Why an underwhelming November could haunt the Big Ten in March

Michigan is one of several Big Ten teams off to a disappointing start so far this season. (AP)

Already off to an underwhelming start this college basketball season, the Big Ten hoped to reverse its fortunes with a strong showing in its annual league-wide challenge against the ACC this week.

To say the least, that hasn’t happened. Not even close, in fact.

The Big Ten lost five of six games against the ACC on Wednesday night to fall behind 11-2 overall with just one game left to play. Only Purdue and Nebraska have managed to secure victories so far for the Big Ten, the Boilermakers edging 17th-ranked Louisville on Tuesday night and the Huskers handling perpetually rebuilding Boston College the following evening.

Third-ranked Michigan State can salvage a shred of conference pride if it can defeat fifth-ranked Notre Dame on Thursday in East Lansing, but a Spartans victory alone cannot mask what a disappointment this year’s challenge has been for the Big Ten. Not since a pair of 7-2 ACC victories in 2003 and 2004 has the Big Ten been defeated anywhere near this soundly.

The Big Ten’s poor performance against the ACC the past three nights is emblematic of its dreadful November from top to bottom. The league appears to be in jeopardy of receiving fewer NCAA bids than usual next March because it doesn’t have its usual assortment of quality wins and it has suffered some ugly losses against small-conference opponents.

Although Michigan State has lived up to its preseason top-five billing and Minnesota and Purdue both have a couple marquee victories apiece, the rest of the league has yet to notch a single victory over a top 50 KenPom opponent. The teams outside the Big Ten’s top three only have a total of four top 100 KenPom wins so far: Michigan over VCU, Maryland over Butler and Bucknell and now Nebraska over Boston College.

It’s difficult to pinpoint the biggest disappointment in the Big Ten’s middle tier because there are so many options from which to choose.

Is it Northwestern?

The Wildcats returned their four leading scorers and a couple key reserves from last year’s feel-good NCAA tournament team, yet they’ve already suffered a trio of losses against Creighton, Texas Tech and shorthanded Georgia Tech. Their interior defense is struggling, their guards are getting beaten off the dribble and their bench hasn’t produced offensively.

Or is it Wisconsin?

The Badgers’ impressive streak of 19 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances may be in jeopardy this year given their four November losses so far. The bad news for Wisconsin is that it lacks outside shooting surrounding standout big man Ethan Happ. The good news is the Badgers have a young roster bound to get better and all four of their losses have come against Top 25 opposition.

Don’t forget Iowa, either.

A Hawkeyes team that was supposed to take a step forward this season instead is enduring the same early struggles that plagued last year’s squad. Neutral-court losses to Louisiana-Lafayette and South Dakota State weren’t ideal. Nor was a 24-point drubbing at Virginia Tech on Tuesday night.

Of course the list of bad losses don’t end there. Indiana fell by 21 to Indiana State on opening night in Bloomington. Maryland was waylaid by a St. Bonaventure team without its top player. Heck, even Purdue dropped a consolation bracket game against Western Kentucky during the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament last weekend.

All that leaves the Big Ten in danger of falling short of its usual 7 or 8 NCAA tournament bids. The time for a league to boost its resume is November and December. After that Big Ten teams can only beat up on each other during conference play.

There are still chances for the teams outside the Big Ten’s top three to pick up marquee non-league victories. Northwestern visits Oklahoma on Dec. 22. Michigan hosts UCLA on Dec. 9. Indiana faces Notre Dame and Louisville on back-to-back Saturdays next month.

Win a few of those games, and the Big Ten can bounce back from its nightmare November. Lose those too, and the league will almost certainly have a few less teams than usual hear their names called on Selection Sunday.

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!