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February 27, 2017

Locks: Maryland, Minnesota, Northwestern, Purdue, Wisconsin, Michigan

Michigan State had a bad week, losing close games at Illinois and Maryland, a loss the Spartans can absorb and still remain safely in the field of 68. The Spartans are still a worthy at-large team, and remain a half-step ahead of last four in/first four group going into the Big Ten tournament. They’re 6–7 against the RPI to 50, with a win at Minnesota, and home victories over Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota again, and a neutral-floor triumph over Wichita State. The Spartans won’t be a high seed, but they will be in the dance, barring an ugly loss in the Big Ten tournament.

Until Wednesday, Northwestern’s second-half slide was the talk of the Big Ten. Then Nathan Taphorn hit Derek Pardon on a Hail Mary, the likes of which was never seen in Evanston, and Pardon banked in a game-winning layup for the biggest win in the history of the program. The victory wasn’t just Northwestern’s 21st of the year, its 10th in conference, or its fourth against a top-50 team. It likely cinched the first NCAA tournament berth in Northwestern history. The Wildcats end the regular season by hosting Purdue on Sunday, but they should be playing with house money at this point. Wins over Wisconsin on the road, Dayton on a neutral floor and Michigan and Wake Forest at home, coupled with zero losses outside the top 100, gives them a clear path to an at-large berth.

It was all set up perfectly for Illinois. After sweeping Northwestern and beating Michigan State, the Illini were, improbably, back in position to make the dance for the first time since 2013. All they had to do was avoid bad losses, and maybe grab one more meaningful win, and they’d grab a spot in the tournament field. And then Saturday’s game at Rutgers rolled around. Illinois was in control in the second half, leading 44–34 with just more than 14 minutes left in the game. Rutgers methodically chopped away at that lead, ultimately winning on a Deshawn Freeman three pointer in the final 10 seconds. A loss like this was the one thing Illinois could not afford. With the Big Ten in the midst of a down season, the Illini are not going to have the opportunities typically afforded to the conference’s bubble teams during its tournament. Barring disaster for multiple bubble teams, Illinois is off the at-large radar.

Iowa snuck back onto the at-large radar with road wins against Maryland and Wisconsin over the last two weeks. The Hawkeyes now own five top-50 wins, with victories against Purdue, Michigan and Iowa State also on the résumé. That has the backend of the field in striking distance, but there’s still a lot of work to do in the Big Ten tournament. The Hawkeyes need at least one résumé-building win this week to have hope on Selection Sunday.

Indiana, against all odds, is still in the at-large picture, as well. The Hoosiers are here thanks to the softness of this year’s bubble, as well as non-conference wins against Kansas and North Carolina. If the Hoosiers can pick up a couple of resume-buidling wins the Big Ten tournament, and get some help from their fellow bubblers across the country, they could be one of the last teams in the dance. Understand, however, that they have somewhere around a 1-in-20 chance of getting into the field.

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