Men's basketball: Big Ten out of answers in 2017

The Badgers also don't have to play Purdue while they play the two other teams in the Big Ten in the top 50 of RPI, Maryland and Minnesota, under the lights of the Kohl Center at home. The result of that one likely swings their chances at the bubble. In the five seasons before Maryland and Rutgers joined the league for the 2014-15 season, the Big Ten received seven bids only twice. A No. 3 seed would be the lowest for a Big Ten regular season champion since 2008. But it's No. 18 in the Ratings Percentage Index, one of the metrics used by the committee to select and seed the 68-team field it will unveil on March 12. While five might still seem like a good outlook for the conference given the downfall of the rankings, Lunardi has been known to overlook non-Power Five conference teams, and even the five he predicted are in question.

About a week ago, as Northwestern reached its first 7-2 start in Big Ten play since 1938, Lunardi was ready to declare that the Wildcats would make the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history. Northwestern stunned No. 7 Wisconsin, 66-59, in Madison without leading scorer Scottie Lindsey, who is dealing with a case of mononucleosis. The Wolverines made easy work of Michigan State last Tuesday and then thumped IN in Bloomington on Saturday, improving to 16-9 and 6-6 IN the Big Ten.

Meanwhile, it was also notable for what was not there-any Big Ten teams on the top 4 seed lines. There are a bunch of possibilities, too. The Big 12 teams have lots of top wins. Mid-major conferences such as the American Athletic, Atlantic 10 and Mountain West that normally get multiple bids are surprisingly short of candidates this season as well.

Compare that to Duke, the 16th team to get the nod.

Wisconsin (21-3, 10-1) leads the way as the Big Ten's steadiest and highest-ranked team, at No. 7 in the Associated Press poll. Problem is, the Badgers' strength of schedule, or lack thereof, has given them relatively few bargaining chips with the selection committee and will afford them precious few opportunities to improve their standing down the stretch.

"Almost everyone knew this was going to be a down year [in the Big Ten] based on the cycle of talent and all the rest, but it's even downer, if you will, than expected when Wisconsin, your top team, does not get a sniff [of the Top 16] from [the selection committee]", Bacon said. IN (15-10, 5-7), a Sweet 16 team last season, has the league's two best nonconference victories, over Kansas and North Carolina, but has lost four of its past five, including by 30 points at MI (15-9, 5-6). Baylor, by comparison, has 10.

Since the AP is forced to factor in overall record into their top 25 rankings, the Big Ten is bound to have at least two or three teams in the conversation right now, given the weak strength of schedule teams like Wisconsin and Purdue have to face at the top of a diminished conference.

What makes it hard to comprehend is that Badgers have no bad losses, no great wins either, but they have not hurt themselves yet. Michigan State and Minnesota each have four home games left on their schedule. That could swell to three if Michigan State, currently 50th, doesn't falter between now and the time the Badgers go to East Lansing.

  • Julie Sanders