Few Big Ten scenarios are apparently out of the question when it comes to NCAA tournament bracket projections.
Despite hitting a skid in which it has lost five of seven games, Northwestern is — surprisingly to some — clearly in the tournament if you go off Jerry Palm's CBSSports.com projection. He has the Wildcats as a No. 7 seed through Sunday's games.
And more surprising to some, once-seemingly doomed Illinois has some hope after appearing in USA Today's mock bracket Monday as a No. 11 seed, ticketed for a First Four game in Dayton, Ohio.
Northwestern was a No. 10 seed in Joe Lunardi's ESPN.com bracket and in USA Today's, both of which also were updated through Sunday.
Palm said he is judging the Wildcats by their overall resume, which has resulted in a "great year."
He pointed to the slump around the absence of and slow return to form by leading scorer Scottie Lindsey. The Wildcats (20-9, 9-7 Big Ten) have dropped to a No. 50 RPI on CBSSports.com, but that's better than some bubble teams.
There's also the case that the selection committee will be judging a weak bubble field this season from which teams with as many as 14 losses might get in.
"I don't think of (Northwestern) as a bubble team," said Palm, who annually is extremely accurate in projecting the tournament field.
While Palm doesn't list Illinois as a tournament team or even in his "first four out" category, he said Illini fans shouldn't extinguish hope.
Illinois (17-12, 7-9), which has won three straight, is playing with some desperation and has a decent RPI of No. 57. What the Illini lack, Palm said, are quality wins and total number of wins.
They probably need to beat both Michigan State — a possible bubble team they could be compared with in the selection process — and Rutgers, a can't-lose-to opponent, to end the regular season and also pick up a win or two in the Big Ten tournament.
Just as important as winning in the conference tournament could be whom the Illini beat — or who beats them. A loss in the semifinals or final to, say, Purdue wouldn't hurt as much as falling to a lower-seeded team.
Also, like any bubble team, Illinois has to root against upset champions in conference tournaments. For instance, a team such as Penn State winning the Big Ten tournament or Alabama winning the SEC tournament could steal an at-large bid from a team like Illinois.
"When you're Illinois, the only sure way is to win the conference tournament," Palm said. "They're at least giving themselves a chance."
Tribune reporter Shannon Ryan ranks the Big Ten men's basketball teams through the action of Feb. 26, 2017.(Shannon Ryan)
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