Making Sense of an Insane Big Ten Basketball Season

By Eric Gibson on January 20, 2020 at 11:15 am
Steve Pikiell
Noah K. Murray - USA TODAY Sports

It would be Penn State's luck to have its best basketball team in nearly a decade the same year the Big Ten has an historic season. The depth of the league has never been better, but it is cause for concern with how the rest of the season could play out. Because this Penn State team would have much smoother sailing into the NCAA tournament if it was in the historically bad ACC. But it's not, it's in the rugged Big Ten. 

As of today, there are 12 Big Ten representatives in the top-50 of the NET rankings (the new metric that replaced the RPI). If the season ended today, the biggest question for the selection committee would be how many bids to give the Big Ten? Over the years, the committee has preached it selects teams regardless of conference affiliation, but this year's Big Ten will put that to the test. Here is what we're looking at as of today. 

School Record Big Ten NET Rank KenPom Rank
Michigan State 14-4 6-1 8 7
Rutgers 14-4 5-2 18 24
Illinois 13-5 5-2 40 35
Maryland 14-4 4-3 15 12
Iowa 13-5 4-3 26 15
Wisconsin 11-7 4-3 22 22
Indiana 14-4 4-3 49 40
Minnesota 10-8 4-4 41 36
Purdue 10-8 3-4 36 17
Penn St 13-5 3-4 35 28
Michigan 11-6 2-4 29 20
Ohio St 12-6 2-5 19 13

This is truly insane. All twelve of these teams have legitimate hopes to dance, as Purdue, Minnesota, and Wisconsin all have the strength of schedule to back up the higher number of losses to date. Due to the strength of these team's profiles, everyone will have ample opportunities to rack up quadrant one wins over the next two months. But that's a double-edged sword because this is also equally true (as Penn State could attest to prior to beating Ohio State):

Handicapping the rest of the Big Ten regular season is quite a challenge, because here's another reality check. Two of these twelve contenders are going to have play on the first day of the Big Ten tournament. A meaningless neutral court affair against either Nebraska or Northwestern that won't do anything for their tournament resume. No one wants to be in that position come March, but the advanced metrics projections forecast that's going to happen to two unlucky schools. The below snapshot comes from Bart Torvik's T-Rank projections. 

Bart Torvik

So how does one avoid the first day of the Big Ten tournament? Don't lose home games and don't lose to Northwestern and Nebraska. Road wins have already proven near-impossible to come by. Through 49 Big Ten games to date, the home teams have 42 of them for an absurd .857 winning percentage. To reference, last year's Big Ten home teams had a .621 winning percentage (87 of 140). 

School Record Home Losses Road Wins Home Games 
Road Games
NEB/NW Games
Michigan State 6-1 - NW 5 8 2
Rutgers 5-2 - NEB 6 7 2
Illinois 5-2 - WIS 6 7 2
Maryland 4-3 - - 6 7 3
Iowa* 4-3 - NW 7 6 1
Wisconsin 4-3 ILL OSU, PSU 7 6 3
Indiana 4-3 - NEB 7 6 0
Minnesota 4-4 - - 6 6 2
Purdue* 3-4 - - 7 6 1
Penn St 3-4 WIS - 6 7 3
Michigan 2-4 - - 8 6 3
Ohio St 2-5 WIS - 7 6 3

* - already lost to Nebraska on the road

There is much to sort out between these schools over the next eight weeks, but it's not so surprising that the standings right now correlate with who's had more home games thus far. The Spartans schedule has been particularly unbalanced, and they've taken advantage with a 6-1 start. But considering how poorly they played at Mackey Arena last week (a 71-42 loss to Purdue), it's not a sure bet Michigan State runs away with it just yet. 

For Penn State, obviously the home loss to Wisconsin is a big blemish, but they still have three games left against Northwestern and Nebraska. Michigan's and Ohio State's league schedules also will get easier, while Rutgers and Indiana must prove themselves on the road. There will be a lot of movement in the standings over the coming weeks, but I wouldn't expect much separation between the top twelve. If there is, a tournament-quality team will have succumbed to the rigors of this historically strong league. Let's just hope it's not the Nittany Lions. 

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