Not enough quality wins. That was the consensus knock on Nebraska last spring among college basketball observers as to why the Cornhuskers became the first Big Ten team to ever get left out of the NCAA tournament despite having 13 conference wins.
“I feel bad about them missing the tournament,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said before this season. “Shame on us. That means we all did a bad job.”
Last year’s March Madness snub on Nebraska wasn’t just a blow to everyone in Lincoln — it was a huge slap in the face to the entire Big Ten Conference as well.
It was the tournament selection committee’s way of saying the Big Ten was one of the worst major conferences, with only four teams making the field, the lowest since 2008, when the tournament had 65 teams rather than 68.
A Nebraska-type snub might never happen again. It definitely won’t happen in 2019.
“I have a hard time imagining, unless the mix of wins and losses is so unbelievably skewed as it was for Nebraska last year, that you could have a winning record in this year’s Big Ten and not get in,” ESPN bracket guru Joe Lunardi said. “Look how bad these other multi-bid leagues are. The Pac 12 stinks. The SEC has only been regular-good; it hasn’t been special. There are going to be spots to be had.”
Illinois in 1991 and Ohio State in 2016 were the only Big Ten programs to ever win 11 conference games and not make the NCAAs (both in 18-game Big Ten seasons). Even that is hard to fathom occurring this year, Lunardi said.
Not only did the Big Ten add more opportunities for quality victories with a 20-game league schedule, but it avoided getting slammed nationally like it was at this point last season for embarrassing out-of-league losses. It can make a strong case to be the best conference this season.
Seven Big Ten teams were ranked in the most recent Associated Press top 25, the most from any conference. Lunardi had 10 Big Ten teams making the tournament (the NCAA record is 11 by the Big East in 2011) in his most recent projection, three more than the next-highest total (Big 12 and ACC at seven each). The Big Ten teams on the good side of the bubble as of Wednesday were in order of predicted seeding: Michigan (No. 1 seed), Michigan State (2), Wisconsin (3), Ohio State (4), Nebraska (5), Indiana (5), Iowa (8), Purdue (9), Maryland (10) and Minnesota (10).
“We’ve had a great nonconference,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said of the Big Ten. “That’s very, very important. There’s been a lot of really, really good wins. Does that make it the toughest conference? I don’t know. For the five years I’ve been in the conference there have been really good coaches, it’s been very tough environments, smart players. It seems to be that way [again]. There’s never going to be an easy night.”
In November and December, only twice did a ranked Big Ten team lose to an unranked foe, both on the road: Michigan State to Louisville in overtime and Wisconsin to a Western Kentucky team that has also beaten Arkansas and West Virginia.
Michigan has risen to No. 2 in the country behind blowouts of North Carolina and Villanova. Other notable Big Ten victories were Indiana over Marquette, Iowa over Oregon, Wisconsin over Oklahoma and North Carolina State, Ohio State at Cincinnati and Creighton and Penn State upsetting Virginia Tech. Michigan State, the preseason Big Ten favorite, has victories over Texas, Florida and UCLA.
“The timing couldn’t be better for the conference,” Big Ten Network analyst Stephen Bardo said. “Because when you go to a 20-game schedule and you have the kind of depth the Big Ten has this year, the teams won’t hurt themselves, because they’re playing against quality opponents.”
Even after losing on the road Wednesday at Maryland, Nebraska is not in the same position it was last year. Their current résumé is worthy of a top-five seed projection. But there are teams on or near the bubble such as the Gophers, Maryland, Purdue and Northwestern that need signature victories to boost their chances.
Pitino even found himself in early December rooting for the Boilermakers to pull out a game on the road against Texas, which they barely lost.
“There used to be the day of rooting against other Big Ten teams,” he said. “I wanted Purdue to win, because in order to make the NCAA tournament you need quality win opportunities on your schedule.”
Marcus Fuller covers college basketball for the Star Tribune. Twitter: @Marcus_R_Fuller