As the Big Ten season draws to a close, attention turns to the Big Ten conference championship tournament, and with good reason. After all, this is the place where tournament dreams are created and dashed, as it's the final chance for schools to impress the NCAA Tournament selection committee.
Every year, teams either make a run into March Madness, or they crash out of the conference title tournament early and find themselves in the NIT. But, which teams need a deep run to guarantee themselves a place in the Big Dance this year?
The Hawkeyes are a case study in inconsistency. They played Indiana incredibly close and have pushed ranked teams like Minnesota (who they managed to beat once), Michigan State and Wisconsin (who they also defeated) to the absolute limit. But, by the same token, they've lost games to teams like Purdue, Nebraska and Virginia Tech, and were run out of the gym in their lone matchup with Michigan this season.
Led by Roy Devyn Marble and Aaron White, Iowa are a talented team, and could cause some trouble in the tournament. At 18-10, with games left against Nebraska and Minnesota, this team's bubble hasn't burst quite yet, and the Big Ten tournament will provide them with the perfect chance to prove that they do belong on college basketball's biggest stage.
But in order to ensure things stay that way, they need to win out in the regular season and make a run in the conference tournament. With their RPI (86), the paper profile isn't nearly good enough to get them in without a trip to at least the semifinals, if not further than that. If the Hawkeyes get hot, it's a legitimate possibility.
Ah, Illinois. The Fighting Illini have looked like a tournament-quality team throughout this season, scoring big wins over Indiana at home and Minnesota on the road. So, they're a lock to get in, right?
Not so fast, my friend. The Illini's profile was dealt serious damage courtesy of a midseason swoon that saw them drop eight of 11 games, including resume-killing losses to Purdue and Northwestern. With a solid non-conference resume, this team should make the tournament. But, if they want to be absolutely sure they're not going to the wrong dance come Selection Sunday, they have two ways to do it.
First, they win out, beating Ohio State and Iowa in their final two regular-season games. Failing that, the Illini and their 34th-ranked RPI will need to win a game or two in the conference championship to really, truly feel comfortable that they'll be in the Big Dance when the time comes. They have the talent to get in; now is the time to prove they belong beyond a shadow of a doubt.
Another team who can blame a run of terrible form for their presence on the bubble, Minnesota will need to make a solid run in the tournament for several reasons. While their paper profile is quite good on the surface (wins over IU at home, Illinois on the road, and Wisconsin at home), and their RPI (14) and strength of schedule (currently the best in the country), they're currently the victims of a massive late-season swoon that could easily cost them a spot in the Madness.
Prior to the win over Indiana, the Golden Gophers were looking dead in the water. They were fresh off of massive losses to both Ohio State and Iowa, and had lost eight of 11 overall. Worse still, Tubby Smith's team was playing lethargic, uninspired basketball, looking like they were worn out, or had completely and utterly given up on the season. Winnable games against Nebraska and Purdue to end the year shouldn't do much to help the Gophers' profile, but a couple of wins in the conference tournament definitely would.
On top of that, making a run in Chicago would show the selection committee that this team has moved beyond its late season collapse, and are capable of at least giving a respectable showing in the Madness. If they can string a few wins together, the Gophers would show that they probably aren't going to show up to their second-round game and get embarrassed, a key for a team who find themselves on the upper edge of the bubble. They can't afford to go home early in Chicago, but knocking off a ranked team or two en route to a semifinal berth would be ideal.