The Big Ten has led the country in NCAA Tournament bids the past 4 seasons, including twice tying the record at 9 entries into the Big Dance.

The streak, however, is highly unlikely to continue this season, because while the conference has strength at the top — Purdue is likely a No. 1 seed and potentially the top seed overall, while Illinois and Wisconsin could end up as top 16 seeds overall, too — it has a soft middle and softer bottom. It might leave the Big Ten with only 6 bids come Selection Sunday March 17, the fewest since it has had since sending only 4 to the tourney in 2018.

But the Big Ten wants more than a volume of teams, it wants NCAA success, too, which has been fleeting, to say the least. Not only has the league not won a title since Michigan State did so in 2000, but it’s not had a Final Four participant since the Spartans in 2019. And the Big Ten is coming off a March Madness in which it had only 1 of its 8 teams make it through the 1st weekend, but MSU’s surprise run last season ended in the Sweet 16.

Can the conference rebound? It hopes so, and in a big way. Let’s take a look at the NCAA ceilings for the 5 Big Ten teams likely in the Tournament, plus 2 that are on the bubble and examine whether any others can make a late move.


Record: 22-2 (11-2 Big Ten) | NET: 2

The Boilermakers are angling toward their 2nd consecutive No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and a chance to avenge their 1st-round loss to Fairleigh Dickinson a year ago. There’s reason to think Purdue is better equipped this season for a deep tournament run, because it experienced the heartbreak of last season and used it as motivation while also becoming more versatile offensively. Yes, Zach Edey runs the show from the interior — and will likely be national player-of-the-year for a 2nd straight season — but the improvement of guards Braden Smith and Fletcher Loyer has been substantial. And wing Lance Jones, a transfer, has proven a big-shot maker and improved Purdue’s play vs. the press, a real vulnerability last season.

Purdue is rolling right now, having won 8 straight games to take command in the Big Ten, largely because it has the best offense in the country due to most analytical measures. But if an opponent can neutralize Edey while also hitting a bunch of 3-pointers, then Purdue can be toppled.

Still, Purdue’s ceiling is at the very top.

Ceiling: National championship


Record: 17-6 (8-4) | NET: 14

Illinois has the offensive weaponry to beat about anyone in the country, because any one of its big trio — Terrence Shannon, Jr., Coleman Hawkins and Marcus Domask — are capable of carrying the team for critical stretches. But the Fighting Illini also have an increasingly frustrating tendency to fade late in the close games, perhaps because those player’s desire to try to take over impedes quality shot-taking.

But Illinois had won 3 in a row before a loss at Michigan State on Saturday. More will be learned about the Fighting Illini in the final month of the season, considering they have challenging road trips remaining at Maryland, Penn State, Wisconsin and Iowa. Illinois is a challenge for many opponents, because they’re size on the perimeter combined with their perimeter shot-makers on the interior (led by Hawkins), puts a ton of pressure on defenses.

Illinois can definitely get hot and make a run.

Ceiling: Final Four


Record: 16-8 (8-5) | NET: 21

Would the real Wisconsin please step forward? The veteran Badgers appeared to be a real challenger to Purdue for Big Ten supremacy, but a loss to Nebraska started a 4-game losing streak that included dropping a home game to the Boilermakers. Perhaps playing 2 of the next 3 at home, including cellar-dwelling Ohio State on Tuesday, can help the Badgers recover.

St. John’s transfer AJ Storr has changed Wisconsin this season, because the wing has helped to make Wisconsin a better offensive team, perhaps its best ever under Coach Greg Gard. With Storr’s versatility, plus Steven Crowl and Tyler Wahl inside and Max Klesmit and Chucky Hepburn on the perimeter, the Badgers have a veteran group that knows how to win. So why has it lost lately? The defense hasn’t been up to Wisconsin standards and the perimeter shooting has been atypically spotty. But experience matters come tournament time, giving Wisconsin plenty of upside.

Ceiling: Elite Eight


Record: 17-7 (8-5) | NET: 56

This season, Northwestern has beaten 2 top-10 teams, knocking off then-No. 1 Purdue in late December before toppling then-10th-ranked Illinois in late January. It also bizarrely lost a home game to Chicago State, handing it an ugly Quad 4 loss.

But with Boo Buie, one of the best (but sometimes overlooked) point guards in the country, anything seems possible, particularly if Northwestern gets the right postseason matchups. A current injury issue, however, has the Wildcats’ attention: Veteran guard Ty Berry is out for an indeterminant length due to a knee injury suffered in a win against Nebraska on Feb. 7. Northwestern won its first game without its best 3-point shooter (43%), beating Penn State on Sunday, but how long is that sustainable? The Wildcats lack depth, with 3 of the Big Ten’s top-6 leaders in minutes played being NU players: Brooks Barnhizer, Buie and Ryan Langborg.

But Northwestern can grind teams down with its physical defensive style and can win because of Buie’s late-game heroics, both of which make ‘Cats a threat in March.

Ceiling: Sweet 16

Michigan State

Record: 15-9 (7-6) | NET: 23

It’s hard to count out any Tom Izzo team in March. Heck, a year ago, the Spartans were cruising through a rather ho-hum season (by MSU standards), before finding their legs in the NCAA Tournament and advancing to the Sweet 16. Michigan State has the personnel to do something similar this season, particularly because of the abilities of Tyson Walker, AJ Hoggard, Malik Hall and Jaden Akins. If those guys get rolling, then the Spartans can beat teams in the Dance, perhaps even score a 2nd-round upset (which might be needed if they end up a 7-10 seed).

But Hall has been inconsistent this season, and he might be the single-most important player for Izzo and Co., because he can give the Spartans at least some interior scoring, which they otherwise lack. Matchups matter, and if MSU faces an opponent with big, physical posts, then that can be a big problem.

Still, it’s hard predict a quick MSU exit.

Ceiling: Sweet 16


Record: 17-8 (7-7) | NET: 53

If Nebraska could play every NCAA Tournament game at home, then the Cornhuskers might be champions. But that’s not how the tourney works. It’s bizarre: Nebraska plays with an intensity and urgency that they simply lack when outside Lincoln. What gives? Nebraska is 15-1 at Pinnacle Bank Arena, including a victory over then-top-ranked Purdue and then-No. 6 Illinois, but they’re only 1-7 in true road games. It’s a problem, even for its NCAA résumé. The Cornhuskers (7-0 at home in the Big Ten but 0-7 on the road), might need to win a conference road game, with opportunities remaining at Indiana, Ohio State and Michigan.

Assuming Nebraska gets at least 1 of those — and that seems like, given the opponents, right? — then it should be able to be on the right side of the bubble come Selection Sunday. And if the Cornhuskers can get in, then they could win a couple games, because they’ve got enough shooters, like Keisei Tominaga and CJ Wilcher and others, to score upsets. In the win over Purdue, Nebraska hit 14 triples.

It might take Tominaga going bonkers to get to the 2nd weekend, but he’s the kind of player who can get hot and stay hot, especially when the bright lights on are.

Ceiling: Sweet 16


Record: 15-8 (6-6) | NET: 85

Minnesota still needs to find a way into the NCAA Tournament, but at least the Golden Gophers have given themselves a chance with 8 regular-season games remaining, plus the Big Ten tourney. But what will it take? The loss Sunday at Iowa didn’t help, especially considering Minnesota led by 20 points in the 2nd half.

Now, the Golden Gophers probably need to go at least 4-4 in the final 8 games, plus win 1 in the conference tourney, but even that might not be enough. Rather, who Minnesota beats is a key, because the Gophers need to significant up their NET Ranking. It’s only 85 right now, because 9 of their 15 wins this season have come vs. Quad 4 opponents. Minnesota might need to score a signature win, like an upset on the road at Purdue, Northwestern or Illinois.

Ceiling: First Round (following a First Four win)


Unfortunately for the Big Ten, there aren’t many of the remaining 7 teams that are even on the NCAA bubble. Perhaps Iowa or Maryland can still play their way into consideration in the final weeks of the regular-season. The Hawkeyes (with a Net of 65) might have staved off elimination with the comeback win over Minnesota Sunday, but 4 of Iowa’s remaining 7 games are on the road. Maryland, one of the most disappointing teams in the league, has faded of late, losing 3 straight games to see its Net drop to 81. Time might be running out, if it’s not already.