Big Ten NCAA Smackdown

HOWARD MEGDAL: Alright, let’s get this party started like a proper Sunday brunch- with the locks.

Michigan State, obviously, is in. But there’s something that doesn’t sit right with me considering the Spartans an elite team. Maybe I’m being too picky- but elite teams don’t lose to Northwestern, get blown out by Purdue… I guess Maryland counts as a decent loss now, with the Terrapins toppling UNC.

Ken Pomeroy has them as the 12th best team in the country- and you’d probably figure them for a 3 seed right now. I can just see myself picking a decent 6 seed to knock them off in the second round right now.

Purdue, meanwhile, is playing very well right now- I like their defensive prowess a great deal. The Boilermakers don’t have a great out-of-conference win to point to- BC and at Davidson aren’t exactly signature at this point- but finishing strong, especially in the regular-season finale against Michigan State, could land them as high as a 2 seed. I don’t know if their offense justifies such a seeding, but there it is.

Speaking of offensive questions, what is with Illinois? They have solid overall numbers- 46.4 percent shooting, 35.1 percent from three-point range- but put up 33 (!!!) points against Penn State, and 36 against Minnesota! They shot 30 percent and 29.4 percent in those two games. It’s one thing to go cold from three- but from two? A worrisome issue- still, a nice OOC win over Missouri and an overall Pomeroy rating of 23 should have them in the mix for a 4 seed.

STEVE KORNACKI: I have the same feeling about Michigan State, although I’ll admit: When I look at their resume, it doesn’t look that bad. Historically speaking, Northwestern is an awful, inexcusable loss, but not so much this year. The loss at Purdue last week can be overlooked; it was an ambush, like when Louisville got massacred in South Bend a few weeks back. These things happen. But I’m still with you. Since 2001 or so, I’ve never had much confidence in MSU come tourney time. After the Mateen Cleaves/Morris Peterson era, they’ve been good, but never great. Yeah, they made the Final Four in ’05, but that’s what happens when you’re lucky enough to play a Tubby Smith team in the Elite 8. If the Spartans are a #3 seed, I’ll be tempted to predict a repeat of 1995, when #14 Weber State took out the Spartans in the first round.

I’m with you on the Purdue Chickens and agree on Illinois’ offensive deficiency (although I’m not convinced it will carry over into the tournament; against non-B10 teams, they may have no trouble cracking 70). Actually, between MSU, the Purdue Chickens and Illinois, I’d pick the Illini to go the farthest in March. They’re my favorite kind of team because they overachieve; on paper, they should not be 22-6. And they don’t panic. That comeback at Northwestern — down 57-43 with five minutes left — was amazing. I think Illinois can get to the Elite 8.

HOWARD MEGDAL: Good points all around- especially noting the Illinois comeback. On the other hand, it was against Northwestern- which doesn’t mean what it did, but still doesn’t qualify as a quality win.

Onto the next tier- my favorite tier. The bubble tier. Let’s start with Penn State, a team I can’t believe doesn’t have a better tourney resume at this point, considering 19-8, 8-6 in the Big Ten this time of year usually means near tourney lock status. But Pomeroy has them 67th in the country, probably because their best non-conference appears to be Georgia Tech, and Dennis Scott no longer plays for the Yellow Jackets.

Still, how do you keep Penn State out? They just won at Illinois (38-33, but a win’s a win), and also won at Michigan State, and at home against Purdue. They have a relatively soft remaining schedule- Illinois at home, at Ohio State, hosting Indiana and Iowa- 3-1 gets them to 22-9, 11-7 in the conference. That’s a tournament team, even with the soft schedule.

A team that should be in is Minnesota, though they can still blow it. At 20-7, 8-7 in the Big Ten, with an OOC win against Louisville, Minnesota is at 48 in Pomeroy ratings. The final three games are tough-at illinois, hosting Wisconsin, hosting Michigan. A 2-1 record gets Minnesota in for sure- 1-2 and it could take a win in the conference tournament.

For Wisconsin, the math is a bit different- 17-10, 8-7, but 29 in Pomeroy due to a tough schedule. Still, the only OOC win to get excited about is Virginia Tech, so a 2-1 finish against Michigan, at Minnesota and hosting Indiana would probably be required to avoid nervousness on Selection Sunday.

STEVE KORNACKI: In the wonderful little imaginary world in which I spend far too much time, a place where General Bob Knight is now chasing his 12th national championship at Indiana and where sports fans are still talking about this year’s thrilling college football tournament title game between Penn State and Utah, the Nittany Lions hoops team is, of course, a lock for the NCAA tournament.

In reality, I completely understand why they’re on the bubble and, if I had to guess, slightly on the wrong side of it right now. How, you ask, can an 8-6/19-8 team from a power conference be left out? The answer is schedule strength and, sadly, there’s plenty of precedent for it. PSU’s OOC slate was ranked, I believe, 325th in the country. Think about that for a minute. Georgia Tech is the biggest name they beat OOC, but the Jackets are 1-12 in the ACC right now; PSU’s best OOC win is actually Mount St. Mary’s.

Now, if the selection committee has been consistent in one point through the years its that weak schedules, when at all possible, will be punished (and tough ones rewarded). A perfect example of this came in 2007, when Kansas State went 10-6 in the Big-12 — one game better than Texas Tech. Then, KSU crushed Tech in the first round of the conference tourney. Both teams were on the bubble, but the choice seemed obvious, right? Except the committee went with Tech, because General Knight had put together a tougher schedule (and also beaten three top-10 teams in league play).

Right now, PSU looks an awful lot like that KSU sqauad. They go at Ohio State, then home against Indiana and Illinois, and then at Iowa to close the regular season. Let’s call IU and Iowa wins (although Iowa City can be a trap — just ask Joe Paterno); to make the field, I think the Lions must then beat either OSU or Illinois — and maybe both. If this team finished 10-8 in the B10, I think they’re out.

As for the others: I actually think the Gophers are in serious trouble. An RPI of 48 usually puts you just on the wrong side of the bubble — especially if you’ve played poorly down the stretch. And the Gophers have lost four of six. I think they must win two of the next three — and the schedule is not favorable for doing that. Speaking of finishing poorly, look at Ohio State. This is the kind of finish Eldon Miller used to specialize in. I wouldn’t be shocked if they go into their final regualr season game needing a win — only to get upset at home by Northwestern. Wisconsin, I think, is pretty safe. Their RPI is much stronger and they are on a tear right now — the strong finish the committee likes to see.

And what about Michigan? They have some stellar wins, but they never seem to seize an opportunity to put the doubts to rest. The loss at lowly Iowa on Sunday was brutal, but emblematic of how schizophrenic this team is. They finish with Purdue, at Wisconsin and at Minnesota. If they can split the first two, the Minnesota tilt could be an elimination game.

HOWARD MEGDAL: Totally agree on Penn State, though I do think Ohio State is in position to recover. The game at home against the Paternos Tuesday night is huge- a win, and Ohio State is back on track-even with a loss at Purdue, the Buckeyes finish up at Iowa and home against Northwestern. If you need a win, hosting Northwestern isn’t a bad place to be.

Michigan is such a puzzle to me. I think Minnesota/Michigan might not be an elimination game so much as eliminate the need to get work done in the conference tournament. By the way- it still feels strange to reference the Big Ten Conference Tournament, doesn’t it?

Allow me to make the argument for Northwestern. Yes, Pomeroy has them at 82 right now. But imagine if you will that the Wildcats sweep their final four games to get to 18-11, 9-9, with wins over Florida State, at Michigan State, and at Purdue (one of their four remaining games). How far from the tournament would they be? And how painful would the Illinois loss be at that point- a game that could have gotten them to 19-10, 10-8.

I’ve just always loved Bill Carmody. And I like living in a fantasy world too, only in mine, every afternoon it rains corn muffins.

STEVE KORNACKI: Corn muffins dropped from a high altitude could be deadly. I mean, if a penny from the Empire State Building can split a skull, just imagine the destruction that baked goods from 20,000 feet could wreak.

I like Carmody, too. I remember when he first got the Northwestern job. I think Cheers and The Cosby Show were still on back then. He and the Princeton Offense seemed like a perfect fit for Evanston. I was sure it would work, and I really don’t know why it hasn’t. Yes, the academic factor makes recruiting tough, but look at Stanford and Duke. It baffles me why Northwestern has never managed to get it together, even for one season, in basketball. So is this the end for Carmody? This has got to be his best year since taking over, but he’s still going to come up short . (Your talk of a 9-9 B10 finish for the purple reminds me of Earl Weaver, whose team was about 10 games behind the Red Sox with a month to play one year, pointing out that if the O’s won all of their last 26 games, Boston would have to play .600 ball to hang on to the division lead — and do you know how tough it is to play .600 ball?!) But how can they fire him, given how much they’ve improved from last year? In all seriousness, this would be a terrific job for General Knight; it would put him back in the Big 10, he would make them winners for the first time, and then he could retire with one final, meaningful achievement — the first person ever to lead Northwestern to the NCAA tournament.

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