Big Ten Conference Tournament Preview: It's All About the Bubble

The Big Ten has enjoyed something of a renaissance in 2009. Often maligned in past seasons, due to tumbling conference RPI rankings, they still need to have a collectively strong showing in the NCAA Tournament to silence the naysayers. For now, though, they can bask in the glory of sitting second in conference RPI and having up to a whopping nine teams in Big Dance contention.

Obviously, they aren't getting nine in. The more likely figure is seven at this point -- which could easily move up or down in the case of a few upsets this coming weekend across the nation. While there are several other story lines, the main one coming from Indianapolis Thursday through Sunday will be the bubble implications.


Thursday: Minnesota (8) vs. Northwestern (9); Michigan (7) vs. Iowa (10); and Penn State vs. Indiana (11)
Friday: Wisconsin (4) vs. Ohio State (5); Michigan State (1) vs. 8/9 winner; Illinois (2) vs. 7/10 winner; and Purdue (3) vs. 6/11 winner.

View a bracket with times and TV listings here.

Big Dancin' Tickets

Ticket punched: Michigan State, Purdue, Illinois
Already in line: Ohio State, Wisconsin
On way home: Iowa, Indiana

Trying to Scalp
Michigan -- Breezing past Iowa in a blowout would make a statement, but they could make a big one by getting Illinois in Round 2. As long as they don't falter against Iowa, though, I think they'll be fine as long as upsets don't shrink the bubble.

Penn State -- They'd be in if they didn't piss down their leg against Iowa. It was the classic letdown game following the huge win over Illinois, only they really needed it to solidify their tourney resume. They better beat Indiana. I do think they'll make it after that, but a win over Purdue couldn't hurt matters. You never want to leave things to chance if you can help it.

Minnesota -- If they lose to Northwestern in the first round, they are going to be sweating profusely on Sunday. The RPI is getting into dangerous territory (41) for an at-large who is losing steam, and they can't cling to that neutral court victory over Louisville forever. A loss to the Wildcats would mean they finished with a 3-7 stretch. The RPI could fall to the low-40s. Combine those two facts and you have trouble.

Northwestern -- That loss in Ohio State Sunday really hurt. They are in desperation mode, now. If the three above teams are trying to buy tickets via scalper, the Wildcats are trying to do so without any money. With an RPI of 71 and a losing conference record, they'll need a minor miracle. I don't think they have to win the whole thing, though. A run of three wins and a loss in the finale could get them in -- as it would include wins over fellow bubble team Minnesota, RPI number six Michigan State, and either Wisconsin or Ohio State. Even if they lost to, say, Purdue in the championship, you'd be looking at an 11-11 record in conference games, 20 wins, and a litany of quality victories. I think that would do it, as long as they got help in other conferences.

By the way, they could really have used that Illinois game in the 'W' column.

Other Story Lines

Can anyone conquer the Spartans?
Michigan State is head-and-shoulders above the rest of the conference, but the chances of them earning a number one NCAA seed aren't great. Someone who needs the game more may catch them in a shocker.

Virgin Dancers? Northwestern is the only "BCS" school who has never made an NCAA Tournament. If you root for the underdog -- even if you hate the so-called power conferences -- you might tune in to root for the Wildcats.

Reversing fortunes. Both Illinois and Purdue enter the tournament with two-game losing streaks. They'll likely face Michigan and Penn State, respectively, in their opening contests. It would behoove both teams to start to get some momentum, and, frankly, confidence back before the NCAA Tourney. It won't be easy against capable opponents trying to claw their way into the same brackets.

Spoilers? Indiana played right with Penn State twice this season. It's true my Hoosiers aren't talent-laden or a scary foe by any definition, but they have been in games more than they have been getting blown out of late. They even hung with Michigan State without their best player (Devan Dumes) a week ago. Iowa handled Michigan by 10 on February 22, so we know they are capable as well.

Hummel's back. Is Robbie Hummel really ok? Actually, that's poor phrasing. We know he's not totally healthy. Like a true competitor, though, he's playing through it. The last two games, though, he's only totalled 16 points on 5-18 shooting. With a fully functioning Hummel, the Boilers are a Sweet 16 team. With him playing like that, however, they are losing to Northwestern at home.

Izzo = Nostradamus? Before conference play started, I mocked Tom Izzo for proclaiming that the Big Ten could send eight teams to the NCAA tournament. Well here we sit, with Joe Lunardi and Jerry Palm both have the conference scoring eight bids as things currently stand. That's why Izzo hauls in the big bucks, and I just, you know, write. I will take credit for observing early on this wasn't the "same old" Big Ten, though.


Round 1: Northwestern over Minny, Michigan and Penn State take care of business.
Round 2: The dream dies as Michigan State takes down the Wildcats. Wisconsin over Ohio State, Michigan upsets Illinois, and Purdue beats Penn State.
Semis: Michigan State schools Wisconsin, Michigan takes down Purdue.
Championship: The State with the "U.P." will love this finale. The Spartans, though, are just too complete to falter to the young Wolverines.

Big Ten Conference Tournament Preview: It's All About the Bubble originally appeared on NCAA Basketball FanHouse on Tue, 10 Mar 2009 14:00:00 EST . Please see our terms for use of feeds.

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