Minnesota epitomizes the Big Ten’s weak middle

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Minnesota lost for the fifth time in six games on Thursday night, dropping a 66-63 decision to Penn State on the road.

Tubby Smith’s team fell to 17-9 overall and 6-8 Big Ten, which is all the more disappointing when you consider that this team was perched in the top ten earlier this season. While the blame can be spread around — its tough to win when you lose your entire point guard crew, as Devoe Joseph followed Justin Cobbs out the door and Al Nolen got hurt — what’s clear is that the Gophers are doing their damnedest to play their way off the bubble.

Heading into last night, the Gopher’s had an RPI of 36, a number that will likely go down once the numbers are adjusted. They have three top 25 wins — UNC, West Virginia, Purdue — but they also have two sub-150 losses — Virginia and Indiana. More concerning, however, is that since Al Nolen got injured, the Gophers are just 2-5.

Minnesota is far from out of it. With four winnable games left on their schedule — Michigan State, Michigan, st Northwestern, Penn State — the Gophers could easily get to 10-8 in the league, which should be close to enough.

The bigger issue is the confounding Big Ten.

Ohio State has distanced themselves as the clear favorite to win the league and one of the favorites to win the national title. Purdue and Wisconsin are chugging along behind them, opening up a two game spread on the group fighting for fourth place.

That group consists of Illinois, Michigan State, Michigan, Penn State, and the Gophers. And not only are they fighting for fourth in the conference, all five of those teams are fighting for a berth in the NCAA Tournament.

Here’s a look at the other three Big Ten bubble teams. How many make it?

Illinois (RPI 38, SOS 101, Wins: UNC, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Losses: UIC, at Indiana): The Illini have struggled mightily of late as Demetri McCamey has apparently lost his work ethic, if you believe what Bruce Weber said on the radio late last week. They have lost six of their last ten games, and while they still sit in fourth place in the league, three tough road games — MSU, OSU, Purdue — await. Lost all three of those games, and Illinois will be 9-9 in the Big Ten. I’m not sure that is enough.

Michigan State (RPI 50, SOS 5, Wins: Washington, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Losses: Michigan, at Iowa): The Spartans are in the middle of a brutal four game stretch. They just lost to Ohio State, have Illinois visiting this weekend, go to Minnesota, and get Purdue at home. While the Spartans looked more impressive in their loss to the Buckeyes, this is still a team with 11 losses and a 6-7 league mark. Win, Sparty. Win.

Penn State: (RPI 66, SOS 8, Wins: Michigan State, Wisconsin, Losses: Maine): The Nittany Lions are in a bad spot in the standings, but a good spot to make up for that. After Thursday’s win over Minnesota bumped PSU to 7-7 in the league, which isn’t enough for a team with 11 losses on the season. But they play a tough remaining schedule — at Wisconsin, at Northwestern, Ohio State, at Minnesota.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.