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Around the B1G: Basketball Nonconference Recap

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With conference play approaching, who has set themselves up for a solid season and who has had a rough ride?

NCAA Basketball: Northeastern at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

We’re just one week away from the start of Big Ten basketball. How have things gone around the conference, particularly with an eye toward making the NCAA Tournament? I’ll be doing weekly conference projections (as for football) starting next week (assuming the holidays don’t completely eat up my time), but for now, let’s see who’s made a name for themselves in non-conference and who’s put themselves behind the 8-ball.

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, where used, are courtesy of RPIForecast.com.

BUBBLECON 5 (Safe)

Wisconsin (10-2)

Noteworthy wins: Syracuse, at Marquette, Oklahoma, Georgetown (N), Tennessee (N)
Losses: at Creighton, North Carolina (N)
RPI anchors: 4 sub-250 Kenpom wins (3 sub-300) plus another sub-300 to be played
Remaining non-conference games: Florida A&M

The Badgers have been the class of the conference so far, with two very understandable losses and four solid quality wins (not even counting Tennessee). They won’t get nearly as much credit for that schedule as they should because their cupcakes have been of the extra-hopeless variety (and, as I’ve ranted about before, the RPI severely overvalues that part of the schedule for good teams), but that won’t keep them out of the tournament; it might knock them down a seed line or two, though.

Purdue (10-2)

Noteworthy wins: Notre Dame (N)
Losses: Villanova, at Louisville
RPI anchors: 5 sub-200 Kenpom wins (2 sub-300) plus another sub-300 to be played
Remaining non-conference games: Norfolk State

Purdue’s resume has less strength to it at this point than you might expect for Kenpom’s #12 team, but by mostly avoiding the total dregs of Division I and playing a handful of teams in the 100-150 range they actually have a slightly better projected RPI than Wisconsin.

BUBBLECON 4 (In Good Shape)

Indiana (9-2)

Noteworthy wins: Kansas (N), North Carolina
Losses: at IPFW, Butler (N)
RPI anchors: 7 sub-200 Kenpom wins (6 sub-250, 3 sub-300) plus another sub-300 to be played
Remaining non-conference games: Austin Peay, Louisville (N)

You could easily argue that Indiana should be a 5, and in a world where the RPI didn’t exist they probably would be. But a likely 10-2 non-conference record loses a bit of its luster when the third-best win is Kenpom #241 Liberty. The five good games in their non-conference schedule might make up for it (especially since they won two and have a third to play yet), but if the committee does anything consistently it’s finding a way to leave out one borderline team with this many awful wins. The Hoosiers don’t look borderline right now and probably won’t in March, but if they do, that schedule might hurt.

Michigan (9-3)

Noteworthy wins: Marquette (N), SMU (N), Texas
Losses: at South Carolina, Virginia Tech, at UCLA
RPI anchors: 5 sub-250 Kenpom wins (4 sub-300)
Remaining non-conference games: Furman

A few solid wins and no embarrassing losses, but like most of the Big Ten there are some issues with scheduling really awful cupcakes instead of mediocre ones. RPI forecast suggests Michigan would be on the bubble at 9-9 in conference (assuming a win over Furman), and right now it looks like they’ll probably beat that by a couple games.

Minnesota (11-1)

Noteworthy wins: UT-Arlington, Arkansas, Vanderbilt (N)
Losses: at Florida State
RPI anchors: 3 sub-200 Kenpom wins (2 sub-250, no sub-300)
Remaining non-conference games: Arkansas State

Now this is how you game the RPI. Right now they’re projecting at 9-9 in conference; I’m a little skeptical that holds up with only two games away from home so far, but if it does, the RPI forecast puts them in the mid-30s. They’re even in reasonable shape at 8-10.

BUBBLECON 3 (On the Edge)

Ohio State (8-3)

Noteworthy wins: Providence, UConn
Losses: at Virginia, Florida Atlantic (!!!), UCLA (N)
RPI anchors: 4 sub-250 Kenpom wins (3 sub-300), plus another sub-250 to be played and the loss to sub-200 FAU
Remaining non-conference games: Youngstown State, UNC-Asheville

That FAU loss is a real profile-killer. RPI forecast suggests 11-12 regular season losses is the likely cutoff point, and that’s probably where Ohio State ends up.

Northwestern (9-2)

Noteworthy wins: Texas (N), Wake Forest, Dayton
Losses: at Butler, Notre Dame (N)
RPI anchors: 5 sub-250 Kenpom wins (2 sub-300), plus another sub-250 to be played
Remaining non-conference games: IUPUI, Houston Baptist

Could this be the Wildcats’ year? Several decent non-conference wins, no embarrassing losses, relatively few bottom-50 opponents ... it all adds up to an RPI rank forecast in the high 50s at 9-9 in conference (assuming both of the last two non-conference games are wins). That might do the job if the Wildcats can hold it together through Big Ten play.

Michigan State (7-5)

Noteworthy wins: Wichita State (N), Florida Gulf Coast
Losses: Arizona (N), Kentucky (N), Baylor (N), at Duke, Northeastern (!)
RPI anchors: 4 sub-200 Kenpom wins (3 sub-250, 1 sub-300)
Remaining non-conference games: Oakland

Until Sunday, I would have had MSU at a 4 - none of the losses before that were at all bad, and a strong schedule always helps in the committee room. But that loss removes a lot of margin for error. Historically, there is precedent for 14-loss teams getting an at-large bid (MSU themselves did it in 2011, along with several others). There is no precedent for 15 losses getting in (although if ever there was a schedule that could do it, this is it - as of now, the schedule includes 9 games against Kenpom top 25, 16 against the top 50, and 22 against the top 100). Counting one in the Big Ten tournament, that means 10-8 in conference plus a win over Oakland. If MSU can get healthy in a hurry, that seems entirely plausible. If not ...

Maryland (10-1)

Noteworthy wins: at Georgetown, Kansas State (N), Oklahoma State
Losses: Pittsburgh
RPI anchors: 5 sub-200 Kenpom wins (2 sub-300)
Remaining non-conference games: Charlotte

The main reason for skepticism here is not so much the resume as the fact that Maryland isn’t highly ranked by Kenpom right now; all three of the good wins above were by a single point and their next-best (Richmond) was an overtime win. As a result, Maryland projects to 8-10 in conference, and it’s hard to imagine them getting a bid if they go any worse than that. But 8-10 might be enough.

Illinois (8-3)

Noteworthy wins: North Carolina State, VCU (N), BYU
Losses: Winthrop (!), West Virginia (N), Florida State (N)
RPI anchors: 2 sub-250 Kenpom wins
Remaining non-conference games: Missouri (N)

The solid non-conference schedule is Illinois’s saving grace here; while it’s not as ludicrously top-heavy as MSU’s, they have even fewer of the RPI-killer teams at the bottom end. 9-9 (plus a win over Missouri) projects them into the low 50s for RPI rank; even 8-10 puts them in the low 60s, which leaves them with a fighting chance.

BUBBLECON 2 (Need Some Work)

Nobody here. Iowa could arguably be promoted on the basis that they were missing Tyler Cook (broken finger) for a bit toward the tail end of their disaster stretch, but I think they have too much to do yet to earn a place here.

BUBBLECON 1 (Need a Miracle)

Iowa (6-5)

Noteworthy wins: Iowa State, Northern Iowa (N)
Losses: Seton Hall, Virginia (N), Memphis (N), at Notre Dame, Nebraska-Omaha (!!)
RPI anchors: 4 sub-250 Kenpom wins (3 sub-300), plus another sub-300 to be played
Remaining non-conference games: North Dakota, Delaware State

Iowa’s made a bit of a recovery the last few weeks, picking up both of their good wins since December 8, but the rest of their wins are atrocious, the UNO loss is a profile-killer, and (assuming wins over both remaining non-conference opponents) the RPI forecast suggests 11-7 is a minimum just to get into fringe bubble territory.

Nebraska (5-6)

Noteworthy wins: Dayton (N)
Losses: UCLA (N), Virginia Tech (N), at Clemson, Creighton, at Kansas, Gardner-Webb (!!!)
RPI anchors: 1 sub-300 Kenpom win, plus another sub-200 to be played and the loss to Gardner-Webb
Remaining non-conference games: Southern

None of Nebraska’s losses were really inexcusable until Sunday - in fact, this looks a lot like a slightly weaker version of MSU’s schedule at the top end (but with fewer bottom-end cupcakes). The problem is that Nebraska doesn’t look like a team capable of going 10-8 in conference, and even that would leave them with 15 losses (counting one in the Big Ten tournament).

Penn State (7-5)

Noteworthy wins: None; best are road wins at George Washington (KP #124) and at St. John’s (#136)
Losses: Albany (!!), Duke (N), Cincinnati (N), George Mason (!), Pittsburgh (N)
RPI anchors: 3 sub-200 Kenpom wins (1 sub-250), plus a sub-300 to be played
Remaining non-conference games: Morgan State

The good news is that Penn State’s schedule is relatively RPI-friendly. The bad news is that they have no wins of even modest quality and two bad losses. 10-8 is a minimum to get to even fringe consideration, and that looks very unlikely.

Rutgers (10-1)

Noteworthy wins: Absolutely none. DePaul (#178) is their only Kenpom top 200 win.
Losses: at Miami
RPI anchors: 9 sub-200 Kenpom wins (6 sub-250, 3 sub-300)
Remaining non-conference games: at Seton Hall

It takes a historically atrocious schedule to go 10-1 and still be rated as the worst team in the Big Ten. This makes Northwestern’s non-conference schedule from last year look downright tough, and I thought theirs might have been the worst ever. I don’t think Rutgers stands a chance of making the tournament without an 11-7 conference record (which would put their RPI around #40), largely because the committee tends to look for any excuse to reject teams with bad non-conference schedules. They’re not going 11-7 in conference.