The Rest Of The Way
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We're ranked (ranked!). We're in second place all alone in the Big Ten. Our freshman center was just named Big Ten Freshman of the Week for the sixth time. Things are going well in Illini land. So let's talk about it. Including, you know, some bad stuff.
Let's start with the bad stuff. It's not really bad stuff, but... let's just talk about it.
We're over-ranked at the moment. We just are. I love breaking the streak of 61 months without appearing in the polls, but we're probably not the 24th-best team in the country. We all know that, right? We still lost to Missouri and Miami and needed a rim-backboard-rim-rim-in free throw from Trent Frazier to avoid losing to Nicholls State. We're much improved - I just don't think we're the 24th-best team in the country. Which is fine.
I get why we're ranked. It's hard not to rank us when you transitive-property your way through the Big Ten. You're filling out your poll and you want to keep Michigan in the rankings even though they're 11-5 now (I mean, they're the only team to beat number one Gonzaga) but Illinois is 12-5 and beat Michigan so Illinois has to be ranked. You're thinking about ranking Purdue after they knocked off Michigan State but how can you when Purdue lost to Illinois by 26? Rutgers showed a lot beating Penn State and Seton Hall and the NERDstats love them but Rutgers just lost to Illinois. Wisconsin knocked off Ohio State on the road - that's huge. Then again, Wisconsin just lost at home to Illinois. And which team is all alone in second place in the Big Ten? Illinois.
That's why we're ranked. We're hard to ignore. BUT, I don't think we're the 24th-best team in the country. There's a gap there, which means there's a correction coming. Which is fine! It won't be fun, but it will be fine.
What gap? Well, this morning's Bracket Matrix (they take 75 different brackets and combine them on one spreadsheet - bookmark it) has us as the last nine seed. The average seed in the brackets where we appear? 9.10. Comparing that to the rest of the seedings handed to the rest of the teams by all of the bracketologists, we're 36th. 75 people looked at all of the teams and compared all of the resumes and when they do that, we have the 36th-best resume. Which is great! It's just not 24th.
That's what I mean when I say there's probably a correction coming. My target before the season was a 10 seed. Just enough to not be sweating on Selection Sunday. Safely in and maybe secretly hoping for the 7-10 line instead of the 8-9 line. That's where we're at right now after 17 games.
But 14 games remain plus the Big Ten Tournament. And we're going to lose a lot of those Big Ten games. And so is everyone else. So let's maybe set some targets.
First off, let's talk about the strength of the Big Ten. I thought this would be a step-back year for the Big Ten. In the preview I wrote about how 11 of the 15 players from the All Big Ten teams last year either graduated or declared for the draft. That just hasn't been the case. In the current NET rankings (the thing that replaced the RPI for the committee), here's the Big Ten:
12. Michigan State
16. Ohio State
35. Penn State
Compare that to other conferences such as, say, the mighty ACC:
15. Florida State
38. Virginia Tech
55. NC State
86. Georgia Tech
88. Notre Dame
105. Wake Forest
116. North Carolina (!!)
151. Boston College
12 Big Ten teams in the top-41, four ACC teams in the top-41.
And it's not just the ACC. The fifth best team in the SEC is 53rd. The fifth best team in the Big 12 is 51st. Besides the Big Ten and the top-heavy Big 12, maybe only the Big East is also having a "good" year? The point: there are probably going to be lots of bids available.
Which means that my "after these three non-conference losses I'm not sure 11-9 in the Big Ten gets us in without Big Ten Tournament help" after the Missouri game is probably wrong. With the strength of the Big Ten, 19-12 (11-9) is almost certainly in even with a first-round BTT loss, and 18-13 (10-10) probably is as well. And, depending on the wins and losses, 17-14 (9-11) might have a chance? I mean, KenPom's current projections for the Big Ten have Michigan State winning at 14-6, Maryland second at 12-8, and then four teams at 11-9 (including Illinois), five teams at 10-10, and Penn State at 9-11. That's 12 Big Ten teams with a chance at the Tournament.
So if we set that 11-9 as our goal (that probably gets us that 8-9-10 seed), what do we need to do the rest of the way? Let's do that grouping thing. We're 4-2, we need to get to 11-9, so we need to go 7-7 in these final 14 games. What's the path to get there?
We'll totally win: home for Nebraska and home for Northwestern. They're the two programs getting taken to the woodshed this year. 12 Big Ten teams in the top-41 of the NET and then Northwestern and 138 and Nebraska at 157.
We'll totally lose: at Ohio State and at Michigan. I'd consider at Iowa or maybe even at Purdue, but I'm not sure Iowa can keep this up and we beat Purdue by 26. So for the most likely losses, I'm going road games at Ohio State and Michigan.
So we start off at 2-2 in our quest for 7-7 in these 14 games. If we somehow lose to Northwestern at home, we're somehow beating Ohio State on the road. Let's find another set of four games.
Pretty sure we'll win, but you never know: home against Minnesota, home against Indiana
Pretty sure we'll lose, but you never know: at Iowa, at Purdue
OK, now we're at 4-4 so we need three wins and three losses. I don't think I can do another set of two but I do think I can pair two more games.
Even though it's a road game, we'll likely win: at Northwestern
Even though it's a home game, we'll likely lose: Michigan State
I'm feeling pretty good about this so far. My confidence in beating Minnesota at home ("this one might be closer than everyone thinks") matches my confidence on the road at Purdue ("this one might be closer than everyone thinks"). So take the 10 games above and I have a good feeling that we'll be 5-5. Beat Michigan State at home and we're probably losing to Northwestern on the road.
That means we're down to the four games that define the season:
- Maryland in Champaign
- Rutgers in Piscataway
- Penn State in State College
- Iowa in Champaign
Win all four? 13-7 and probably looking at a 6-seed.
Lose all four? 9-11 and probably needing several BTT wins to get to the good side of the bubble.
2-2? 11-9 and playing those BTT games to slide up or down the 8-9-10 seed lines.
It's not as clean as that, of course. Beating Ohio State in Columbus goes a lot further with the committee than just holding serve at home against Minnesota. Not all 11-9's are created equal. But as a general rule, that's how I see it. Those four games are the key.
We should just go ahead and win them all.