The Race For The Double Bye Is Headed For A Wild Finish

By RossWB on February 24, 2020 at 7:17 pm
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© Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

We're in the home stretch for the 2020 college basketball regular season and the picture in the Big Ten is still clear as mud. Maryland, despite losing at Ohio State on Sunday, is still very good -- they're 12-4 and still the odds-on favorites to claim the Big Ten's regular season championship. Nerbaska and Northwestern, each riding 11-game conference losing streaks, remain very, very bad -- the Cornhuskers are 13th in the conference with a 2-13 record, while the Wildcats are last in the league at 1-15.

Everything in-between? A big ol' mess. 

2020 Big Ten standings as of 2.24.20

Iowa's part of a four-way tie for second place at 10-6. That could (and should) be a five-way tie by tomorrow; Illinois, currently 9-6, hosts Nebraska tonight. But there's not much separation between the cluster of teams at 10-6 and the chasing pack, either -- the teams currently seeded 7th through 11th in the Big Ten are just a game to three games back of those 10-6 teams. If the season ended today, the Big Ten Tournament seeds would look like this: 

If you're wondering why Wisconsin is the #3 seed ahead of Iowa despite having a worse overall record (17-10 versus 19-8) and losing the head-to-head game against Iowa last month, welcome to the wild world of Big Ten Tournament tiebreakers! Odds are we're going to get very familiar with these procedures over the next two weeks, because right now it sure looks like the Big Ten is hurdling to one hell of a clusterfuck when the season wraps up in just under two weeks. 

The applicable tiebreaker here involves a multiple team tie, or section IV.B in the document linked above. Head-to-head results do matter, but in a multi-team tie situation, you have to look at all of the relevant head-to-head results, which creates a mini-group of teams and results. Right now that looks like this: 

  • Penn State 2-1 (W vs Iowa, W vs Michigan State, L vs Wisconsin)
  • Wisconsin 2-2 (W vs Penn State, L vs Iowa, 1-1 vs Michigan State)
  • Iowa 1-1 (W vs Wisconsin, L vs Penn State, N/A vs Michigan State)
  • Michigan State 1-2 (1-1 vs Wisconsin, L vs Penn State, N/A vs Iowa)

Penn State has the best results in that group, so they slide up to the #2 seed. Unfortunately, head-to-head results can't help us separate Wisconsin and Iowa here; they're each .500 against the relevant teams. (IV.B.1.b is the key item here -- "After the top team among the tied teams is determined, the second team is ranked by its record among the original tied teams, not the head-to-head record vs. the remaining team(s).") Since you don't remove Iowa and Wisconsin's results against Penn State from the calculation, they remain .500 in this exercise. 

So you have to go to the next tiebreaker, spelled out in IV.B.2 -- each tied team's record against "the team occupying the highest position in the final regular-season standings." That would be Maryland since they're still the conference leaders; Iowa went 1-1 against the Terps, while Wisconsin went 1-0 against them. 1-0 > 1-1, which is how you get Wisconsin as a #3 seed at this particular moment. 

Good news: that should be different in just a few hours. Assuming Illinois beats Nebraska at home (and if they lose that game they should be automatically disqualified from having any shot at a Top 4 finish), they'll also be 10-6, which will necessitate a new look at the multi-team tiebreaker. Just like we did before, we go back to the mini-league among the tied teams, which now would look like this: 

  • Iowa 2-1 (W vs Wisconsin, W vs Illinois, L vs Penn State, N/A vs Michigan State)
  • Michigan State 3-2 (2-0 vs Illinois, 1-1 vs Wisconsin, 0-1 vs Penn State, N/A vs Iowa)
  • Penn State 2-2 (W vs Iowa, W vs Michigan State, L vs Illinois, L vs Wisconsin)
  • Wisconsin 2-3 (W vs Penn State, 1-1 vs Michigan State, L vs Iowa, L vs Illinois)
  • Illinois 1-4 (W vs Wisconsin, L vs Iowa, L vs Penn State, 0-2 vs Michigan State)

Since 2-1 is a better winning percentage than 3-2, Iowa will earn the best seed (#2) out of this mini-group combination. Michigan State will be the #3 seed, Penn State the #4 seed, and so on. 

Of course, this particular combination will only last for about 24 hours because Iowa and Michigan State are set to tangle on Tuesday night. That's going to blow up the (likely) five-way tie at 10-6, since one of them will improve to 11-6 (and, at least for 24 hours, solo 2nd place in the Big Ten) and the other will fall to 10-7 and, at least for a little while, solo 6th place in the Big Ten. 

So how is it all going to shake out? I have no idea -- and anyone who says they do is a damn liar. Here's how the remaining schedules look for the current top 7 teams. 

Maryland 12-4 -- 2/26 at Minnesota 2/29 Michigan State 3/3 at Rutgers 3/8 Michigan
Penn State 10-6 2 2/26 Rutgers 2/29 at Iowa 3/3 Michigan State 3/7 at Northwestern
Iowa 10-6 2 2/25 at Michigan State 2/29 Penn State 3/3 Purdue 3/8 at Illinois
Michigan State 10-6 2 2/25 Iowa 2/29 at Maryland 3/3 at Penn State 3/8 Ohio State
Wisconsin 10-6 2 2/27 at Michigan 3/1 Minnesota 3/4 Northwestern 3/7 at Indiana
Illinois 9-6* 2.5 2/27 at Northwestern 3/1 Indiana 3/5 at Ohio State 3/8 Iowa
Michigan 9-7 3 2/27 Wisconsin 3/1 at Ohio State 3/5 Nebraska 3/8 at Maryland

* Illinois should be 10-6 after tonight; they host Nebraska on Monday night. 

Maryland is the clear favorite to win the regular season crown, but... that's not an easy schedule. Minnesota has been 5-3 at home in Big Ten play, while Rutgers is 8-1 in Big Ten games at the RAC this season -- not to mention that home teams are still winning 69.6% of Big Ten games this season. Michigan State and Michigan will be difficult home games for the Terps as well. Given their two-game cushion, the Terps odds of earning at least a share of the regular season title are high, but they can't afford to slip up too much. 

Outside of a season-ending layup at Northwestern, Penn State has a fairly challenging remaining schedule. Rutgers has been fading a bit lately (just 2-5 in their last seven games) and they're only 1-6 in true Big Ten road games. But Penn State plays back-to-back games against current 10-6 teams after that, a road trip to Iowa City next Saturday followed by a home game with Michigan State next Tuesday. If Penn State can split those games and win the other two games they should win, they should lock up a Top 4 finish. If they lose to Iowa and Michigan State, though, things could get dicey. 

Iowa has one of the most difficult remaining schedules of these teams, given that three of their final four games are against teams in the 10-6 logjam and two of them (at Michigan State and at Illinois) are on the road. The other game is against Purdue, who did immolate Iowa three weeks ago, but it's in Iowa City and the Boilermakers are currently mired in a four-game losing streak and sliding out of NCAA Tournament consideration. Iowa's ability to finish in the Top 4 could be determined by their results this week against Michigan State and Penn State. If they manage to go 2-0, they'll be a virtual lock to earn a Top 4 finish. If they go 0-2, they'll likely have almost no chance to finish in the Top 4. And if they go 1-1, they'll should still have an excellent shot heading into the final week of the season. 

The only team who might have a tougher schedule than Iowa among teams in this tied group is Michigan State, who has critical tiebreaker games against Iowa and Penn State (the latter on the road), as well as road trip to Maryland and a season-ending home game against Ohio State. The Buckeyes are just 2-6 on the road in Big Ten play, but they've had enough good performances against good teams that they can't be completely discounted. If Sparty earns a Top 4 finish, they will certainly have earned it. 

And then there's Wisconsin. Fucking Wisconsin Devil Magic. The Badgers have probably the easiest remaining schedule among teams vying for a Top 4 finish; they don't play any of the other teams in this tiebreaker logjam and they avoid Maryland. Instead they have a pair of supremely winnable home games (Minnesota and Northwestern) sandwiched between road games at Michigan and Indiana. If you're rooting against the Badgers (and, as right-thinking people, we obviously are), those are the games you want to pin your hopes on when it comes to tagging Wisconsin with additional losses. Michigan has won 7 of their last 8, including their last five in a row, while the Hoosiers have won three of their last four to resuscitate their NCAA Tournament hopes. Those won't be easy road victories for the Badgers to bag. 

Illinois has a sneaky-tough closing stretch in their final four games. A road game at Northwestern this week should be a win, but home games against Indiana and Iowa will be challenging, and that road trip to Ohio State looks extra-daunting -- although the Illini do already have four Big Ten road wins this year, including games at Wisconsin, Purdue, Michigan, and Penn State. 

Finally, those streaking Wolverines could crash the Top 4 party, too. At 9-7 they don't have much margin of error, but they are red-hot (again: wins in 7 of their last 8 games and 5 in a row entering Thursday's game with Wisconsin). And they get a home game against Nebraska as one of their final four games, which is a nice gift. Unfortunately, they also have road games at Ohio State and Maryland. Any chance at a Top 4 finish will likely require Michigan to win at least one of those difficult road games. 

Here's the current records for all of these teams against one another (read the table left-to-right): 

MARYLAND -- 0-1 1-1 0-1 0-1 2-0 0-0
PENN ST 1-0 -- 1-0 1-0 0-1 0-1 1-0
IOWA 1-1 0-1 -- 0-0 1-0 1-0 1-1
MICH ST 1-0 0-1 0-0 -- 1-1 2-0 1-1
WISCONSIN 1-0 1-0 0-1 1-1 -- 0-1 0-0
ILLINOIS 0-2 1-0 0-1 0-2 1-0 -- 2-0
MICHIGAN 0-0 0-1 1-1 1-1 0-0 0-2 --

The race for a Top 4 finish in the Big Ten -- and a double-bye in the Big Ten Tournament is almost certainly going to come down to the final day of the regular season (Sunday, March 8), and probably the final game of the Big Ten regular season: Iowa at Illinois at 6 PM CT. Let's buckle in and get ready for a wild ride. 

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