by Josh Weinfuss
IU Super Bowl Student News Bureau
INDIANAPOLIS – Before Northwestern opened the Big Ten tournament against Minnesota on Thursday, coach Bill Carmody was already looking ahead to the NCAA tournament.
Beat the Gophers, he told his team, and the school’s first bid to the Big Dance wasn’t necessarily a lock.
Lose to Minnesota, he continued, and there was still a chance of making the tournament.
Well, so much for that hypothesis.
Northwestern fell in overtime to the Gophers, then found out Sunday that 18 wins and a loss in the first round of the Big Ten tournament wasn’t enough to dance this year.
Predicting the NCAA tournament field is an inexact science, as was proven Sunday evening. Before the Big Ten tournament started, Joe Lunardi, ESPN’s tournament expert, had Northwestern playing in the First Four two days before the tournament began. But that prognostication changed after the Wildcats lost to Minnesota. Lunardi dropped Northwestern from his projected field.
Jerry Palm, the renowned college basketball RPI expert, however, had Northwestern in the tournament Sunday morning, playing in the same First Four games.
That’s how tight, and subjective the tournament selections can be, and how important conference tournament games can become to make a final impression on the selection committee.
For five Big Ten teams, the four-day tournament in Indianapolis, which concluded Sunday afternoon with Michigan State winning its first title since 2000, was an opportunity to improve their tournament stock and take advantage of the March Madness that engulfed other conference tournaments, such as the ACC, Big 12, SEC, the Pac-12 and the Big East.
Two teams did just that. The other three made the selection committee’s job easy.
It’s all about capitalizing.
Michigan State saw an opportunity arise when Kansas lost in the Big 12 tournament semifinals and took advantage of it. With the Jayhawks out of the picture, the Spartans and the Buckeyes were next in line for a No. 1 seed, according to Lunardi and Palm’s blogs. The math was simple: Beat Ohio State and earn a No. 1 seed.
In the overall seed list, released by the NCAA Sunday night for the first time ever, Michigan State was the fourth overall seed and Ohio State was seventh. If Michigan State had not won the Big Ten tournament title, the Spartans would’ve been a second seed. Not much lost, but plenty gained.
Talk about a close call.
Michigan needed overtime to get by Minnesota in the quarterfinals on Friday, 73-69. When the Wolverines won, it was viewed as just another tough Big Ten game. All is well.
Had Michigan lost that game, however, the Wolverines wouldn’t have been the 13th overall seed, one spot away from a No. 3 seed.
A loss to Minnesota, which has an RPI of 89, would’ve been a knock against Michigan’s resume, which included wins over Memphis, Iowa State, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Indiana, Ohio State and Purdue, all NCAA tournament-bound teams.
However, Michigan’s seeding may have been impacted by Florida State’s run to the ACC title, according to Lunardi’s projections. Lunardi had the Wolverines as a No. 3 seed heading into Sunday, according to his bracketology. But after the Seminoles won, earning them a No. 3 seed, Michigan fell to a four. But without that rally to get past Minnesota, they would’ve have been in that discussion.
The Wildcats were one of three teams who missed critical opportunities to play their way higher onto the selection committee’s board – or in their case, into the tournament at all.
There was no way around it: Northwestern needed to beat Minnesota and then Michigan to guarantee its first NCAA tournament bid. The Wildcats learned not to leave any decision in the hands of the selection committee. Twenty wins has long been a magic number for earning a bid to the tournament, although West Virginia was admitted this year with 19. Five other teams made the tournament with 20 or 21 wins – Colorado State (20), Xavier (21), Purdue (21), Alabama (21) and Kansas State (21) – and everyone except West Virginia (56) had RPIs in the Top 50. Northwestern’s RPI is 63 and it was 1-10 against the RPI Top 50. However, the Wildcats were known this season for not having a “bad loss” despite falling to Illinois and Minnesota during the Big Ten season. Wins over Minnesota (89) in the first round and over Michigan (11) in the quarterfinals could’ve, and most likely would’ve, been enough.
Of all the teams in the Big Ten tournament, Indiana may have had the most to gain by going on a run.
The Hoosiers’ return to relevancy coincided with them earning a the fifth seed in Indianapolis, meaning they would’ve needed four wins to claim their first Big Ten tournament title. After getting by Penn State on Thursday – and losing senior guard Verdell Jones III in the process, a factor the selection committee should have taken into consideration – Indiana was still considered by Lunardi as a No. 4 seed playing in Nashville. When the Hoosiers lost, their seeding didn’t waver, but their location did. Overnight, Lunardi – just as the selection committee did Sunday – sent the Hoosiers packing as a No. 4 seed to Portland, Ore.
Consider this: Three of the four No. 4 seeds are from the Big Ten – IU (South), Michigan (Midwest) and Wisconsin (East). Of those, Michigan and Wisconsin advanced to the Big Ten semis. Michigan ended up in Nashville as a No. 4, as much because Atlantic Coast Conference champion Florida State entered the fray late as it was a reward for the Wolverines making the semifinals.
Of the No. 4 seeds, Michigan, Wisconsin and Indiana were seeded Nos. 13, 14 and 15 respectively by the selection committee. Louisville, which earned the other No. 4 seed after winning the Big East tournament title, was seeded 16th.
If Indiana had defeated Wisconsin, the Hoosiers would’ve leapfrogged the Badgers in the overall seeding. And since Indiana was the only Big Ten team to not play in a semifinal, the chances are good it would’ve ended up taking Michigan’s spot in Nashville.
Indiana controlled its own fate and destination, and needed a win Friday to play closer to home.
Ohio State, despite earning a No. 2 seed in the East Region, was hurt by its loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament final. A win, and Ohio State would’ve earned a coveted No. 1 seed in the West, Palm and Lunardi both wrote on their respective blogs.
Like the Spartans, the Buckeyes benefitted from Kansas losing in its conference title game. Once the Jayhawks fell to Baylor on Friday night, Ohio State and Michigan State had a No. 1 seed on the line Sunday.