Wednesday night’s disastrous performance in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge was more or less the nail in the coffin for the Big Ten’s hopes of a strong non-conference résumé.
The ACC won five of the six games that were played on Wednesday night. With one game left remaining in the series — No. 5 Notre Dame’s trip to East Lansing to visit No. 3 Michigan State on Thursday night — the Big Ten has already taken the worst beating in the series in more than a decade.
The ACC won 11 games.
The Big Ten won two: Nebraska picked off Boston College and Purdue beat No. 17 Louisville at home.
That’s not good, not when the middle of the league has been where so much of that disappointment has stemmed from.
At this point, there appear to essentially be three tiers in the Big Ten hierarchy. Michigan State, Minnesota and Purdue are all varying degrees of good. Rutgers, Ohio State and Nebraska are three teams we can be reasonably sure are not all that good. The middle, however, is where the league has had issues.
Who is the fourth-best team in the Big Ten?
Is there a fourth-best team in the Big Ten?
And this is where it gets complicated for league members trying to build NCAA tournament-worthy profiles.
Based on history, Wisconsin should be the fourth-best team in the league, right? But the Badgers are currently sitting at 3-4 on the season with losses to No. 21 Xavier, No. 16 Baylor, UCLA and No. 18 Virginia. The best non-conference games they have left on their schedule come against Temple and Marquette, neither of whom are looked at as lock-tournament teams.
Entering the season, Northwestern was the trendy pick to return to the NCAA tournament but they’ve lost their three-toughest games of the season, including a home loss to No. 25 Creighton and a 36-point evisceration against No. 22 Texas Tech. The Wildcats have a critical game at Oklahoma on Dec. 22nd that could turn out to be a difference-maker for the tournament hopes.
Maryland beat Butler and Bucknell but lost to Syracuse and St. Bonaventure. There isn’t another quality win left on their schedule until league play starts. Iowa has been a mess, losing three of their last four and getting embarrassed by Virginia Tech. Michigan took a loss to LSU and got smacked around by North Carolina. Penn State lost to Texas A&M and N.C. State, although they didn’t suffer the indignity of losing to Pitt, while Illinois lost to the only “quality” opponent they’ve played this season, Wake Forest.
That doesn’t even factor in Purdue’s loss to Western Kentucky or Indiana losing by 21 points to Indiana State at home.
The danger now is not only the number of Big Ten teams that are going to have strong enough profiles to get at-large bids but just how many quality wins are actually going to be available come conference play. When a conference puts together a strong non-conference season, it makes their computer profiles look that much better and, in turn, makes them better wins and less-bad losses for opponents in the league. As the saying goes, all ships rise with the tide.
And, in the Big Ten’s case, vice versa.
Which makes games like Northwestern’s visit to Oklahoma, or Indiana facing off with Notre Dame and Louisville, or Michigan taking on UCLA all that much more important.
The league needs some wins.
Or they’re going to lose some bids on Selection Sunday.