Not even bracketologists can figure out the Big Ten

Within an hour on Tuesday night, the random-number generator that is Big Ten basketball this season spit out another batch of head-scratching results.Michigan beat Michigan State by 29 points, nine days after the Spartans had cruised past their in-state rivals...

Not even bracketologists can figure out the Big Ten

Within an hour on Tuesday night, the random-number generator that is Big Ten basketball this season spit out another batch of head-scratching results.

Michigan beat Michigan State by 29 points, nine days after the Spartans had cruised past their in-state rivals by eight. Penn State, in its first game since handing Rutgers its first Big Ten road win, upset visiting No. 21 Maryland, which had entered undefeated on the road. And Northwestern was knocked off by hapless Illinois on its home court, giving the Wildcats consecutive losses after a historic start to league play.

Those results are just a glimpse into the helter-skelter league, which enters Saturday with nine of its 14 teams muddled between four and six conference wins. That logjam could provide an intriguing task next month for the NCAA tournament selection committee.

Joe Lunardi of ESPN and Jerry Palm of CBS Sports, both renowned in their roles as bracketologists but nonetheless perplexed by the Big Ten like everyone else, project seven and eight of the league's teams to crack the field of 68, respectively.

Wisconsin (21-3, 10-1) leads the way as the Big Ten's steadiest and highest-ranked team, at No. 7 in The Associated Press poll. But the Badgers don't measure up as well in some of the metrics used to help determine the tournament field, with just two wins against teams in the top 50 of the Ratings Percentage Index. Lunardi pegs the Badgers as a No. 3 seed, and Palm slots them at No. 4. A No. 3 seed would be the lowest for a Big Ten regular season champion since 2008.

Seeding the Big Ten's other tournament representatives could be even more complicated. The Big Ten has six teams that rank in the top 50 of the RPI: Wisconsin (18), Purdue (20), Minnesota (23), Maryland (24), Northwestern (42) and Michigan State (50). But after that there's an odd mixed bag of bubble teams. Palm had Michigan and Ohio State in the tournament in his most recent bracket projection, while Lunardi left out both but included Indiana as one of his last four teams in the field. All three of those teams are worse off in the RPI than Illinois (54), which isn't considered a tournament team heading into the weekend.

"The Big Ten has some challenges for sure, and one of them is the fact that there's no elite team in the league. I don't care where the coaches are ranking Wisconsin, that's a team that hasn't beaten anybody," Palm said of the Badgers, who are fifth in the USA Today coaches' poll but still needed overtime to beat sub-. 500 Nebraska, 70-69, on Thursday. "That makes it hard to résumé-build. It's different than the SEC, in the sense that the Big Ten has got like maybe seven or eight tournament quality teams."

About a week ago, as Northwestern reached its first 7-2 start in Big Ten play since 1938, Lunardi was ready to declare that the Wildcats would make the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history.

"They've never even been close to 7-2 at the halfway point," Lunardi said of the Wildcats, who have played basketball in the Big Ten since 1953 and had a winning league record four times, most recently 39 years ago. "So has Northwestern suddenly become all that? Or, is the league really down? I think you could make the argument that it is, at least partially, both."

Northwestern is now 7-4 in the Big Ten, 18-6 overall, with a trip to Wisconsin and a home date with third-place Maryland (20-4, 8-3) looming next.

While the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big 12 and Pac-12 all have multiple potential No. 1 seeds, the Big Ten has better overall depth than the latter two leagues. Wisconsin and Purdue could beat "anybody on a given day," according to Palm. The Boilermakers are the only Big Ten team to beat Wisconsin -- it also owns a quality nonconference win over Notre Dame and had Villanova on the ropes in a loss earlier this season -- but it has also lost to Nebraska and Iowa.

Parity and inconsistency have cost the Big Ten in terms of high seeding. Perennial power Michigan State (14-10, 6-5) is hardly a lock to extend its Big Ten-record streak of 19 consecutive NCAA appearances, having gone winless against its five strongest opponents in terms of RPI. Indiana (15-10, 5-7), a Sweet 16 team last season, has the league's two best nonconference victories, over Kansas and North Carolina, but has lost four of its last five, including by 30 points at Michigan (15-9, 5-6).

Only Wisconsin and second-place Purdue (20-5, 9-3) have not suffered losing streaks in league play. Maryland was once among them when it ripped off seven straight victories, but it enters Saturday's home test against Ohio State (15-10, 5-7) having lost its last two. Eight other teams in the league have suffered losing streaks of at least three conference games -- with three of those teams also owning league winning streaks of at least three games.

"You better show up to play, because the difference between the top and the near bottom is not that great," said Palm, who will help provide analysis for CBS on Saturday when the NCAA selection committee will release its top 16 overall seeds in a first in-season look at the bracket. Where the Big Ten fits into those projections, particularly Wisconsin, remains to be seen.

Lunardi sees the muddled competition in the league as part of a greater trend nationally this season, where a lack of truly elite teams has provided more parity at the top. It has become less clear to Lunardi what the selection committee truly values -- the NCAA has held recent discussions about potentially including more analytics and metrics in the selection process in the years come -- and the uncertainty about where the crop of Big Ten teams will be seeded is a corollary storyline.

"I would've thought, at the beginning of the year, that you could talk about Michigan State, Purdue, Indiana and maybe Wisconsin as Final Four contenders," Lunardi said. "And I think at this point, you would have to say that any of them would be a Final Four surprise."

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