We're going to lose at Purdue tomorrow night. We just are. I've accepted it. Carsen Edwards is going to score 51 points. It's OK. I'm already over it.
Then there will be three games left... against the teams currently 12th, 13th, and 14th in the Big Ten standings. Which means that this February, which started out wildly encouraging and is now mired in this two-game (soon to be three-game) losing streak, can give way to a March push.
We shall start with a look back at my Revisiting Expectations post. I do this all the time to help navigate a full season. "Here's where I was a month ago, here's where I am now." It keeps me honest. I lay out what I believe to be realistic expectations and then we can see where we stand.
Actually, since the expectations post was a look back at preseason expectations, this is going to be a little bit like Ed Hightower looking at the monitor of Ed Hightower looking at the monitor of Ed Hightower looking at the monitor. So let's start with the expectations linked in that post, followed by the expectations of that post, followed by the March push.
My thoughts the day of the Xavier game in Maui, linked in that post:
Which is why I tweeted that "stretch goal - 15 wins" thing. I think this is a 12-20 or maybe 13-19 basketball season, but if things break right, I could see 15-16. That's the number Tyler landed on when he wrote that section of the preview. Given the 4 returnees/8 newcomers thing, and the difficult schedule thing, and the "one returning senior, one returning junior" thing, take out all the emotions and that's probably a 13-19 basketball season.
For a long time it looked like 12 or 13 wins wasn't anywhere close to possible. When we were 5-14, it really looked like we were going to have a seven or eight-win season, which would have been quite disastrous, obviously. But then we corrected course, beating Maryland in New York City to kick things off, and after the Nebraska win (the day before the Michigan State game), I revisited my expectations (linked above). Because the schedule was the 2nd toughest in the nation at the time per KenPom (now 5th), I said that 12 wins would be the bar. A 5-4 finish would be good enough to set us up for a big 2019/20. Here, just let February 4th me tell you:
Given that five of the games are at home and four on the road, let's rank them by best chance to win. Easiest to hardest, in my opinion:
Yes, Michigan State is better than Wisconsin and Purdue. But winning at Wisconsin or Purdue vs. surprising Michigan State in Champaign? I'm going with the latter.
I think that sets up fairly well. The line is directly over Indiana. Somehow win one of the bottom four games and you're OK to lose one of the four games at the top. Win the top four and lose the bottom four? Then the "met expectations or nah?" moment for the season rests on the Indiana game in Champaign (and, secondarily, winning a true road game at Penn State).
A 5-4 finish gets you to 12 wins (which would be more like 18 wins if you had Pitt's schedule), and that could be a launching pad for next season. Conversely, a 2-7 finish puts you at 9-22 and it's a very long road from there to the NCAA Tournament in 2020. Which, I think, is the true expectation here.
OK, so how have we done with those games (which I ranked by difficulty)?
Penn State (L)
@Ohio State (W)
Michigan State (W)
Ugh - that Penn State loss. Could have put us in "we're nearly a lock to meet these expectations" territory. 4-1 with four games left would have been perfect. Instead, 3-2 (and will be 3-3 after tomorrow night) and we have work to do.
To be fair, I drew the line over the Indiana game, and that's where the line remains. Beating Michigan State AND Ohio State means that we can lose two of the games above the line and still meet (what I felt were) realistic expectations. Still a young team, still led by nearly all freshmen and sophomores, still eight newcomers, still wasn't going to be a team anywhere close to the NIT, let alone the NCAA. 15 wins was my "stretch goal".
So those two wins earned us a lot of cushion. I got excited an started dreaming of the seven seed in the BTT (still very possible), but with seven deep breaths, I can re-center myself at "beat Northwestern and Indiana at home and we've met our season expectations, with possible damage to be done in the BTT". Add Kofi, find a scoring wing this spring (5th-year transfer or impact freshman), and I think we're on our way.
But man, I really want four straight wins after the loss tomorrow night. I can't help it - I'm greedy. Here's what that would look like:
- Beat Northwestern, Indiana, and Penn State to finish the regular season 13-18 (9-11). Nine Big Ten wins would be the most since 2015 - we haven't had 10 Big Ten wins since 2010. (Note: there are 20 Big Ten games now, not 18, so 10 wins doesn't really mean what it used to.)
- There's still a chance that gets us the 7th seed in the BTT. Ohio State and Minnesota are still one spot ahead of us with seven conference wins, but Ohio State (7-9) closes with Iowa, Purdue, Northwestern, Wisconsin; Minnesota (7-10) closes with Northwestern, Purdue, and Maryland. Get to nine wins and I really think we're the 7-seed.
- Then that 7/10 game in the BTT is maybe Rutgers or Nebraska. Win that and it's four wins in a row, a BTT quarterfinal matchup with maybe Michigan or Purdue - the ultimate gravy game. We would be on a 7-3 run to close the season with a chance to just go out and have some fun in the quarterfinal Chicago, setting the tone for next year's leap.
This is not to say that 12-20 doesn't clear the bar. Given the non-conference schedule, the roster turnover, and the strength of the Big Ten, if we close out the season with two home wins and two road losses and then lose in, say, the 7/10 game (as the 10) to Ohio State, that's 12-20 (8-12), and honestly, it passes the class. Barely - like, a C- or so - but it passes. Again, we could have scheduled Pitt's non-conference schedule, and then my scenario here is 17-15 (8-12), which would be very palatable. So 12-20 gets us there. Barely, but there.
But man, 14-18 and in a BTT quarterfinal matchup with a ranked team which could push us to 15 wins and set the expectations for next season on fire? Let's do it. Let's make a push.