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Big Ten Basketball 2016: Non-Conference Recap

With football season done (except for bowls), let's check in on what happened around the conference while we were busy watching the gridiron.

Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Conference play in Big Ten basketball is just two weeks away. Let's take a look at where things stand in non-conference play, in particular with an eye toward NCAA tournament positioning. Conference projections will wait until just before conference play begins.

A reminder of the BUBBLECON definitions I used last year:

BUBBLECON 5: This team is safely in the tournament barring a nearly inconceivable collapse.
BUBBLECON 4: This team is likely to make the tournament but has considerably less margin for error. If they hold to their projected record, they'll be fine, but an upset loss or two or a run of losses in toss-up games could make things dicey. On Selection Sunday, they're expecting to be in but can't quite shake the fear that they'll be left out until their name pops up on the screen.
BUBBLECON 3: This team is solidly on the bubble; projected record would put them very near the cut line. Need an upset or two or a good run of toss-up wins to feel confident, but avoiding disaster might be enough.
BUBBLECON 2: This is a fringe bubble team who probably needs to outperform their projections the rest of the way to make it. Just winning the games they're supposed to win won't cut it. If you're in this position on Selection Sunday, you're watching the show more out of hope than expectation; realistically, you're planning for a home game or two in the NIT.
BUBBLECON 1: This team needs a miraculous turnaround to have a realistic chance of making the tournament (without the auto-bid).

Within each category, teams are listed by Kenpom rank. RPI projections are courtesy of

BUBBLECON 5 - Certain Tournament Teams

Purdue (11-0)

Noteworthy wins: Florida (N), at Pitt, New Mexico
Losses: None
RPI anchors: 6 sub-200 Kenpom wins, 3 sub-250, 1 sub-300
Remaining non-conference games: Butler (N), Vanderbilt

Michigan State (11-0)

Noteworthy wins: Kansas (N), Boise State (N), Providence (N), Louisville, Florida
Losses: None
RPI anchors: 5 sub-200 Kenpom wins, 4 sub-250, 3 sub-300
Remaining non-conference games: at Northeastern, Oakland (N)

These two are the class of the conference so far. Scheduling isn't ideal from a gaming-the-RPI perspective (those three sub-300 games will be a drag for MSU in particular; I've ranted at length about the outrageously dumb way the RPI calculates strength of schedule, which puts too much emphasis on playing only moderately hopeless cupcakes instead of completely hopeless ones), but neither team is going to really have to worry about that in the committee room.

BUBBLECON 4 - Likely Tournament Teams

Iowa (7-3)

Noteworthy wins: at Marquette, Wichita State (N), Florida State
Losses: Dayton (N), Notre Dame (N), at Iowa State
RPI anchors: 1 sub-300 Kenpom win; two sub-200 games remaining in non-conference (one sub-250) but no others played yet
Remaining non-conference games: Drake (N), Tennessee Tech

Despite three losses so far, Iowa's surprisingly near to BUBBLECON 5. A very strong non-conference schedule has a lot to do with that (five Kenpom top 50 games and few truly awful games); even if Iowa's record going into the Big Ten tournament is 18-12 (two wins to finish non-conference play and 9-9 conference record), their RPI rank is expected to be in the low 40s. If not for a blown 20-point lead at Iowa State, the Hawkeyes would probably have effectively punched their ticket already.

Maryland (9-1)

Noteworthy wins: Georgetown, Rhode Island (N), UConn (N)
Losses: at North Carolina
RPI anchors: 5 sub-200 Kenpom wins (one game pending), 1 sub-300
Remaining non-conference games: Princeton (semi-home), Marshall, Bowie State (non-D1)

Maryland's also in good shape but their numbers are dragged down a bit more by a lousy non-conference schedule (especially by RPI metrics); a 20-10 record (not counting Bowie State, as non-D1 games do not factor into the RPI in any way) projects to a low 40s RPI rank.

BUBBLECON 3 - Bubble Teams

Indiana (8-3)

Noteworthy wins: Creighton
Losses: Wake Forest (N), UNLV (N), at Duke
RPI anchors: 4 sub-250 Kenpom wins, 3 sub-300 (with another sub-300 to go)
Remaining non-conference games: Notre Dame (N), Kennesaw State

Indiana scheduled themselves into a deep hole. Losing to Wake Forest in the opening round of the Maui Invitational hurt, as they missed out on Vanderbilt and either Kansas or UCLA as a result and now have twice as many sub-300 games as top 50 in nonconference. A 22-9 record would put Indiana in the high 40s or low 50s for RPI rank; the good news is that they've destroyed the bad teams they've played badly enough to make that look plausible.

Michigan (7-3)

Noteworthy wins: Texas (N), at NC State
Losses: Xavier, UConn (N), at SMU
RPI anchors: 5 sub-200 Kenpom wins, 4 sub-250, 3 sub-300 (with another sub-300 and another sub-250 remaining)
Remaining non-conference games: Youngstown State, Bryant

Like Indiana, Michigan's being hurt by losing a tournament opener (to UConn in Atlantis; this landed one of their sub-300 teams on the schedule instead of Syracuse) and scheduling abominable teams. Michigan's schedule is extremely bipolar: five non-conference opponents in the top 70 and seven ranked 230 or lower, with nothing in between. That's exactly what you don't want to do from an RPI perspective. Michigan needs to get to 21-9 to have a mid-40s RPI, and even that might not do the job when the committee is staring at a non-conference SOS rank in the 200s.

Wisconsin (7-5)

Noteworthy wins: VCU (N), at Syracuse
Losses: Western Illinois (!!), Georgetown (N), at Oklahoma, Milwaukee (!), Marquette
RPI anchors: 2 sub-250 Kenpom wins, 1 sub-300
Remaining non-conference game: Green Bay

Wisconsin's ugly start to the season is one of the big surprises of the year. The saving grace is that with a reasonable quality schedule lacking in truly awful opponents, 19-12 could be enough to get their RPI rank in the mid-40s, but that's a somewhat tall order at this point.

BUBBLECON 2 - Fringe Bubble Candidates

Northwestern (9-1)

Noteworthy wins: None (best is at KP #111 Virginia Tech)
Losses: North Carolina (N)
RPI anchors: 5 sub-250 Kenpom wins (with two more games yet to be played), 4 sub-300
Remaining non-conference games: at DePaul, Sacred Heart, Loyola-Maryland

Northwestern's nice record is fueled by what might be the worst non-conference schedule I've ever seen. Besides Virginia Tech, Columbia is the only other win for Northwestern in the Kenpom top 150, and their schedule contains more teams outside the top 250 than inside it. Just to get to a high-40s RPI rank, Northwestern likely has to go 24-7, and 25-6 might be a more realistic benchmark when considering the committee's tendency to reject teams with terrible non-conference schedules.

Ohio State (4-5)

Noteworthy wins: None (best is vs KP #223 Mount St. Mary's)
Losses: UT-Arlington, Louisiana Tech (!), Memphis (N), Virginia, at UConn
RPI anchors: 4 sub-200 Kenpom wins, 2 sub-250, 1 sub-300 (with another to be played)
Remaining non-conference games: Northern Illinois, Kentucky (N), Mercer, South Carolina State

Putting Ohio State this high, frankly, is being nice. To get to a top 50 RPI, Ohio State probably has to go 16-6 the rest of the way (finishing at 20-11), five games better than the Kenpom projection. But I hate to put anyone at auto-bid or bust this early unless they're really awful.

Illinois (6-5)

Noteworthy wins: Yale?
Losses: North Florida (!), at Providence, Chattanooga, Iowa State (N), Notre Dame
RPI anchors: 2 sub-300 Kenpom wins, with one sub-200 to be played
Remaining non-conference games: South Dakota, Missouri (N)

Another very generous call in not throwing Illinois in the BUBBLECON 1 category. 21-10 is the likely necessary record, and the projections don't see Illinois anywhere near that.

BUBBLECON 1 - Auto-Bid or Bust

Nebraska (7-4)

Noteworthy wins: Rhode Island, Tennessee? (N)
Losses: at Villanova, Cincinnati (N), Miami-FL, at Creighton
RPI anchors: 5 sub-300 Kenpom wins, with another (plus a sub-200) to be played
Remaining non-conference games: Samford, Prairie View A&M

Like Michigan's schedule, Nebraska's non-conference list is extremely bipolar: 6 top 85 games, one in the low 200s, and 6 at 325 or worse. To get to a mid-40s RPI, Nebraska needs to go 22-9 or so. That can't be ruled out entirely yet, but they're on the fringe of the fringe.

Minnesota (5-5)

Noteworthy wins: Clemson
Losses: Temple (N), Texas Tech (N), South Dakota (!!!), South Dakota State, Oklahoma State (N)
RPI anchors: 2 sub-200 Kenpom games (one loss) with a sub-300 yet to be played
Remaining non-conference games: Chicago State, Milwaukee

RPIForecast doesn't even list an entry high enough for Minnesota to get into the bubble picture; at 19-11 they're in the mid-70s, and any better record than that is considered too unlikely to bother with. If Minnesota isn't at least contending for the conference title, they won't be in the discussion.

Penn State (7-3)

Noteworthy wins: None (best is vs KP #150 Eastern Michigan)
Losses: at Duquesne (!), Radford (!!!), at George Washington
RPI anchors: 3 sub-200 Kenpom games (one loss) with one yet to be played; 1 sub-250
Remaining non-conference games: at Drexel, Colorado (N)

At 19-11, Penn State would be in consideration with a mid-50s RPI. But this is the epitome of a schedule that looks better to the RPI than it is - all mid-level (150-200) opponents.

Rutgers (3-6)

Noteworthy wins: LOLNO. (Best is vs KP #235 Howard.)
Losses: at St. John's (!!), Creighton (N), Clemson (N), Wake Forest, Seton Hall, at George Washington
RPI anchors: 3 sub-200 Kenpom wins, 2 sub-300, with a sub-300 and another sub-250 yet to come
Remaining non-conference games: Monmouth, Fairleigh Dickinson, UMass-Lowell

Your basketball is bad and you should feel bad, Rutgers.