Breaking down the Big Ten's NCAA Tournament chances

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By Jake Lourim, Managing Sports Editor
Published February 2, 2015

The Michigan men’s basketball team’s game Sunday at Michigan State was the first in a brutal stretch that includes four of seven games on the road and five of seven against teams in the top half of the Big Ten.

In the end, the Wolverines dropped a heartbreaker in overtime, 76-66, falling to 6-4 in the Big Ten and 13-9 overall.

As February begins and the clock starts ticking on the regular season with under six weeks until Selection Sunday, Michigan’s NCAA Tournament chances will start to move to the forefront.

The Wolverines are on the outside looking in right now, projected as the eighth team out of the field in ESPN’s Joe Lunardi’s latest Bracketology update. Though their strength of schedule is solid at No. 19, their RPI sits at a below-average 70, and they still have to weather trips to Maryland and Indiana as well as home games against Michigan State and Ohio State.

The other games are at Illinois and Northwestern and home dates with Iowa and Rutgers. The March matchups with Northwestern and Rutgers are close to must-wins, and Michigan would be well served to pick up another road win at Indiana, Illinois or Maryland.

One of those, plus the two March wins, a home win over Iowa and a split of Ohio State and Michigan State would put the Wolverines at 18-12, 11-7 in the Big Ten.

That would probably leave it up to the Big Ten Tournament. Anything less would make for a very anxious Selection Sunday.

In six tries, Michigan still does not own a top-50 RPI win — the closest was against No. 59 Illinois. The Wolverines are also still hurting from two ugly losses — No. 150 Eastern Michigan and No. 183 New Jersey Institute of Technology.

Elsewhere in the Big Ten, No. 5 Wisconsin, No. 17 Maryland and No. 20 Ohio State are likely the only three locks at this point, barring something catastrophic. At the bottom, Rutgers, Northwestern, Minnesota, Nebraska and Penn State are well outside the field.

The Daily breaks down the chances for everyone in between:

Indiana (6-3 Big Ten, 16-6 overall, RPI No. 34, SOS No. 43): The Hoosiers are about as close to a lock as it gets, but things could still go awry. They struggle playing away from home and play at Wisconsin and Maryland in the next three games. Lose both of those, and slip up at home against Michigan on Sunday, and Indiana is at .500 in the Big Ten. Things could get dicey at that point.

Still, the Hoosiers are probably safe. They boast nice non-conference wins over RPI No. 17 Butler (at a neutral site), No. 22 Southern Methodist and No. 67 Pittsburgh, and their worst loss is at No. 78 Purdue. If they escape with road wins over Rutgers and Northwestern later this month, they should be OK.

Michigan State (6-3 Big Ten, 15-7 overall, RPI No. 36, SOS No. 30): The Spartans are playing well and staying healthy, but they still need a few more wins to feel secure. After they missed out on three big-time chances in the non-conference season against Duke, Notre Dame and Kansas, their lone top-50 win is over Indiana at home.

Michigan State has already lost to Maryland twice and only plays Wisconsin on the road, which would be a tough win to get. The Spartans could use a home victory over Ohio State. Other than that and a trip to Indiana, there aren’t a lot of opportunities on the table, and the Dec. 20 loss to Texas Southern was a setback. But Michigan State is a No. 8 seed in Lunardi’s latest projection, and would need to slip up several times to play its way out.

Iowa (4-4 Big Ten, 13-8 overall, RPI No. 51, SOS No. 10): Lunardi has the Hawkeyes as a No. 10 seed in his latest bracket, eight spots from the bubble. Strength of schedule has Iowa in good shape, as does a sweep of Ohio State and a big road win at North Carolina, which is ranked No. 10 in the RPI. Moreover, the Hawkeyes’ worst loss is at Purdue, far from the Incarnate Word or NJIT debacles their Big Ten counterparts suffered.

Plenty of minefields are still there: a home game against a dangerous Minnesota team, a trip to Penn State and a home-and-home versus Northwestern, any of which would be Iowa’s worst loss of the season. A home win over Maryland would be helpful, but not necessary. Because the Hawkeyes have taken care of business so far, they should be alright.

Purdue (6-3 Big Ten, 14-8 overall, RPI No. 78, SOS No. 72): The Boilermakers are Lunardi’s sixth team out of the field as of Monday, two spots ahead of Michigan. They clubbed Indiana at home Wednesday and boast a decent non-conference win over North Carolina State, but they’ll have to overcome some ugly losses: No. 110 Vanderbilt, No. 129 Gardner-Webb and No. 198 North Florida.

As a result, their strength of schedule is low and their RPI even lower, and they don’t have another chance to knock off Wisconsin, the Big Ten’s premier team. At least a split of road games at Ohio State and Michigan State later in February would be nice, plus the Buckeyes come to town Wednesday. A sweep of Rutgers is likely necessary as well, but even then, Purdue is squarely on the bubble.

Illinois (4-5, 14-8 overall, RPI No. 59, SOS No. 63): Quite simply, the Fighting Illini just need wins — lots of them. They’re not saddled with a terrible non-conference loss, and they picked up a nice win over Baylor the day after Thanksgiving. But they sit currently at 4-5 in the Big Ten, and this year, even a .500 conference record is cutting it close.

Illinois has four tough road games remaining: Michigan State, Wisconsin, Iowa and Purdue. At least one would be nice. The Illini also have five very winnable home games in Michigan, Michigan State, Rutgers, Nebraska and Northwestern. If they avoid a bad loss there, they’ll have the opportunity to play their way in during the Big Ten Tournament.