The ACC and Big East are both widely regarded to be superior to all other conferences in basketball in 2009. While I readily acknowledge that this is true when it comes to Final Four caliber teams, I disagree with that assertion when it comes to depth of quality teams.
Fortunately, I believe that theory will be confirmed when brackets are announced on Selection Sunday. While the Big East and ACC will dominate the protected seeds (seeds 1-4), it is the Big Ten who will send the most conference representatives to the Big Dance.
Most pundits currently recognize the following teams as having a better than 80 percent chance of being invited regardless of what happens in conference tournament play:
ACC (five teams)—North Carolina, Duke, Wake Forest, Clemson, Florida State
Big East (seven teams)—Pitt, UConn, Louisville, Marquette, Villanova, Syracuse, West Virginia
Big Ten (five teams)—Michigan State, Purdue, Illinois, Wisconsin, Ohio State
This leaves nine teams from the three conferences currently on the bubble and needing to do more.
When all is said and done, I believe five of those nine teams will be dancing. Below is the basis for that belief, in order of most to least likely.
Likely to be dancing
1) Minnesota (RPI 41)—The Gophers would have wrapped up a bid had they beaten Michigan over the weekend. As it is, they'll likely need a victory over Northwestern to earn a bid.
That victory would put them at 5-7 against RPI Top 50 foes and an even 9-9 against Top-100 teams. Minnesota stumbled a bit down the stretch, but victories over Louisville, Illinois, Wisconsin (twice), Ohio State, and Penn State should be enough to earn Tubby's guys a trip to the tournament.
2) Boston College (RPI 57)—The Eagles have been an enigma this season, collecting wins over Duke, North Carolina (in the Dean Dome), and Florida State, but also losing to Harvard (at home), St. Louis, and most recently North Carolina State.
That said, their 4-4 record against RPI Top 50 teams, 8-8 against Top 100 teams, and 8-4 record in their last 12 should get them in, provided they don't stub their toes against Virginia (who has made a knack of popping bubbles lately).
3) Michigan (RPI 42)—The Wolverines are much like Boston College this year, with wins over Duke, UCLA, Illinois, Purdue and a sweep of Minnesota. While they don't have the bad losses that BC does (outside of a head-scratcher at Iowa), they have an anemic road record (just 3-8 on the season).
This statistic made the victory in Minneapolis a virtual must-win. Fortunately, Michigan prevailed and should be dancing if they can redeem themselves in a rematch with Iowa in their opening round Big Ten Tournament game.
Michigan is currently 6-9 against RPI Top 50 teams and 10-11 against Top 100 opponents.
Will sneak into the field
4) Penn State (RPI 63)—The Nittany Lions would have been sitting a lot prettier had they been able to register their 22nd victory of the season in Iowa City over the weekend. Instead, they fell to 9-9 in the Big Ten and saw their RPI drop dangerously into the 60's.
They'll likely pick up their 22nd victory by putting Indiana out of their misery on Thursday, but it will do little to help their resume. A victory over Purdue on Friday would certainly punch their ticket, but I don't think it will happen.
As it is, they'll have to rely on their 6-8 record against RPI Top 50 foes and 7-9 record against Top 100 teams. All of Nittany nation is lamenting their pitiful non-conference schedule (Non-conference SOS of 313), but will breathe a sigh of relief as PSU sneaks into the dance.
5) Miami (RPI 53)—It's pretty simple for Miami. If they beat Virginia Tech on Thursday, they're probably in. If they lose, they are NIT bound.
Miami has very good wins over Wake Forest and Florida State, but currently sits at just 2-7 against RPI Top 50 teams and 7-10 against the Top 100.
I think they'll win the rematch against Virginia Tech and will actually get an RPI bump by losing to North Carolina on Saturday, which will be enough to get them on the dance floor.
6) Virginia Tech (RPI 62)—The Hokies have lost six of their last seven games and are now on their last legs. With just a 2-8 record against RPI Top 50 teams (and 6-11 against Top 100), they'll likely need victories over both Miami and UNC to earn an invite.
I don't see either happening.
7) Maryland (RPI 67)—The Terrapins are another team with some inexplicable losses. The loss to Morgan State at home in non-conference is bad. The loss to Virginia over the weekend (who had lost 12 of their last 14) was worse, if only because of the timing of it.
With the worst RPI of the ACC bubble teams and a 3-8 record against RPI Top 50 teams (8-10 against Top 100), the Terps will likely need to beat both NC State and Wake Forest to earn a spot.
As much as I love Gary Williams, I have little confidence he can lead his team to those victories.
8) Providence (RPI 70)—With a poor RPI and a 2-8 record against RPI Top 50 teams (and even worse 6-12 against Top 100 teams), Providence is clinging to faint bubble hopes.
Compounding the problem, they'll likely have to beat a pretty good Cincinnati team just for the opportunity to face top seed Louisville in the quarterfinals. Providence likely needs to win both just to get back into consideration and may need to reach the finals to punch their ticket.
9) Northwestern (RPI 71)—The Wildcats are a great story, as they are the only BCS conference program to never receive a bid to the NCAA tourney.
Unfortunately, with just a 17-12 record, the worst RPI on this list, and inexplicable losses to Stanford and Iowa, they'll likely need to run through Minnesota, top seed Michigan State, and likely a third team in the Big Ten semifinals to earn their first ever trip.
Northwestern is 6-9 against the RPI Top 50 and 6-10 against the Top 100.
The above is how I see it playing out. If the above holds as predicted, the Big Ten will receive eight bids and the ACC and Big East will each receive seven.
Before you Big East and ACC fans cry outrage, consider the following:
- The Big Ten played the toughest non-conference schedule in the nation.
- The Big Ten had more non-conference RPI Top 50 wins than any other conference.
- Big Ten conference teams have the highest RPI Top 50 winning percentage (42.6 percent) and sport the most RPI Top 50 wins per team (5.5) of any of the three conferences.
- With only three losses against RPI Sub-150 teams, the Big Ten has beaten the teams they were supposed to beat (yes, this includes Indiana).
All the above said, let me once again reiterate that I consider the ACC and Big East to be vastly superior when it comes to fielding elite level teams (alas Michigan State is the lone Big Ten representative in this class).
But the depth of the Big Ten is legitimate and will be illustrated on Selection Sunday.
To add, there are a number of reasons for Big Ten teams to believe this will continue for some time:
- All five members of the recently announced all Big Ten first team are sophomores, and only Evan Turner from among that group will potentially test the NBA waters after the season.
- Only three of the 15 players named first, second or third team are seniors.
- Eight of the Top 10 scorers in the Big Ten will return (save perhaps Evan Turner), and six of the Top 10 are sophomores.
- Ten of the top 11 assist leaders in the Big Ten are either freshmen or sophomores.
- The Big Ten has seen an influx of very talented coaches in the last few years and they are each starting to make their mark, starting with the Tom Crean, the coach of the Big Ten's lone doormat this season in Indiana, bringing in a top five class for 2009.
While this year's NCAA tournament will likely only be marginally better than last (when only two Big Ten teams reached the Sweet 16 and none reached the Elite Eight), the conference made a substantial step in the right direction in 2009.
Nowhere will this be more evident than the number of conference names call on Selection Sunday.