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Hoge: Examining The Floor/Ceiling For The Big Ten’s Eight Contenders

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Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

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By Adam Hoge-

(CBS) We’re officially into the final stretch of one of the more entertaining Big Ten basketball seasons ever and there’s little debate that the conference is the best in the country this year.

But the strength of the Big Ten will mean nothing if the conference doesn’t break its long streak of failing to win a National Championship. It’s been 13 years since Mateen Cleaves and the Michigan State Spartans beat Florida to win the 2000 National Championship and despite plenty of Final Four berths, the Big Ten hasn’t won a title since.

Fans in the Midwest like to make themselves feel better about the SEC’s football dominance by bragging about Big Ten basketball, but the reality is that even the SEC has three national championships in basketball since MSU won in 2000.

Ouch.

So which Big Ten teams have a realistic shot at ending the drought this season? It looks like at least seven Big Ten teams will make the NCAA Tournament, maybe even eight if Iowa can make a late run. Let’s take a look at the floor and ceiling for each Big Ten contender as the regular season nears an end:

No. 1 Indiana Hoosiers

Ceiling: Big Ten Championship, No. 1 seed, National Championship

When the offense is running through Cody Zeller, the Hoosiers are indeed the best team in the country. So then why is it that the Hoosiers refuse to get Zeller the ball so often? At times it looks like Zeller refuses to battle and at others it looks like his teammates would rather just settle for jump shots. The good news is that since inexplicably losing a comfortable lead at Illinois, the Hoosiers have been clicking and their win at Michigan State Tuesday put them in the driver’s seat for the conference title. In the last few weeks, IU has looked like a team that won’t be stopped on it’s way to Atlanta in early April.

Floor: No. 2 seed, NCAA 3rd Round

At this point it would be a surprise, but the schedule is tough enough that a 2-2 regular season finish can’t be completely ruled out. Add a quarterfinal loss in the Big Ten Tournament to that and the Hoosiers could theoretically slip to a 3-seed. Given where Indiana has been for most of the season, however, I find it doubtful that IU wouldn’t at least earn a 2-seed even in this worst-case scenario. And since this Tom Crean-led unit has been prone to slip-ups, a first-weekend exit in the NCAA Tournament wouldn’t be a complete shocker.

No. 4 Michigan State Spartans

Ceiling: Big Ten Championship, No. 1 seed, National Championship

It happened again. Tom Izzo supposedly was reloading this season and early-season losses to UConn and Miami left the Spartans lacking attention. All the sudden, it’s late-February and the Spartans are right in the thick of the Big Ten title hunt. They needed Tuesday’s game against the Hoosiers, but they’re not out of it yet. A year ago, I wouldn’t give this team much of a shot against a team like Kentucky, but the Spartans can hang with the nation’s best this season and shouldn’t be ruled out for the national title.

Floor: No. 5 seed, NCAA 3rd Round

The Spartans have entered a brutal stretch with four straight games against teams ranked in the top 19. It’s conceivable they could lose all four games. If that were to happen, and they also lost early in the Big Ten Tournament, Michigan State could fall pretty far in the seeding, but given what this team has done so far, I’d be surprised if that all played out. The concern with the Spartans is a possible lack of firepower offensively, but when in doubt, trust Izzo.

No. 7 Michigan Wolverines

Ceiling: Big Ten Championship, No. 1 seed, National Championship

With possible losses still on the table for Indiana and Michigan State, the Wolverines still have a chance to win the Big Ten. They’re 2.5 games back right now, but they get the Spartans and Hoosiers in Ann Arbor down the stretch. This is still a very good team that just needs to find its way again after going through the toughest part of its schedule. In fact, after closing the regular season against IU at home, Michigan might be the most dangerous team heading into the Big Ten Tournament.

Floor: No. 4 seed, NCAA 3rd Round

Given the remaining schedule, I’d be surprised if Michigan fell past a No. 4 seed. Last year’s flame out against Ohio in the NCAA Tournament won’t be ignored when the bracket is announced and while this team has enough talent to win it all, a first-weekend loss can’t be ruled out.

No. 18 Ohio State Buckeyes

Ceiling: No. 4 seed, NCAA Elite Eight

Now three games back in the conference title race, Ohio State’s three year run of Big Ten titles is going to come to an end. Meanwhile, they’re not going to fare that well in the seeding process either. While participating in last week’s mock selection committee in Indianapolis, it became apparent that the Buckeyes are going to lose a lot of head-to-head comparisons to other teams because of their lack of big wins (their best road win right now is at Nebraska). With Michigan State and Indiana left on the schedule, they can help their case, but it’s hard to imagine the Bucks winning in Bloomington. Those lack of big wins are the same reason why I can’t see OSU getting past the Elite Eight. They simply haven’t been able to beat good teams away from home this year. I’m still giving them a shot at the Elite Eight because all their losses have come to Top 29 RPI teams and they could get a fortunate setup.

Floor: No. 8 seed, NCAA Second Round

The good news for the Buckeyes is that the lack of bad losses should keep them in the top half of the seeding. The bad news is that could put them in one of the 8/9 or 7/11 toss-up games. It’s hard to predict how OSU would fare in a game like that because their opponents this year have either been top notch teams or ones that won’t even make the NCAA Tournament. Given that the Buckeyes have had a number of close calls against non-tournament teams, a second-round exit (formerly the first-round) is possible.

No. 19 Wisconsin Badgers

Ceiling: Big Ten Championship, No. 3 seed, NCAA Elite Eight

If Bo Ryan unleashes freshman Sam Dekker in March, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Badgers made a run at the Final Four. But if you’ve been with me in the past, you know my rule: Always pick Wisconsin to finish in the top four of the Big Ten and never pick them to make the Final Four. If you’ve followed that rule during the entire Bo Ryan era, then you’ve never been wrong. The Badgers are 2.5 games back in the Big Ten hunt, but they have a favorable schedule and a chance to beat Michigan State head-to-head (although the game is in East Lansing). Wisconsin’s big win at Indiana helped push them up to a 4-seed in our mock selection last week and if they keep winning, a 3-seed is more than possible.

Floor: No. 6 seed, NCAA Third Round

The schedule is easy enough the rest of the way that it would be hard to see the Badgers falling below the 6-line. Meanwhile, Ryan has only lost the first NCAA Tournament game once, and that was when his 2006 team was a No. 9 seed going up against 8th-seeded Arizona. It’s unlikely they lose in the second round.

Minnesota Golden Gophers

Ceiling: No. 4 seed, NCAA Elite Eight

The Gophers are a pretty tough team to get a handle on. I could see them beating Indiana in Minneapolis Feb. 26, but I could also see them losing at Nebraska March 6. If they get that big win over the Hoosiers and make a little noise in the Big Ten Tournament, a No. 4 seed is possible. The Gophers originally earned a 5-seed in our mock selection last week, but ended up falling to a No. 6 because of bracketing conflicts. That was before they lost at Iowa by 21 though. There’s talent on this team, however, and a run to the Elite Eight can’t be ruled out.

Floor: No. 11 seed, NCAA Second Round

A 2-3 finish would not be a complete surprise. Couple that with a first-round Big Ten Tournament loss and the Gophers could easily fall to a No. 11 seed. And if that played out, Minnesota would not be a popular pick when fans fill out their brackets next month.

Illinois Fighting Illini

Ceiling: Big Ten Tournament Champions, No. 4 seed, NCAA Sweet 16

This team is dangerous because if the Illini get hot, they have already proven they can beat anyone. Illinois earned a surprising 5-seed in our mock selection last week, mainly because there isn’t another team in the country that has a road win over Gonzaga, a home win over Indiana and a neutral site win over Butler. This is the kind of team that can do real damage in a conference tournament because the four-games-in-four-days format can favor a team that lives and dies by the three. That could carry into the NCAA Tournament, but ultimately I think the rebounding issues and inconsistent defense will cost them.

Floor: No. 12 seed, NCAA Second Round exit

Let’s be honest, this is still a team that could lose to 0-16 Penn State at home on Thursday. But even if that happened, the Illini have already gathered enough quality wins that their resume is much better than any bubble team. Having gone through the selection process, I don’t see a scenario in which Illinois doesn’t make the NCAA Tournament right now. I don’t even think they’d end up in a first-round “play-in” game. They can, of course, lose to a 5-seed right way though.

Iowa Hawkeyes

Ceiling: Big Ten Tournament Champions, No. 9 seed, NCAA Sweet 16

This may seem like a high ceiling, but stick with me for a second. The Hawkeyes could finish 4-1, which would send them to Chicago with seven wins in their last eight games. They would likely still need a win or two in the Big Ten Tournament to make the NCAA field and that would make them a highly-motivated team on a roll. They could also have a 5-seed in the Big Ten Tournament, putting them in position to make a run. Minnesota and Illinois have made similar runs in recent years to secure NCAA berths and moved up the seeding board fast at the same time. If this were to play out, Iowa would be earning some big wins in the process and a 9-seed would be possible. I’d be surprised if this happens, but I can’t rule it out.

Floor: NIT Quarterfinals

At this point, the NIT seems more likely, but with the favorable schedule remaining, the Hawkeyes should get a good seed and a couple of home games. They’re the kind of team that could win the NIT this year, so I’d be surprised if they didn’t at least make the quarterfinals.

adam hoge 2012 small1 Hoge: Examining The Floor/Ceiling For The Big Tens Eight Contenders

Adam Hoge

Adam is the Sports Editor for CBSChicago.com and specializes in coverage of the Bears, White Sox and college sports. He was born and raised in Lincoln Park and attended St. Ignatius College Prep before going off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he earned a Journalism degree. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHogeCBS and read more of his columns here.

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