Big Ten only lands four NCAA tournament bids, it would be the fewest the league has gotten since only Wisconsin, Purdue, Indiana and Michigan State went in 2008. The Big Ten has produced seven NCAA bids each season since the league expanded to 14 with the addition of Rutgers and Maryland in 2014.
There’s still time for a fifth or sixth NCAA tournament-caliber Big Ten team to emerge, but it’s becoming more improbable with each passing day.
More likely the league will have to settle for fewer bids while remaining hopeful that several members of its top tier can make memorable March runs.
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