The Big Ten might be flexing their muscles with a record nine bids for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament this season, but all eyes will be on the bubble teams to make that happen.
Wisconsin, Illinois and Purdue could be in the top four or higher on Selection Sunday, even though none of them won the conference regular-season title.
Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State haven’t been consistent enough to be considered Final Four contenders like they have in past seasons, but they are projected as the top 10 seeds in this year’s 68-team field.
The Big Ten might end up with the most NCAA tournament bids of any major conference on Sunday, but it’s all about those borderline teams on arguably the biggest night of the year for college basketball.
And in the Big Ten that means Indiana, Michigan and Rutgers, who will either celebrate or watch their bubbles burst in front of everyone on national television.
“I’ve been here for the last four or five years and we haven’t made it,” Race Thompson, a Minnesota native and Indiana senior, said Friday from the Big Ten tournament. “It’s definitely a special moment for us to be able to be a part of this.”
CBSSports support analyst Jerry Palm said Indiana would “probably” get an overall offer, when asked after its 65-63 win over top-seeded Illinois in Friday’s Big Ten tournament quarterfinals.
Palm and ESPN’s highly respected support specialist Joe Lunardi moved the Hoosiers onto the field from their last four teams after their wins over Michigan and Illinois. But they disagreed at Michigan and Rutgers as of Saturday afternoon: Lunardi had them both and Palm had eliminated them.
Bubble teams Texas A&M and Virginia Tech made it to the SEC and ACC tournament title games, respectively. But Indiana lost to Iowa on Saturday in the Big Ten semifinals.
Hoosiers first-year coach Mike Woodson looked incredulous when a reporter at Friday’s postgame news conference told him he would definitely get the first appearance on the NCAA tournament schedule since 2016.
“Are you sure we’re in the tournament?” said Woodson, who led Indiana to multiple Big Ten tournament wins for the first time since 2003. “We’ve lost a lot of close games. We’re very, very competitive. I think it’s great for our program. It’s great that we’re back in the Big Dance”.
Indiana lost another Saturday, 80-77 to Iowa in the Big Ten semifinals.
Rutgers should have been the most comfortable of the Big Ten bubble teams entering the postseason with six Quad 1 wins, the highest quality wins on resumes.
But the Scarlet Knights didn’t help themselves Friday with their fourth loss in six games, 84-74 to Iowa in the quarterfinals at Indy. They also have bad losses in the bottom half of the Big 10, against the Gophers, Maryland and Northwestern.
“If we’re not here, I don’t know what to tell you, man,” Rutgers senior Ron Harper Jr. said Friday. “I feel like this team has proven itself, it’s shown that we’ve gotten better day after day. Every time we come from a tough loss, we always bounce back. So this team definitely deserves to play in March. We’re a great team and I feel that we can make a lot of noise in March.
In consecutive NCAA men’s basketball tournaments, the Big Ten set bid records, including eight teams when the 2019 Minneapolis Final Four included Michigan State. The Spartans, in 2000, are the last Big Ten team to win the NCAA title.
After the 2020 NCAA was canceled during the start of the pandemic, the Big Ten set another high mark with nine teams from the tournament last year, but only Michigan advanced to the Sweet 16 before bowing out in the Elite Eight.
Wolverines coach Juwan Howard recently returned from a five-game suspension after punching a Wisconsin assistant in a handshake line fight. They also blew a 17-point second-half lead in the Big Ten tournament-opening loss to Indiana on Thursday.
So unlike last year, Michigan will be among the teams sitting uncomfortably on this Selection Sunday.
“I’m not in charge of the selection committee, but I would say our guys put themselves in a position to have a chance,” Howard said. “And I’m going to pray, the prayer warriors are going to be open. I’m going to wait for Sunday with my players and see where the chips fall at the end.”