Breaking Down the Big Ten Bubble Teams

At this point, I feel comfortable in saying that five Big Ten teams (Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, and Wisconsin) are comfortably in the NCAA Tournament field.  However, four other teams are still battling it out for additional bids from the nation’s top conference. 

Here’s a quick look at those four squads as we head into the final few weeks of the season.

Illinois (16-10, 5-8 Big Ten, RPI: 57)

To say the Illini are in serious trouble is an understatement.  After losing at home to Purdue on Wednesday night, they have now lost seven of their last eight games.  Their last two wins have come when Brandon Paul scored 43 points and in a 42-41 abomination versus Michigan State

The offense has been poor throughout conference play and ranks 10th in efficiency.  The Illini rank in the bottom half of the league in all four factors, and while they are first in two-pointing shooting at 52.5%, they are 10th in both free throw and three-point shooting.  Illinois has managed to score more than 1.00 ppp in just four conference games with seven games between 0.91 and 0.99 ppp.  If you’re looking for a positive, they have scored at least 1.02 ppp in three of the last four contests.

Unfortunately, that uptick in offense has been accompanied by a decline on defense, as the Illini have surrendered 1.05 ppp or more in four straight games.  As a frame of reference, they allowed just five of their first 22 opponents to break that mark.  Illinois is in the middle of the pack in eFG%, TO%, and DReb% but are ninth in FTR, thanks in part to allowing Indiana to hit the 100 mark in that category.  Overall, they rank fifth in defensive efficiency. 

The remaining schedule doesn’t work in Illinois’ favor with games at OhioState and Wisconsin and at home against Michigan.  Even if they get one of those and win at Nebraska and against Iowa at home, they would only be 8-10 in the league.  I’m not convinced that gets them in based on their recent play.

Minnesota (17-9, 5-8 Big Ten, RPI: 65)

The Gophers have lost two straight and four of their last six to fall to 5-8 in league play after they had bounced back nicely from a 0-4 start.  If you’re looking for a silver lining, they are 2-2 against the other three bubble teams in the conference.

Offensively, Minnesota ranks ninth in efficiency thanks to some inconsistent play on that end of the floor.  They have eclipsed the 1.14 ppp mark in four conference games but have been held to 0.99 ppp or less in four others.  The Gophers rank sixth in a number of categories, including eFG%, OReb%, FTR, and three-point shooting, but they rank 10th in TO% thanks to a league-worst steal percentage against them.  The offense has been playing a bit better of late with 1.05 ppp or more in six of the last nine games.

Minnesota has been similarly inconsistent on defense, allowing seven opponents to score at least 1.05 ppp while holding five others to 1.00 or less.  Their top-ranked block percentage has helped them to place fourth in eFG% defense, but they rank in the bottom half of the league in the other three factors.  Lately, FTR has been a huge issue, with five of their last six opponents posting FTR’s of 46.4 or more.  In total, that lands them smack dab in the middle of the pack in defensive efficiency.

The Gophers have easily the most challenging schedule of the group.  This weekend they travel to Northwestern for a huge bubble game before a three-game stretch when they host Michigan State and Indiana followed by a road trip to Wisconsin.  They play Nebraska to end the season, but if they go 0-4 or even 1-3 in the others, that game won’t matter much.

Northwestern (15-10, 5-8 Big Ten, RPI: 44)

The Wildcats missed a golden opportunity at Indiana on Wednesday night, as their loss dropped them to 5-8 in the Big Ten.  The fact that they have a 1-4 mark against fellow bubble teams also doesn’t help their case.

Northwestern has the best offense of this group but also the worst defense.  They rank fourth in offensive efficiency, powered by the top-ranked eFG%.  The Wildcats are second in three-point shooting at 39.8% and rank third in FTR and fourth in TO%.  They take 41.6% of their shots from beyond the arc and score a league-high 36.8% of their points on three-pointers.  On the negative side, they are dead last in both OReb% and free throw shooting.  Still, they have scored at least 1.04 ppp in their last six games, including four of the last five contests where they have posted 1.17 ppp or more.

Unless you give them credit for the fact that their opponents have a poor free throw shooting percentage, there isn’t much good to say about the Northwestern defense.  They rank last in overall efficiency, 11th in eFG%, 10th in TO%, and seventh in FTR.  The Wildcats have allowed their last nine opponents to score at least 1.07 ppp, and they have held just two league foes below 1.03 ppp.  Consequently, they have no choice but to simply outscore people.

Of the first three teams listed here, the Wildcats have the best shot to get to 9-9 in the league.  That assumes they win at Penn State and at Iowa and also go 2-1 in home games against Minnesota, Michigan, and Ohio State.  As mentioned above, this weekend’s game against the Gophers is huge for both teams, and it’s worth noting they took Michigan to overtime on the road.

Purdue (17-9, 7-6 Big Ten, RPI: 46)

Following Wednesday’s win at Illinois, the Boilers are now 5-0 against fellow Big Ten bubble teams and are clearly in the best position of these four squads.  On the flipside, Purdue is 0-5 against the Top Five teams in the league.

While many of Matt Painter’s recent teams have relied on a stingy defense, this incarnation of the Boilers is far more reliant on its offense.  They rank fifth in overall efficiency, due in large part to an outstanding 12.5 TO% in league play.  Outside of that, they are in the bottom half of the league in the other three factors.  Purdue ranks fourth in three-pointing shooting but have much less success inside the arc, ranking 10th on two-point shooting and 11th from the stripe.  They have scored at least 1.05 ppp in 10 of 13 Big Ten games, but they have been held to 0.91 or less in the other three. 

Purdue has really struggled defensively and ranks 10th in efficiency during conference play.  They are eighth or worse in all four factors and are 11th in three-point defense.  The Boilers have allowed at least 1.01 ppp in 10 league games, with two of the other three coming against an offensively challenged Illinois squad.  Eight league foes have scored at least 1.09 ppp against Purdue, and while I like their chances to make the tournament, those defensive woes limit their ceiling.

The Boilers have home games remaining against Nebraska and Penn State, so if they can hold serve there, they will finish with a minimum of nine conference wins.  The other three games are all tough, as they host Michigan State and hit the road to face Michigan and Indiana.

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