What does everyone love about March Madness? Upsets, of course.
The Big Ten tournament is approaching, and it has the potential to be the most exciting conference tournament in college basketball for that very reason.
Throughout the regular season, unranked teams upset ranked teams 24 times in conference play, and that doesn’t count the seven times ranked teams upset higher-ranked teams. The only other power conference that even comes close to that amount is the Big 12 with 14 — and that’s still 10 less. The ACC, a conference that currently boasts three teams in the top five, only has six unranked-over-ranked upsets — the least of any top five conference in the country.
Last season, the Big Ten only had seven upsets by unranked teams, so that number more than tripled this year. In fact, there were more upsets this season than any year since Maryland joined the conference in 2014, and it’s not close.
That increase in upsets is what will differentiate the Big Ten tournament this season. A lot of unranked teams, many of which are considered bottom-feeders in the conference, have proven that they have what it takes to take down top teams.
Last season, only six different teams managed to pull of upsets over ranked teams in conference play. Michigan and Penn State were the only two teams to do so twice, and both did very well in the tournament, with the Wolverines winning it all. This year, 11 different unranked teams have defeated ranked opponents in Big Ten play. Northwestern is the only consistently unranked team in the league that hasn’t had an upset.
Mix that in with everything that always comes with this time of year and there’s sure to be some excitement in Chicago.
Best upset candidates
The Gophers aren’t one of the more dominant teams in the Big Ten and they enter the tournament as the No. 7 seed, but they have four upsets over ranked teams in conference play this season — tied with Purdue (when unranked) for the most in the league. Minnesota has upset then-No. 24 Nebraska, then-No. 22 Wisconsin, then-No. 18 Iowa and most recently No. 11 Purdue. None of them have been blowout wins, but all have been at least four point games.
If the Gophers can outlast No. 10-seed Penn State, they’ll once again face Purdue. And though the they lost their last game of the season against Maryland, they upset the Boilermakers in the game before that.
The Hoosiers started off the season hot and then went on a seven-game losing streak in January, but since then, they’ve had their fair share of upsets to enter the tournament as a No. 9 seed. Indiana upset Michigan State twice, both when the Spartans were ranked sixth in the nation, and also upset then-No. 19 Wisconsin in double overtime. With those wins, Indiana is the only team in the Big Ten to upset a top-10 team twice.
Those victories over Michigan State could very well play a factor in the tournament. First, the Hoosiers will play No. 8 seed Ohio State—who won the only meeting with Indiana this season 55-52 during the Hoosiers’ slump—but if they get past the Buckeyes, they’ll face No. 1-seed Michigan State. And if there’s anyone the Spartans would like to avoid in their first game, it’s Indiana.
The Nittany Lions come into the tournament as the No. 10 seed after going 5-1 in their last six games of the season. While Penn State’s 7-13 Big Ten record isn’t that impressive, the team has two upsets over ranked teams by six points or more. Those upsets came against two top-20 teams in then-No. 6 Michigan and then-No. 17 Maryland. The win against the Terps was a 78-61 blowout.
Penn State will face No. 7-seed Minnesota in its first game; when the two teams met this season, Minnesota won by just one at home. Plus, Penn State boasts Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Josh Reaves and First Team All-Big Ten selection Lamar Stevens.
How vulnerable are the top seeds?
Michigan State, the tournament’s No. 1 seed, has been upset by unranked teams four times this season, falling to Indiana twice, as well as to Illinois and then-unranked Purdue (this game was on the road and wasn’t a total shock then, but it technically qualifies). The Spartans won’t have Joshua Langford, and Nick Ward’s status is uncertain. Indiana could await on Friday.
Michigan has been upset by unranked teams three times this season. Two of those losses came against Wisconsin and Iowa — two teams that have been ranked at points throughout the season but weren’t at the time. The Wolverines also lost by six points to Penn State, a bottom-feeder team that hasn’t even received votes this year. Of course, John Beilein’s teams seem to turn it on in the postseason and have won this tournament two straight years. But there’s still upset potential here, especially since No. 6-seed Iowa is on the same section of the bracket.
No. 4-seed Wisconsin was upset by unranked teams twice in the Big Ten season. The Badgers fell to Minnesota by seven points in January In late February, they lost in overtime to Indiana. Most recently, Wisconsin dropped a 23-point lead Sunday against Ohio State, though it still managed to pull off the win in overtime.
Purdue has had some close calls, but its loss at Minnesota last week was its first against an unranked Big Ten team. The No. 2-seed Boilermakers could get the Gophers again Friday, but it’d be in a much different environment.