College Basketball Bubble Watch

Updated: February 18, 2014, 11:35 AM ET
By Eamonn Brennan | ESPN.com


Looking for a structure with this year's Big Ten

Editor's note: This file has been updated to include all games through Monday, Feb. 17.

On Sunday, Wisconsin closed out an impressive road win at Michigan -- five days after Michigan closed out an impressive road win at Ohio State. Seven days earlier, on Feb. 4, Ohio State won at Iowa. On Feb. 8, Iowa destroyed Michigan in its own building, which was important, because the Hawkeyes had lost at Michigan and let a home game against a half-strength Michigan State get away from them on Jan. 28, and they really needed a big win.

On Jan. 23, Nebraska lost at Penn State. On Jan. 29, Penn State won at Ohio State. That same night, Northwestern held Wisconsin to 56 points in 68 possessions in Madison, Wis. On Sunday, Nebraska beat Michigan State 60-51 in East Lansing, Mich.

Welcome to the 2013-14 Big Ten.

To say there is no structure to this year's edition of the Big Ten would be wrong. Michigan State, when healthy, is the best team in the league, followed closely by Michigan and Wisconsin and Iowa, followed closely by Ohio State. But the bottom of the league -- Penn State, Nebraska, Northwestern -- is better than it has ever been. This is one place both the RPI and efficiency ratings agree: Northwestern, No. 115, is the only Big Ten team to rank outside Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency top 100. And so the RPI breakdown goes like this: Wisconsin (6), Ohio State (16), Michigan (17), Michigan State (19), Iowa (30), Minnesota (33), Nebraska (52), Illinois (86), Indiana (100), Northwestern (104), Purdue (106), Penn State (107).

To step in Thomas Friedman's corner for a moment, the league is flatter than at any point in recent history. Which means:

1. Teams like Iowa don't have to worry quite so much about so-so nonconference schedules, because they aren't spending half their time in league play racking up sub-150 wins against the bottom-feeders of their league.

2. Teams with previously established résumés can kind of breathe easy.

Other bubble teams don't have this luxury. Fully half of the American ranks below 169 and below in the RPI. Four A-10 teams are below 150. The ACC has Georgia Tech, Boston College and Virginia Tech (RPI: 226!) lying in wait. The Pac-12 has USC and Wazzu. The Mountain West has Fresno, CSU, Air Force and San Jose State. The SEC is a mess. Even the Big 12, the consensus best league in the country, has poor TCU.

Not so in the Big Ten. Somewhere along the line, good basketball met with a weird alchemy of wins, and that brew produced an RPI powerhouse. Does that mean more teams in the tournament? No. Does it make for the best league in the country? Not necessarily.

But it does make for a collectively simplified, straightforward situation, fewer mathematical worries about playing bad teams, less agony for bad losses.

Because in the Big Ten, there's no such thing.

Note: All RPI data via ESPN RPI is updated through Feb. 18.

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