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WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Big Ten Conference is just a few hours away from having a tournament victor join regular-season king Purdue as its champions of the league for 2017, and confirm the first official bid for this season’s NCAA Tournament.
For the rest of the league, a variety of emotions are on tap for Sunday.
There’s Michigan and Wisconsin, teams that will be more worried about winning a basketball game than their NCAA Tournament seed. There are a few, like Rutgers, Penn State and Nebraska that know there won’t be a postseason. There are others, like Purdue, Maryland, Minnesota and Michigan State, who can feel certain in their NCAA fate and can hope for the best seed possible.
Then there are the uncomfortable few, the so-called bubble teams, who are left to only hope — put Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio State in that category.
Let’s take a brief look at the teams either sure to play in the NCAA Tournament or the NIT.
No. 12 Purdue (25-7, 14-4 Big Ten; lost B1G quarterfinal to Michigan) — The regular season conference champs had a short stay in Washington, D.C., thanks to Michigan’s strange-but-sorta-magical week so far. Still, the Boilermakers are an NCAA bonafide with the pieces to make a deep run — even if ESPN’s Joe Lunardi and CBS’ Jerry Palm have them the highest-seeded Big Ten team at a 4-seed. Caleb Swanigan and Co. will be fine.
No. 23 Wisconsin (25-8, 12-6; advanced to B1G championship game) — The hand-wringing in Madison can probably cease now, right? The Badgers went from a team inside the top 10 in the nation by nearly every measure to a team that had lost five of six — including twice at home (one to Iowa). Bucky has taken its frustrations out on opponents in Washington, D.C., though. A 10-point win against Indiana felt like a lot more, and the Badgers crushed Northwestern to advance to Sunday’s title game against Michigan. They’re on the 6-line as of Saturday, but could move up with a tourney title.
Michigan (23-11, 10-8; advanced to B1G championship game) — Regardless of whether or not the Wolverines win Sunday’s championship game, it’s incredible the team even made it to Washington, D.C. after their plane crash in Michigan as they were headed east. That hasn’t deterred them yet, though, and every win they get at Verizon Center boosts their seeding profile. Lunardi moved the Wolverines to his 7 line, while Palm still has them as the highest 8-seed. Derrick Walton is making a case for MOP, averaging 20 points and six assists to 2.3 turnovers (2.6-to-1 ratio).
Minnesota (24-9, 11-7; lost B1G semifinal to Michigan) — Losing Akeem Springs to a torn Achilles is a tough blow for a team that has so emphatically turned things around from eight wins last season to 24 this year and a semifinal exit from the Big Ten Tournament. Richard Pitino’s Coach of the Year honor was well-deserved, but he’ll have to earn that title all over to push his team through losing a key contributor in Springs. Pitino played only seven players in Minnesota’s semifinal loss; Nate Mason and Dupree McBrayer both played 40 minutes and Amir Coffey played 39. That’s a lot to ask.
Northwestern (23-11, 10-8; lost B1G semifinal to Wisconsin) — The Wildcats may have ended their first Big Ten Tournament semifinal in school history with a blowout loss to the Badgers, but the most important work is done. One of the most inexplicable streaks in sports will end, and Northwestern will be in its first NCAA Tournament when the brackets are announced. Lunardi and Palm both have the Wildcats as an 8-seed. Chris Collins might get a statue in Evanston. It’ll be interesting to see what Bryant McIntosh, Scottie Lindsey and Co. can do in March.
Maryland (24-8, 12-6; lost B1G quarterfinal to Northwestern) – It was a frustrating one-and-done for Mark Turgeon’s crew at the Big Ten Tournament, getting dispatched by the Wildcats on Friday night. The worst part for the Terrapins was that they were up by 10 at one point and couldn’t hold that lead. Still, their NCAA fate is fine, as Palm has them on the bottom end of the 6-line, while Lunardi has them as a 7-seed.
Michigan State (19-14, 10-8; lost B1G quarterfinal to Minnesota) — At one point this season, it looked like the Spartans' NCAA Tournament streak might end. That was put to rest a couple weeks ago, but a win against Penn State on Thursday in Washington, D.C. put them firmly in the field. With several top-50 wins and an RPI of 50, “Dance Card” has MSU’s chances at 100 percent of making the field. Lunardi and Palm both have the Spartans as a 10-seed.
Iowa (18-14, 10-8; lost B1G second round to Indiana) — Following Iowa’s fourth straight opening-game exit from the Big Ten Tournament, the bubble talk has burned out. Lunardi no longer has Fran McCaffery’s team in his projections, and not among the first out. The Hawkeyes still are listed by Palm as one of the “First Four Out,” however, and the players harbor some small hope. All that said, multiple NIT field projections have Iowa as either a 2- or 3-seed in that tournament, and that’s almost certainly where the young squad will end up. According to the “Dance Card,” Iowa has a 0.01 percent chance to make the field, and sits 10 spots from where the bubble bursts.
Illinois (18-14, 8-10; lost B1G second round to Michigan) — John Groce was “relieved of his duties” as head coach of the Fighting Illini on Saturday, even though some bracket projections have Illinois either in or on the bubble of the NCAA Tournament. Either Illinois AD Josh Whitman doesn’t like those chances or doesn’t care. The Illini are most likely headed for another NIT berth — their third in the last four years. Four straight wins before a regular-season finale loss had Illinois in the same talk the Hawkeyes were in, but it looks grim after an early tournament exit.
Indiana (18-15, 7-11; lost B1G quarterfinal to Wisconsin) — A fan, wearing Maryland gear, accosted Crean as he exited the floor of Verizon Center after the Hoosiers’ loss to Wisconsin on Friday night. The fan shouted, “You ruined the program,” as Crean stopped and simply stared. It’s hard to figure how Crean ruined anything more than two of his predecessors might’ve, but that’s a longer discussion for a different day. For now, Indiana’s season will most certainly conclude in the NIT after multiple injuries and an inability to close out close games in conference play derailed the Hoosiers’ season.
Ohio State (17-15, 7-11; lost B1G first round to Rutgers) — Thad Matta was given a vote of confidence before the Big Ten Tournament by Ohio State’s AD. Despite some calls for his job, that seems fair considering the Buckeyes were an NCAA snub (from some viewpoints, at least) last season and had made seven straight NCAA Tournaments before that — including a Final Four in 2012. Still, a Wednesday loss to Rutgers doesn’t help matters, and it’s unclear if the Buckeyes will even get a bid to the NIT. Different NIT projections have OSU a 5- or 6-seed, which puts it at the mercy of how the auto bids fall. Sunday will be the worst kind of bubble wait for folks in Columbus.
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