The Big Ten again has quality depth, evidenced by the league's 8-6 win over the ACC in this year's Challenge. Most conference games will be competitive this season, but three teams are separating themselves from the pack so far during the nonconference: Michigan State, Maryland and Purdue. Meanwhile, Rutgers continues to struggle at the bottom of the conference while Penn State is solid but probably a year away from the NCAA Tournament.
In the middle is a muddled mess. Some perennial powers look more vulnerable than ever. Which of the middle teams will make the NCAA Tournament?
Let's break it down with a B1G Panic Meter. A score of 1 means "not worried, so get your bracket ready," while a score of 10 means "all-out panic, no shot at tournament."
Indiana – 2 on Panic Meter
The Hoosiers (8-3) don’t have any good wins on the resume in the non-conference. Their losses are not terrible. They have one final shot at a big win against Notre Dame on a neutral court. The Hoosiers have a high-powered offense and one of the best home court advantages in the country. Their defense is very suspect and don’t expect that to change much. In conference, the Hoosiers only have to play Michigan State, Purdue and Maryland once each with only having to go to MSU. With the schedule in their favor, expect the Hoosiers to get to 10 or 11 conference wins without much trouble.
Iowa – 4 on Panic Meter
Iowa (7-3) has a couple of good wins over Marquette and Wichita State (no Fred VanVleet) and a near home run at Iowa State. Losses to Iowa State, Notre Dame and Dayton are respectable on the resume. This is an older group of guys with a lot of experience. That experience should pay off in conference play. Closing out games and making plays down the stretch could hurt this team. With a good non-conference resume, the Hawkeyes are in need of a 9-9 or better Big Ten finish to feel good about their NCAA chances. Without any major injuries, 9-9 is well within their reach.
Michigan – 4 on Panic Meter
The Wolverines (8-3) have a good win over Texas and three losses to NCAA tournament teams in Xavier, UCONN and SMU (can’t go to tournament). Michigan has a great group of guards and can shoot it from three as well as anytime in the country. Getting consistent production on the offense and defense from the interior is going to be an issue. Injuries have also shown up the last two years. With the non-conference resume, the Wolverines need to get to 9-9 to feel good about their NCAA hopes. If this team stays healthy it would be surprising if they don’t get 9 conference wins.
Northwestern – 5 on Panic Meter
Is this the year the Wildcats (9-1) get into the NCAA? A 12-1 non-conference resume would be a great start. There are no eye opening wins and the only loss came at the hands of UNC. This is a team that is playing with a lot of confidence. The season ending injury to Vic Law is a big blow. But the Wildcats have the best depth they have had in several years. McIntosh is going to give you a chance to be in every game you play. Northwestern only has to play Michigan State and Purdue once. With a non-conference resume that is on the soft side, Northwestern needs to get to 9-9 in conference to be in the NCAA discussion. 8-9 wins is very possible and this is a team that is sitting right on the bubble.
Wisconsin – 6 on Panic Meter
The Badgers have dropped three home non-conference games and that is not the story today. Bo Ryan’s retirement Tuesday night threw the Badgers a major curveball. There is no way to predict which way this team goes. The players have a lot of respect for assistant-now-head-coach Greg Gard, and if they want him to replace Bo Ryan permanently, what better way than playing their hearts out and getting the Badgers back to the Tournament. Gard knows the “Wisconsin way” and has had a lot of say in the system that Wisconsin has run over the past 15 years. With that said, it is a completely different situation when you are the one calling all the shots. This will be an interesting follow over the next few months. With a conference schedule that plays Michigan State, Purdue and Maryland twice each and only plays Rutgers, Penn State and Nebraska once each it is not going to be easy. The Badgers most likely need to get to 10 wins in conference to make the NCAA. Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes are as good of a 1-2 punch as any team in the Big Ten. There are some good young pieces in place but is this team a year away (no seniors) from being back in the top tier of the Big Ten?
Illinois – 7 on Panic Meter
This Illinois team is very hard to figure out. The Illini (6-5) have played some of their best basketball against their toughest non-conference opponents: Providence, UAB, Iowa State and Notre Dame. But they went 1-3 in those games. They have played some emotionless games against the rest of the non-conference slate and squeaked out a 5-2 record in those games. Injuries have hit the team hard and this team is still searching for an identity. The Illini should have 8 wins at the end of non-conference. So 10 wins would put them in the NCAA discussion. Only having to play Michigan State, Purdue and Maryland once helps the win column but hurts a chance for big win opportunity. The talent is there to make a run at the NCAA, but the consistency is not.
Ohio State – 7 on Panic Meter
The Buckeyes (4-5) find themselves in an unfamiliar situation for the first time in a long time, and that is having a bad non-conference record. The Buckeyes played a tough non-conference slate for the first time in years and it took it on the chin. This is a very talented roster, but it is extremely young. Playing with mostly four-star freshmen and sophomores, Ohio State has yet to find its potential. This will be a very good core group of players, but they seem to be a year or two away. After a very disappointing non-conference, the Buckeyes will have to get to 10 or 11 Big Ten wins. If this team hits their potential and start clicking, there is a chance they get 9 or 10 wins in the Big Ten but that might still not be enough to get a bid.
Nebraska – 8 on Panic Meter
The Cornhuskers (7-4) should be 9-4 going into Big Ten play. Wins over Tennessee and Rhode Island are solid and losses to Creighton, Miami, Cincinnati and Villanova are not resume killers. But the question is really does this team have what it takes to win consistently in the Big Ten. The answer is most likely no. Shavon Shields will have to carry a heavy load. Pinnacle Bank Arena is a tough place to play for opponents but it is hard to see this Nebraska team getting to 8 or 9 wins in the Big Ten.
Minnesota – 10 on Panic Meter
The Golden Gophers (5-5) did not do themselves any favors in the non-conference. By dropping five non-conference games and not having a quality win to show for it, Minnesota is going to have to win at least 10 games in the Big Ten. For a team that did not show many signs of hope during non-conference play, it is hard to imagine they will find a way to get to 10 Big Ten wins. Richard Pitino has gone really young. It is now a program with his players, and they have a long way to go. This group of freshmen and sophomores will determine which direction Pitino is going to take this program. The Gophers make much noise in this league.
Sean Harrington is the basketball analyst for IlliniInquirer.com and also serves as a color analyst for ESPN. He played for four NCAA Tournament teams at Illinois, from 1999-2002. He also served on coaching staffs for Rick Majerus, Bill Self, Rob Judson and Bruce Weber. Follow him on Twitter @smharrington24.