I was thinking today about the Big Ten overall this year and how, outside of Iowa and Indiana (and maybe Penn State) it's a very balanced league (especially if you aren't sold on Michigan State). In a situation such as this, defending home court may be the most important thing when it comes to gaining an NCAA Tournament bid. If you split home/away games you would go 9-9, but say you beat Iowa and Indiana on the road and then steal one from someone else without losing a home game - you're suddenly 12-6 and basically a lock. That doesn't really sound that hard, does it? (I know it's an unbalanced schedule, just work with me here).
I know it's awfully early, but let's take a peek at who is doing this well so far, giving 1 point for a road win (not counting Iowa/Indiana) and subtracting one point for a home loss or a loss at Iowa/Indiana:
Wisconsin: +2 (won at Penn State and at Northwestern). Real Record: 4-1. Even if their two road wins are against teams just a step up from the dregs, they're still Big Ten road wins, and beating Northwestern without Leuer is impressive. Wins over Duke, Maryland, and Marquette all look good. As long as things don't come crashing down while Leuer is out this is an NCAA Tournament team. Again.
Michigan State: +1 (won at Northwestern). Real Record: 4-0. With a win over Gonzaga and no bad losses they have practically wrapped up a bid already.
Ohio State: +1 (won at Purdue). Real Record: 2-3. The record doesn't look good, but the +/- score should give you a hint that the schedule-maker wasn't exactly forgiving - four of their opening five conference games were on the road. With just five road games left (including against Iowa and Indiana) and Evan Turner back to where he started they are actually in pretty good shape, although their non-conference profile is starting to get worse with Florida State and UNC struggling.
Illinois: 0. Real Record: 4-0. Being talked about as the surprise of the Big Ten by people who have no idea what they are talking about, they haven't played a conference game yet that they weren't favored in and struggled in a couple of those. Non-conference results show this isn't a very good team. Expect everything to fall apart starting this weekend.
Minnesota: 0. Real Record: 3-2. The record isn't gaudy, but it looks good if you break it down. I consider there to be four "good" teams in the conference this year (MSU, Wisc., OSU, Purdue) and the Gophers have already played three - two on the road.
Purdue: -1 (lost to Ohio State at home). Real Record: 2-2. I'm not really sure what to make of the loss to the Buckeyes, but I think it is more of a positive to Ohio State than a negative to Purdue. Considering the wins over Tennessee and West Virginia already I have a feeling these guys are going to be just fine. They have their next two on the road against middle of the road teams (Illinois, Northwestern), which could be interesting.
Michigan: -1 (won at Penn State, lost at Indiana, lost at home to Northwestern). Real Record: 2-2. Barring a miraculous run the rest of the way or a win in the Big Ten Tournament they've pretty much put themselves out of the NCAAs already with seven total losses. I still think they remain a dangerous team, and going into Ann Arbor and getting a +1 is going to be just as tough as anywhere else.
Northwestern: -1 (won at Michigan, lost at home to Wisconsin and Michigan State). Real Record: 1-3. I still have no idea what to make of these guys. There are a bunch of decent wins against middling teams (Iowa State, Notre Dame, Stanford) but the only "good" teams they've played have handled them with ease and all three in Evanston. Maybe they are the kings of the mediocre? Sounds like time for a big NIT run.
Penn State: -2 (lost at home to Wisconsin and Michigan). Real Record: 0-4. Yeah, they're not good. I don't know why, exactly, I chose not to include them in the Indiana/Iowa group but I've already done all the math on this and I really don't want to redo it.
I'm not exactly sure what all this means, but the higher the number the better the team is doing at defending its home court and stealing road games, keys to getting a tournament bid. The Gophers are in good shape, having done exactly what you would expect at this point. If they can win at Indiana on Sunday, split with MSU/Purdue at Williams, win their other home games, and steal a road game at either Northwestern/Penn State/Michigan that would put them at 11-7, which should certainly be good enough. The path is clear, just take it.