Big Ten basketball is trending in wrong direction

The Big Ten men's basketball tournament is a week earlier than usual this season, which means the NCAA selection committee will have an extra week to digest the league's teams as it considers the 68-team field.

That added week could be a mind-numbing process when one considers the muddled and mediocre state of the league through the first two months of the season — and at least one so-called bracketologist has the league sending just four teams to the tournament at this point, down from seven in 2017.

"It can't really get any worse," said ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi, who rarely misses on projections and who in his current bracket has only Michigan State, Purdue, Michigan and Minnesota making the field. 

The second-ranked Spartans are a national championship contender, but after that, it's anybody's guess. Purdue has the highest Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) in the conference at 12th, but outside of Michigan State at 21, no other team cracks the top 45. 

The toughest schedule in the league belongs to Purdue, but only at 70th overall, followed by Wisconsin (90th) and Northwestern (96th), both of whom have been disappointments and have contributed to the national perception of the league as down this season.

There have been bad losses: Purdue fell to Western Kentucky by four, Nebraska lost to St. John's by 23, Indiana lost to Indiana State by 25, Northwestern lost to Texas Tech by 36 and Iowa suffered losses to Louisiana-Lafayette and South Dakota State in a two-day span.

The low point? Going 3-11 in the Big Ten/Atlantic Coast Challenge might be a good place to start. According to analytics site, Big Ten teams are 3-13 against top-25 teams during nonconference play. 

Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo fashions himself as a "league guy," which was why he felt he had embarrassed the Big Ten after his team lost to Duke at the Champions Classic in November. It was also why he beamed with pride on a podium in Portland, Oregon, just 10 days later, after his team had defeated North Carolina in the PK80-Phil Knight Invitational. 

"We've got to have the top teams in our league winning . . . I think it is important for our league," Izzo said. 

But while the top teams keep winning, the rest of the league is a mystery. It would be stunning if the league only received three bids, but that isn't completely out of the realm either. Not during a season that has been bizarre in so many ways, beginning with the league pushing to expand its footprint on the East Coast by putting the conference tournament at Madison Square Garden a week earlier than normal - the Big East will hold its own conference tournament as usual the following week - which has compressed the Big Ten's 112 league games into a 55-day window. 

The on-court product could charitably be called top-heavy. Purdue and Michigan are long shots to challenge Michigan State for the conference title, yet still have largely lived up to expectations and are capable of making runs in March. Minnesota, considered a potential top-10 team entering the season, has disappointed and brought the league cringe-worthy headlines in November when it almost blew a big lead to Alabama despite the Crimson Tide having just three available players late in the game due to a brawl. Maryland is down to nine scholarship players after losing its top two power forwards, Justin Jackson and Ivan Bender, to season-ending injuries, while Ohio State currently sits on Lunardi's bubble after playing the 133rd-most difficult schedule through the first two months of the season. 

After that, it's a mixed bag. Northwestern and Nebraska carry RPI's of 79 and 89, respectively, but Wisconsin (120), Illinois (121), Penn State (128), Indiana (140) and Iowa (154) would each need to win at least 10 conference games to earn consideration for an NCAA bid. 

"Somebody has to win all these games. It's not likely that every team outside the top three or four, finishes at .500. Somebody is going to get to 10-8, 11-7," Lunardi said. 

Still, there is hope, at least among coaches. A year ago, the league was deemed historically bad in early February, yet seven teams received bids and three advanced to the Sweet 16. 

"Everyone who follows the Big Ten knows that the coaching is really good, and that the teams get better," Maryland Coach Mark Turgeon said. "We're going to get better. We'll see. That's why we play the games. It's going to be a challenge. It's going to go fast. It's over Feb. 24. It's going to be interesting to see what our team can become, with everything that is happening right now to our team." 

If Lunardi "had a house to bet on it" he would place the over-under for Big Ten teams to make the NCAA Tournament at 4.5 and take the over; he believes either Maryland or Ohio State will crack the field alongside Michigan State, Purdue, Michigan and Minnesota. But if any of those four suffer an implosion, it could be a historically bad year for the league in March. 

"I don't think this is the time to start calling the Big Ten a mid-major," Lunardi said. "I just think it's one of those fluke things. Just as on any given year, you can have teams surprise you in a positive direction. Basically, the Big Ten has surprised in the wrong direction."

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