• adamzielonka

Whos' the real fourth-best team in the nation? Plus, a Big Ten update

Following Gonzaga, Michigan and Baylor, what team deserves the final No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament? And who deserves the No. 4 ranking in the country this week?

Materially, those are two different questions that could produce two different answers. The first is asking which team was the fourth-best in the nation throughout the season, while the other must place greater importance on a much shorter timeframe – the change from one week to the next.

I ask because 18 different ranked teams lost at least one game since last Monday, including seven teams in the Top 10, and if I were a voter in the Associated Press poll, I’m not sure what I’d do.

No. 4 can no longer be Ohio State, which has dropped three straight games now, including a loss to unranked Michigan State and a 16-point defeat to Iowa. It seems like bracketologists are intent on keeping the Buckeyes on that fourth No. 1 line for now, unless I’m looking at brackets that haven’t been updated in a few days. But it would be plain silly for an AP voter to ignore a three-game losing streak when filling out their ballot for the week.

The question is... who actually deserves to claim that spot?

My first response might have been Villanova if it had taken care of Butler, not one of the Big East’s stronger teams, on Saturday. ’Nova blew it and lost instead. Alabama has been pretty good, but earlier in the week it suffered a lost to the second-place team in its conference, Arkansas – certainly not a bad loss for the resume, but one that makes it harder to justify lifting them from No. 6 to No. 4 this week.

Go down the list. No. 7 Oklahoma lost twice this week, including an embarrassment to one of its conference’s worst teams, Kansas State. Florida State recently took control of the ACC but fell to North Carolina the other night. It was just that kind of week.

I see two reasonable options left: Illinois and West Virginia.

Wait, Adam, isn’t it hypocritical of you to consider the Illini when they just lost to the same Michigan State team that Ohio State lost to?

Not when they also bounced back to beat Nebraska and ranked Wisconsin – while their star Ayo Dosunmu missed both games with a broken nose – to finish the week 2-1. The same can’t be said for Ohio State.

I’m high on West Virginia, too. They look like the second-best team, and one of the hottest, in the Big 12, the best conference outside the Big Ten. At 17-6, all but one of their losses came by very thin margins – they even led Gonzaga at halftime during their meeting in December and only lost by five (although that was before Oscar Tshiebwe left the program).

Gonzaga, Baylor, Michigan, Illinois and West Virginia are my top five – right now. That’s the point of the exercise. I’d slide the Buckeyes into sixth. The good news for Ohio State fans crying foul is that Illinois finishes its schedule by playing at Michigan and at the Buckeyes; we could see them lose both and take themselves out of the conversation of the country’s truly elite tier of teams.

(Note: I wrote this intro Monday morning before the new Associated Press poll was released, but decided to hold off on publishing until after 12 noon to incorporate the voters’ collective thoughts in my intro. The voters put Illinois fourth, meshing with what I had in mind, and Iowa fifth and Ohio State seventh following Iowa’s win over OSU on Sunday.)

I want to wrap up by revisiting my quick rundown of the Big Ten’s tournament contenders like I did last week – with one obvious change. It’s time to add Michigan State to the list. I mentioned last week that Sparty’s tourney chances weren’t “zero” yet, so, you know, I was smart to cover my butt like that. By beating two top-five teams in a row, they have a much more interesting case to make for one of the final bids. It helps that some of their conference counterparts on the same part of the bubble are fading fast.

Let’s get after it:


NET: 2

Remaining opponents: vs. ILL, vs. MSU, at MSU

Not much can happen now to dampen Michigan’s outlook. Hypothetically, a loss to now-No. 4 Illinois wouldn’t knock them off the one line (I’m looking forward to seeing how Kofi Cockburn matches up against Hunter Dickinson), and even a split with desperate Michigan State wouldn’t be the worst blemish of all time, given who else the Spartans just beat.

The way the Wolverines shut down presumptive Player of the Year Luka Garza en route to beating Iowa does even more to cement themselves as an elite team in this year’s field than their win over Ohio State did.

My best guess: 1 seed, national title contender


NET: 5

Remaining opponents: at MICH, at OSU

I’ll keep this section short after covering Illinois in the intro. Here’s hoping Dosunmu is ready to play in time for the postseason. The Athletic’s Brian Hamilton reported that Dosunmu was fitted for a face mask to protect his broken nose, but Illinois clearly didn’t want to rush him back last week.

How the Illini fare in consecutive visits to Ann Arbor and Columbus could go a long way to determining where they fit in the NCAA bracket. Is this a team capable of overtaking Ohio State for the fourth No. 1 seed? Is it liable to slide down to a No. 3? If Dosunmu doesn’t play this week, how much will the committee consider his absence? It’s still a strong team, after all, with Cockburn leading the way.

My best guess: 2 seed, Final Four contender


NET: 6

Remaining opponents: vs. NEB, vs. WIS

Alright, let’s talk about this. Where do we stand on the Hawkeyes? I’ve ordered these teams by NET rating this week, which is why Iowa slots in here above Ohio State. But I still believe they’re the least likely of the Big Ten’s four powerhouses to, say, earn a national No. 1 seed or win the conference tournament.

Garza rebounded from his season-worst performance against Michigan and took it out on the Buckeyes with 24 points and 11 boards. You have to agree it’s Iowa’s biggest win of the season. Before Sunday’s game, the Hawkeyes were 0-3 against Michigan, Ohio State and Illinois, but had beaten Wisconsin, smashed Maryland, swept Michigan State and Rutgers... is it all enough to elevate them from their projected 3-seed? It might, especially if they stay hot during the Big Ten Tournament.

My best guess: 2 seed, Final Four contender

Ohio State

NET: 8

Remaining opponents: vs. ILL

If Ohio State loses to a not-at-full-strength Illinois this Saturday, it will finish the regular season 12-8 in the Big Ten. If they then proceed not to win the Big Ten Tournament, they’ll have picked up nine conference losses. Do you remember a previous No. 1 tourney seed with nine conference losses? The Buckeyes’ position on the one line is precarious, that’s all I’m saying. But I’ll stop leaning too far into recency bias and remind myself that this team is way too talented to let that slide happen. I feel pretty certain Ohio State will collect itself this week, take care of Illinois to right the ship and ultimately hold onto that top seed. (But if they don’t, uh, look out.)

My best guess: 1 seed, Final Four contender


NET: 21

Remaining opponents: vs. WIS, vs. IND

All Purdue did this week was thrash Penn State. The Boilermakers are firmly in the field, but as I asked last week, are they the fifth-best team in this league, or is Wisconsin? They’ll settle it head to head on Tuesday. (Purdue entered the AP rankings Monday at No. 23, and while I personally wouldn’t have included Wisconsin in the Top 25, they squeaked out the 25th spot over BYU, making Tuesday’s game a ranked-versus-ranked affair.)

The only real implications are for seeding in the Big Ten Tournament, but it should tell us a lot about what each team is made of. Purdue’s playing the better basketball right now, so I’ll bump them up from a No. 6 to a No. 5 in anticipation that they’ll defend Mackey Arena this week and end the regular season 18-8.

My best guess: 5 seed, Sweet 16 contender


NET: 24

Remaining opponents: at PUR, at IOWA

D’Mitrik Trice did things no human should be able to do Saturday. The only thing he couldn’t do was win the Illinois game for Wisconsin all by himself. Five-on-five game and all that.

Trice nailed three after three, scoring 19 points in the last 2:16 of the game to cut the Illini lead all the way down to 1 (it was as large as 14 earlier in the game). But the rest of the Badgers shot 28.3% from the floor, which I guess is how you lose a game where you win the turnover battle 20-8 and your best shooter is otherwise on fire. Like I said last week, this just isn’t one of the Big Ten teams I’m high on right now.

My best guess: 5 seed, Sweet 16 contender/early upset contender


NET: 29

Remaining opponents: at NW, vs. PSU

It’s easy to lose track of everyone in this jam-packed league, but don’t look now, here come the Terps! This was the best imaginable outcome for them: After beating Rutgers, none of their three remaining opponents looked especially resume-bolstering, but Michigan State clawed back into the bubble conversation with consecutive wins over Illinois and Ohio State – and then Maryland promptly took care of the Spartans for their fifth straight W.

Over their last 10 games the Terrapins’ opponents have managed just 59.2 points per game on 37% shooting. I know Mark Turgeon’s postseason record is assailable, but at the very least Turgeon deserves credit for whipping one of his less-talented rosters into a contender in this monster of a league.

My best guess: 9 seed, Round of 32


NET: 32

Remaining opponents: at NEB, at MINN

Rutgers snapped its losing streak by humiliating Indiana, another sign of what Rutgers can be when on top of its game. I think Steve Pikiell’s men will finish the job this week against two weaker opponents, though you never know what can happen on the road. That leads us to the Big Ten Tournament draw. The Nos. 7 and 8 seeds are most likely going to Maryland and Rutgers in either order (with potential for Wisconsin to drop in there with more losses). As the No. 8, you’re doomed to meet Michigan in the second game. As the No. 7, you might draw an up-and-down Iowa or a Dosunmu-less Illinois. That’s a huge difference, and one Rutgers could take advantage of if it beats the Terps for the seed.

My best guess: 7 seed, Sweet 16 contender (if the draw is good)


NET: 57

Remaining opponents: at MSU, at PUR

They’re breaking out the Archie Miller job security columns out in Hoosierland. Even as Indiana’s current postseason fate hangs in the balance, The Athletic’s Bob Kravitz is rightfully looking ahead to the near future. “What if Trayce Jackson-Davis chooses to opt out to enter the upcoming NBA Draft?” Kravitz wrote. “Which freshmen have shown enough to make you think they’re going to be game-changers next year? Anthony Leal, Jordan Geronimo and Trey Galloway combined for no points Saturday.”

It’s looking dicey, especially after that embarrassing game against Rutgers – blowing an early 23-8 lead to lose by 11. All that aside... KenPom.com ranks them a pretty fair 37th in the country and they have eight wins in Quads 1 and 2, more than Maryland and as many as Rutgers. I won’t boot them out of the field just yet, but any more no-show performances and both Indiana’s present and Miller’s future will be in extreme doubt.

My best guess: Last Four In


NET: 69

Remaining opponents: at PSU, vs. RUT

No doubt the Gophers’ bubble popped last week with losses to Northwestern and last-place Nebraska, the former coming at home, where they used to be unstoppable. The bottom fell out for Minnesota, losers of five straight and eight of their last 10. The losing streak, the unimpressive NET and the lack of a quality win since their upset of Michigan make for a dire combo. (Marcus Carr posted 41 points against Nebraska, albeit on 27 shots and with absolutely no help from his bench or generally anyone around him.)

My best guess: Next Four Out

Michigan State

NET: 77

Remaining opponents: vs. IND, at MICH, vs. MICH

I’ve somehow gone this far in life without ever hearing the saying, “Don’t applaud a fish for swimming.” I love it. I love it even more that Michigan State’s Aaron Henry introduced it to me when answering a question after the Spartans’ upset of Ohio State. “The Spartans have won before. We have won before,” he explained. That level-headedness and awareness of expectations, I’m sure, applies to the entire locker room right now. Maryland showed them something different defensively Sunday and snapped their winning streak, but the Spartans only have opportunities ahead. Indiana is falling apart, and two shots at the Wolverines is just such a juicy storyline. MSU needs to do just a bit more before getting on the right side of the bubble.

My best guess: First Four Out

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