It’s hard to imagine there ever having been more at stake in a Big Ten tournament. You have one team, Minnesota, in pole position for a host spot, and seven of the eight teams in the field have legitimate at-large aspirations.
Dan Hartleb, who’s been the head coach at Illinois since 2006, and was an assistant at the school from 1991 until taking over, has seen his fair share of them.
“If you look at the Big Ten as a whole, we’ve never been in that situation, with this many teams that have opportunities to qualify,” Hartleb says. “It’s going to be fun. The great thing about this tournament is there are four of five teams out there that have great RPIs, and if you play those teams and beat them, you’re really going to help yourself.”
To Hartleb’s point, with so many teams in the mix to get into regionals, it creates a scenario where every single game will have a profound impact on each team’s chances to get into the field of 64, beyond the team’s pursuit of the automatic bid, of course.
Let’s take a spin through all eight teams in the field and talk about what’s riding on their week at TD Ameritrade Park.
Minnesota Golden Gophers (37-13, 18-4)
What’s at Stake: The Gophers are a lock into regionals and will go into the week feeling pretty good about hosting a regional. They clinched the Big Ten regular season title this weekend, their 11-4 record against the RPI top 50 compares favorably with most of the other regional host contenders around them in the pecking order, and an RPI of 16 is right where they would want it to be.
It’s not quite a lock, though. If the Gophers go 0-2 in Omaha, they might be sweating it out a bit, especially since that would mean they took an opening-game loss against eight seed Michigan State, which has far and away the worst RPI of anyone in the tournament field, with a 188 mark. If Minnesota’s RPI ends up closer to 20 that it does to 15, and other teams get a bump from winning their conference tournaments, for example, the Gophers could end up on the wrong side of things when it comes to hosting.
Just to give you an idea of how fluid things are, though, it’s not crazy to think that Minnesota could push their way into consideration for a top-eight seed with a good week. If they can sweep their way through the field, move up a couple of spots in the RPI, and add a Big Ten tournament title to their resume, they might be able to sneak into a top-eight spot. Consider that a long shot, though.
Purdue Boilermakers (34-18, 17-6)
What’s at Stake: The Boilermakers are on the bubble heading into the week, and while a series sweep over Michigan to end the regular season did them a lot of good in terms of the RPI, moving them much closer to bubble-in rather than bubble-out, they just need to pile up as many wins as they can while in Omaha.
The RPI is in good shape at 40, and with the quality of teams in the tournament, barring taking a loss against Michigan State along the way, you don’t anticipate that number moving much. Where they need help is in their record-based metrics. They come in with a 3-7 mark against the RPI top 50. The good news, of course, is that four of their seven potential opponents in Omaha will come in with an RPI of 50 or better, giving them plenty of chances to better that figure.
Obviously they’re in if they win the automatic bid, but short of that, if they can win a couple of games, it’s entirely likely their top 50 record could be enough to get them there, when you combine that with a quality RPI and a second-place finish in a good Big Ten.
Michigan Wolverines (32-18, 15-8)
What’s at Stake: For much of the season, the Wolverines looked to be in good position for an at-large bid largely on the strength of their performance in the Big Ten. They went on an absolute tear during the middle portion of the season, and were a perfect 11-0 in their first four series in Big Ten play. But as their performance in the league faltered ever so slightly, their chances of a postseason berth took a hit, particularly given that their league slate shook out to where they missed a handful of the best teams in the conference this time around.
Now, they’re sitting with an RPI of 56, which is probably a bit too low for them to feel great about things, and their 2-9 record against the RPI top 50 is a problem. They’ve got some work to do in the tournament and probably need to make it to Saturday to feel at least a little bit more comfortable with their prospects. Either way, unless they win the tournament, of course, Michigan will likely be coming out of their time in Omaha sweating things out as a team precariously balancing on the bubble.
Illinois Fighting Illini (30-18, 15-9)
What’s at Stake: The Illini ran through the finish line with series wins over Michigan and Nebraska to end the regular season, and that was much-needed after they came into the Michigan series having lost three series in a row- to Grand Canyon, Indiana, and Ohio State.
They’re probably the bubbliest of the bubble teams heading into Omaha, with the highest variance in possible outcomes depending on how things play out. They’ve got some great positives on their resume, such as a 3-0 showing with wins against UCLA, Arizona, and Washington in the Big Ten/Pac-12 challenge, a solid 12-6 record on the road, and a similarly solid non-conference strength of schedule rating of 66. There are also some negatives, such as their 5-6 record against the RPI top 50, and an RPI of 50 that is probably a little bit shy of where they’d like to be.
With an 0-2 showing in Omaha, they’d probably be sweating it out and it would come down to how soft the bubble is once the stolen bids have been taken into account. With a strong showing, though, the Illini will probably be feeling pretty safe on Selection Monday.
Indiana Hoosiers (37-15, 14-9)
What’s at Stake: Perhaps things haven’t gone quite as well for the Hoosiers as they had hoped this season. A preseason top 20 team, there were thoughts of winning a Big Ten title and of potentially hosting a regional going into the season, but as the regular season finishes, they’ve still got a very strong overall postseason resume and have to feel pretty comfortable with their chances of hearing their name called on Memorial Day.
An RPI of 23 puts them in great shape, and while it’s not an ideal record, a 7-10 mark against the RPI top 50 is going to stack up pretty well with a lot of the other teams in consideration for at-large bids, even if they don’t add any wins to that record in the tournament. A quick exit in Omaha might make the Hoosiers a bit uncomfortable while watching the selection show, but they’re almost certainly in under any circumstance.
Iowa Hawkeyes (28-19, 13-9)
What’s at Stake: Iowa has the strangest resume of anyone in the league. Their RPI of 67 wouldn’t get them in if the season ended today. Their 208 non-conference strength of schedule also hurts them.
On the other hand, series wins against Illinois, Ohio State, Michigan, and a two-game split against Indiana might give them the best set of in-conference results in the Big Ten, at least among those not named Minnesota. And a series win in early-May against Oklahoma State is one of the most impressive non-conference series wins in the league.
What it all adds up to is that Iowa will have to, at a bare minimum, wins enough games this week to get their RPI into better position. Unless you’re betting on a near-record breaking low RPI getting you into the field of 64 (Oregon got in with an RPI of 66 in 2015), that number is going to have to get better.
If they can do that and get their RPI at least into the mid-50s, the rest of their resume might do enough work to get them in. Anything short of that, though, and you can bet on the Hawkeyes being home for regionals.
Ohio State Buckeyes (34-20, 14-10)
What’s at Stake: Despite being the seven seed, Ohio State comes into the Big Ten tournament with a strong resume. An RPI of 41 puts them in great shape, as does a 9-8 record against the RPI top 50 and series wins against other regional hopefuls Indiana, Illinois, and Purdue. They also picked off quality non-conference wins against the likes of Southern Miss and Coastal Carolina.
An 0-2 showing in the tournament wouldn’t make them altogether comfortable when it comes to their at-large chances, as would be the case with anyone not a lock to make a regional, but their case is one of the strongest in the league, and would still likely be enough to get them in, barring an absolute deluge of stolen bids ahead of Monday’s selection show.
Michigan State Spartans (20-30, 11-12)
What’s at Stake: This one is simple. The Spartans are not in at-large position, so it’s a tournament title or nothing as far as their regional hopes go.
It must be said, though, that getting to Omaha is a nice accomplishment for MSU, given the way they began their season. They started the season 0-5, including a four-game sweep at hands of Fresno State to kick things off. Then, when Big Ten play got underway, they began 0-5 once again, getting swept by Michigan and dropping their first two against Rutgers, before salvaging the final game of their series against the Scarlet Knights.
It hasn’t been an easy season for the Spartans, but any time you get into the Big Ten tournament, you have a chance, and they’ll undoubtedly take it.