How Will Wild and Wacky Big Ten Prepare Teams for 2014 NCAA Tournament?

Brian PedersenFeatured ColumnistFebruary 27, 2014

Northwestern's Drew Crawford (1) and Nikola Cerina (45) trap Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014, in Madison, Wis. Northwestern upset Wisconsin, 65-56. (AP Photo/Andy Manis)
Andy Manis/Associated Press

Like most conferences, the Big Ten holds its postseason tournament at a neutral site, one that is not only in a centralized location but that also eliminates a home-court advantage for any one school.

So, it's basically like the regular season, considering how the Big Ten conference slate has gone this year.

Entering Thursday night's play, the seven teams with the best chance to make the NCAA tournament—Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Ohio State and Wisconsin—had lost a combined 16 times at home in league play. That same group has dropped only 21 conference road games.

Is this parity at its purest, a sign that the Big Ten is so even at the top that it can expect great results and multiple deep runs in March? Or should it be looked at as a harbinger of rough sailing in the Big Dance?

Strong, deep leagues tend to cannibalize themselves during conference play, with the best of the best knocking each other off. Only when a team or two is clearly superior to the rest do you see a lot of separation at the top.

But the Big Ten is taking this "eat your own" concept to the extreme, playing the role of road warriors nearly as much as home defenders. And the trend has even trickled down to the league's bottom feeders, as teams like Northwestern and Penn State can lay claim to road scalps of Wisconsin and Ohio State, respectively.

Those results happened on the same night—Jan. 29—which, according to the Big Ten Network, marked the first time since Penn State joined the league in 1993 that both schools won road games simultaneously.

MADISON, WI - FEBRUARY 01: Traevon Jakcson #12 of the Wisconsin Badgers and Shannon Scott #3 of the Ohio State Buckeyes wrestle for the loose ball during the first half of play against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Kohl Center on February 01, 2014 in Madison
Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

And while that was great for the Wildcats and Nittany Lions, it put a serious chink in the armors of the Badgers and Buckeyes.

If those home losses were the only ones, they could be chalked up to the world of anomalies, such as Syracuse's setback at home to Boston College on Feb. 19. But both Ohio State and Wisconsin have lost three times at home in league play, with OSU handing the Badgers one of those defeats at the Kohl Center on Feb. 1.

The chart below shows just how irrelevant home-court advantage has become in the Big Ten. The top five teams have a combined 12 home losses with eight total home games remaining this season. The five best Big Ten teams in last year's standings only dropped seven at home, with none falling more than twice. 

Home/Road Splits for Top Big Ten Teams in Conference Play
TeamHome RecordRoad RecordKey Road Wins
Michigan6-16-2Michigan State, Nebraska, Ohio State, Wisconsin
Michigan State5-26-2Iowa
Wisconsin5-36-2Iowa, Michigan
Ohio State5-35-2Iowa, Wisconsin
Iowa4-34-3Ohio State
Nebraska6-14-3Michigan State
Through games of Feb. 26

Losing at home is usually a sign of weakness for a team, but with as much as it's happened in the Big Ten it might be time to also look at the overall scope of these results to see if something more is happening. Could it be that the ability to win on the road in hostile environments shows just how good some of these teams really are?

The same seven potential NCAA qualifiers mentioned above are 27-15 on the road in league play entering Thursday, and 11 of those wins are against each other. Michigan has four of them, having won at Iowa, Nebraska, Ohio State and Wisconsin, while only Minnesota has yet to claim a big away triumph (though the Golden Gophers have one more chance when they visit Michigan on Saturday).

Since it's hard to compare one league to another in terms of home-court atmospheres, looking at how the Big Ten went down during the 2012-13 season serves as a better parallel.

The Big Ten got seven teams into the tournament in 2013, and while there was crowding at the top (with two games separating regular-season champ Indiana from fifth-place Michigan) that group lost only 13 times at home. And six of those losses were by Illinois and Minnesota, teams that went 8-10 in league play but still sneaked into the field of 68.

The league did pretty darn well last season, winning a combined 14 NCAA tourney games—only Wisconsin failed to tally a victory, falling as a No. 5 seed—and saw Michigan rise from a No. 4 seed into the national championship game.

COLUMBUS, OH - JANUARY 12:  Trey McDonald #55 of the Ohio State Buckeyes, Zach McCabe #15 of the Iowa Hawkeyes, and Gabriel Olaseni #0 of the Iowa Hawkeyes fight for a loose ball on January 12, 2014 at Value City Arena in Columbus, Ohio.   (Photo by Ryan
Ryan Young/Getty Images

Things could go either way for the Big Ten during March Madness. The ability to go into Value City Arena or the Breslin Center and steal a win might make the concept of facing a tough foe on a neutral court seem like child's play, or it could mean that every lesser-seeded opponent poses a serious challenge and the league could be completely knocked out before the first weekend is complete.

One thing is for certain, though: The Big Ten tournament March 13-16 at the neutral Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis is going to be a wild and wacky four days.