On Tuesday, ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi released his latest projection for the NCAA Tournament field. Nine of the 68 teams included in the updated bracket were from the Big Ten and two were No. 1 seeds — third-ranked Michigan and fourth-ranked Ohio State.
While Selection Sunday is still 30 days and thousands of negative COVID-19 tests away, Lunardi’s current bracket is a reflection of the perceived strength of the Big Ten. Even Penn State and Maryland, which sit 11th and 12th in the league at 4-8 and 4-9, respectively, are “On the Bubble.” And despite Big Ten teams beating up each other over the past two months, little damage has been done to the conference’s reputation nationally. And so, Lunardi and other experts view the Wolverines, who sit alone atop the Big Ten standings, as a bona fide national championship contender.
This Sunday against Wisconsin, Michigan is slated to return to action for the first time since Jan. 22 after shutting down over concerns about the COVID-19 B.1.1.7 variant within the athletic department. The Wolverines had five games postponed during that span, most notably against Michigan State and Illinois. Whether those games will be rescheduled is up in the air, but Michigan still enters what on-paper looks to be the most difficult stretch of its schedule.
With the Big Ten looking a lot different than it did three weeks ago, The Daily broke down the current state of the conference and which teams could realistically catch the Wolverines at the top.
The Buckeyes are rolling. After a 2-3 start in league play, Chris Holtmann’s veteran-laden squad has righted the ship, winners of five games in a row and sitting at 16-4 overall. According to KenPom, Ohio State has the fourth-highest adjusted offensive efficiency at 121.2 points per 100 possessions — illustrated most recently by a 89-85 win over Iowa.
Rather than having one or two go-to scorers, the Buckeyes’ lineup features a well-rounded offensive attack with only three players averaging double-digit point totals but eight players averaging over five points per game. With just three underclassmen in its primary nine-man rotation, Ohio State relies on a been-there, done-that roster with a wealth of big game experience. After sweeping Michigan last season, the Buckeyes are set to play Michigan on Feb. 21 in Columbus in a game that could have massive implications for the Big Ten regular season title race and postseason seeding.
While Ohio State might have vaulted the Illini in the AP Top-25, No. 6 Illinois still has a one-game lead on the Buckeyes for second place in the Big Ten. The Illini too, have been on fire lately, winning their last four contests and looking like the team that many pegged to finish among the top of the Big Ten.
“We’re starting to talk about certain things,” coach Brad Underwood told reporters after beating Wisconsin last week. “We’re starting to talk about the fun of competing — it’s not necessarily just about trying to win a championship. Those are the obvious things, but it’s the fun of being in these moments, the camaraderie that’s built and the relationships that are built when you’re going through a grind and something really special. … But you can’t let your foot off the gas, that’s for sure, or in this league someone’s going to smack you.”
Junior guard Ayo Dosunmu — who recorded a triple-double against the Badgers — and sophomore center Kofi Cockburn form arguably the most-potent one-two punch in the conference.
Other than the Wolverines, Illinois is the highest rated Big Ten team in KenPom’s adjusted efficiency. It’s no coincidence then that the Illini, just two games back of first place, pose the biggest threat to Michigan going forward.
When the Wolverines played Purdue on Jan. 22, Iowa sat second in the conference standings. Now, after losing three of the past five games, the Hawkeyes are a distant fifth. With arguably the best offense in the country, Iowa’s inability to slow down opposing offenses is largely to blame for its recent skid.
“I think (the players) are frustrated because we were in every one of these games that we’ve lost,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffrey told reporters after a two-point loss to Indiana last Sunday. “The game was in the balance so that’s going to be frustrating. They’re frustrated and you expect them to be.”
With that said, the former Big Ten favorites still have National Player of the Year candidate Luka Garza and a litany of offensive weapons surrounding him on the perimeter.
The Hawkeyes could still easily knock off Michigan when the two teams play in early March.
The Best of the Rest
In addition to the Wolverines’ upcoming games against Ohio State, Iowa and potentially a rescheduled game against Illinois, the remaining schedule features the likes of Wisconsin, Rutgers and Indiana — all Tournament teams according to Lunardi, and all teams that while inconsistent, have also flashed the ability to beat anybody on any given night.
The Badgers specifically, have been up and down recently, going 3-3 over their last six games but are always competitive at home. With Michigan coming off a 23-day layoff and only a few practice sessions, don’t be surprised if Wisconsin hands the Wolverines their second loss of the season.
Over the course of the shutdown, the gap between Michigan and second place grew to two games. The Wolverines have at least six games left in the regular season and while they’ve looked dominant at times against Big Ten opponents, the road ahead appears much more treacherous.
Still, if Michigan can pick up where it left off, it should be able to hold on to the regular season crown, the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten Tournament and possibly, a top seed in the NCAA Tournament.