By Chris Emma-
(CBS) The bizarre year of Big Ten basketball has taken a dramatic turn few expected. Rising from the basement, Indiana and Illinois now have NCAA Tournament hopes.
With an adjusted schedule, Indiana reeled off three wins in four games during an eight-day span, including victories against No. 20 Iowa and No. 22 Ohio State. Meanwhile, Illinois has rolled together three important wins while holding its last four opponents to fewer than 50 points. A commitment to team defense has John Groce’s team in position for the postseason.
For either the Hoosiers or Fighting Illini to reach the NCAA Tournament, it will take at least a split of the regular season’s final two games — for Indiana, contests with Nebraska and Michigan; for Illinois, games with Michigan and Iowa — and then a run into the Big Ten Tournament’s semifinals. That’s just for solid sitting on the bubble. Still, this is something neither team could’ve expected even just one week ago.
Indiana and Illinois are similar, with a young nucleus that has been wildly inconsistent throughout the season. Each faced a couple tough opponents in nonconference play and saw skids on the Big Ten slate. Yet, both are playing their best basketball in the final stretch of the season.
Postseason promise has found two programs once dwelling in the Big Ten’s basement.
Emma’s Big Ten Power Rankings
1.) Michigan (21-7, 13-3) – The regular-season champions of the Big Ten have stayed hot, following their win against Michigan State with an overtime victory at Purdue and a 10-point win against Minnesota. The Wolverines are poised to become the top seed of the conference tournament.
2.) Wisconsin (24-5, 10-5) – That skid of five losses in six games seems like a distant memory for the Badgers, now winners of seven straight games. Contests with Purdue and Nebraska could provide the chance for momentum entering the postseason.
3.) Michigan State (22-7, 11-5) – Another home loss at the Breslin Center is reason for concern as Michigan State is skidding toward the finish line. Perhaps health could save the season for Tom Izzo’s team.
4.) Iowa (20-9, 9-7) – A wild week — which saw two losses and a player calling out fans on Twitter — ended in a needed victory. The Hawkeyes’ up-and-down season needs a big finish before the Big Ten Tournament.
5.) Nebraska (17-11, 9-7) – An important opportunity awaits Tim Miles’s team as the Cornhuskers can close the season with promising postseason position. Nebraska remains one of the Big Ten’s best stories.
6.) Ohio State (22-8, 9-8) – The struggles of a senior-laden team remain perplexing. Ohio State could be better than its record indicates, but the Buckeyes just haven’t proved it.
7.) Minnesota (18-12, 7-10) – The Golden Gophers’ bubble may have popped after a loss at Michigan. They have just one more opportunity, a home game with Penn State, before a critical appearance in the conference tournament.
8.) Indiana (17-12, 7-9) – Winners in three of its last four games, Indiana now is rising up the Big Ten standings. Victories against Iowa and Ohio State were important for the Hoosiers’ postseason chances.
9.) Illinois (17-12, 6-10) – The Fighting Illini were at the bottom of these power rankings only a few weeks ago. Now, they’re looking at the chance to rally into the NCAA Tournament. This three-game winning streak will have to extend longer, but Illinois can keep recording victories with the way it’s playing defense.
10.) Penn State (14-15, 5-11) – The Nittany Lions were able to grind out an upset of Ohio State but couldn’t close out a win over Wisconsin. Still, Penn State isn’t an easy team to play.
11.) Purdue (15-14, 5-11) – The Boilermakers’ rout of Indiana will undoubtedly go down as the highlight of their season. Matt Painter’s team has lost its last four games and is spiraling to end the year.
12.) Northwestern (12-17, 5-11) – A month ago, after an important road win at Minnesota, many were touting Northwestern as a potential tournament team. Since then, the Wildcats have dropped six straight games.
Player of the week: Nik Stauskas, Michigan guard – First, Stauskas scored 15 points to help Michigan escape Purdue with a win. Then, he posted a 21-point performance to bring the Wolverines at least a share of the conference crown. Just another week for one of the Big Ten’s best.
Team of the week: Michigan – It wasn’t pretty for Michigan, narrowly escaping an overtime scare from Purdue. But the Wolverines were ready to go after the Golden Gophers on Saturday, locking down a Big Ten title on their home court.
1.) Bubble watch
The Big Ten features just four teams—Michigan, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Ohio State—that can be considered locks for the NCAA Tournament. It’s one big bubble as teams in the middle work to earn their bids. Nothing is guaranteed without a strong sprint to the finish line. Here’s what is needed for each Big Ten bubble team.
Iowa: Avoid three straight losses
Nebraska: Earn a split in its final two regular-season games; win two in Big Ten Tournament.
Indiana: Win final two regular-season games and at least two in conference tournament.
Minnesota: Get win in final regular-season game and at least two in Big Ten Tournament.
Illinois: Win at least four games before Selection Sunday
2.) What’s broken with the Buckeyes?
Look at Ohio State’s roster and try to figure out where it’s going wrong. The Buckeyes have battle-tested players like Aaron Craft, LaQuinton Ross, Sam Thompson, Amir Williams, Lenzelle Smith and so many more. This has been the core to their past success. But the Buckeyes continue to struggle, posting a 9-8 record in Big Ten play after going unbeaten in nonconference play. Losses to Penn State and Indiana this past week illustrate a problem for Ohio State. This is a team in flux entering the home stretch of the season.
3.) No seats hot in the Big Ten
More so than any major conference in America, the Big Ten has stability in each program. This is especially true in each head coaching position, where it appears the conference will return each of its coaches, barring anyone getting poached. There’s no reason to expect any Big Ten school to fire its coach, and no one is currently sitting on the hot seat. The pressure is present for established names like Tom Crean and Matt Painter to bring their programs up after rocky seasons, but it’s hard to point toward anyone being in trouble this season.
Chris Emma covers the college sports scene for CBS Chicago. Follow him on Twitter @CEmmaScout.