The way Jerry Palm sees it, the University of Wisconsin men's basketball team has done enough to sew up its 14th consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament.
"I think Wisconsin's safe," said Palm, who projects the 68-team NCAA tournament field for CBSSports.com. "(The Badgers) are not going to lose the rest of their games, but even if they did I think they're safe."
A 65-55 victory over Penn State on Sunday afternoon at the Kohl Center was important for the Badgers for a few reasons: It helped them reach the 20-win mark and assured them of finishing with no worse than a .500 mark in Big Ten Conference play. By beating the last-place Nittany Lions, who are No. 133 in the RPI, UW also avoided what would have been a second bad loss on its resume.
The Badgers (20-7, 9-5 Big Ten), who fell one spot to No. 16 in The Associated Press Top 25 but moved up two spots to No. 15 in the USA Today/ESPN coaches' poll after a 1-1 week that included a 69-55 loss at Michigan State, have four games remaining in the regular season. That stretch starts with a game against Iowa (14-13, 6-8) on Thursday night at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City.
UW also could improve its NCAA tournament seed with a strong showing at the Big Ten tournament, which begins March 8 in Indianapolis.
ESPN's Joe Lunardi had the Badgers as a No. 4 seed in his latest bracket projection that was released on Monday. Palm, who will release an updated bracket today, had UW as a No. 5 seed before its victory over Penn State.
Palm believes UW could climb as high as a No. 3 seed with a late-season run. On the flip side, he said a slump could drop the Badgers into the No. 8 or 9 range.
The other big question with two weeks remaining in the regular season is how many teams from the Big Ten, the nation's top-ranked league in the RPI, will get into the tournament.
Palm had nine Big Ten teams in his bracket last week but said that number will be either seven or eight in today's updated version. Lunardi has seven Big Ten teams in his latest bracket.
Besides UW, four other Big Ten teams are locks to make the tournament: Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan and Indiana.
Four other teams are on the NCAA bubble: Purdue, Northwestern, Minnesota and Illinois. Lunardi's latest bracket has Minnesota and Illinois on the outside looking in.
Big Ten coaches would argue the Big Ten deserves eight or nine bids this season because of how tough the league is from top to bottom.
But the four teams on the bubble all have flaws: Purdue is lacking in the quality-win department; Northwestern has reached double figures in losses and still has a difficult stretch run in front of it; and slumps have left Minnesota and Illinois with a lot of work to do between now and Selection Sunday on March 11.
"The league might only have six NCAA tournament quality teams when it's all said and done," Palm said. "That's a possibility, and the fact that they're the No. 1 league, that's not even in the (discussion). It's all about individual teams."
Here's a closer look at the nine Big Ten teams still in the running for an at-large NCAA tournament berth:
No. 6 Michigan State
Record: 22-5, 11-3 Big Ten.
Remaining schedule: at Minnesota; Nebraska; at Indiana; Ohio State.
NCAA outlook: The Spartans, who have won five consecutive games, have put themselves in the conversation for a No. 1 seed. Barring a major collapse, they'll be no worse than a No. 2 seed.
No. 8 Ohio State
Record: 22-5, 10-4.
Remaining schedule: Illinois; Wisconsin; at Northwestern; at Michigan State.
NCAA outlook: The Buckeyes have lost two of their last three games. A No. 1 seed is still within their reach, but they can't afford any more losses during the regular season.
No. 11 Michigan
Record: 20-7, 10-4.
Remaining schedule: at Northwestern; Purdue; at Illinois; at Penn State.
NCAA outlook: The Wolverines look like a solid No. 3 seed right now. But they're just 2-6 in true road games this season and close the regular season with three of four games away from Crisler Arena.
No. 16 UW
Record: 20-7, 9-5.
Remaining schedule: at Iowa; at Ohio State; Minnesota; Illinois.
NCAA outlook: Six of UW's seven losses this season have come against teams ranked among the top 14 in the RPI. The exception? A loss to No. 136 Iowa on Dec. 31 at the Kohl Center.
No. 23 Indiana
Record: 20-7, 8-7.
Remaining schedule: North Carolina Central; at Minnesota; Michigan State; Purdue.
NCAA outlook: Lunardi has the Hoosiers as a No. 5 seed. The good news for Indiana, which is 3-32 in Big Ten road games under Tom Crean, is three of its final four games are at home.
Record: 17-10, 7-7.
Remaining schedule: Nebraska; at Michigan; Penn State; at Indiana.
NCAA outlook: There's a possibility the Boilermakers will finish the regular season with one win over a top 50 RPI team (No. 16 Temple). But if Purdue holds serve at home against doormats Nebraska and Penn State, it will finish no worse than .500 in league play, which should be enough to get in the tourney.
Record: 16-10, 6-8.
Remaining schedule: Michigan; at Penn State; Ohio State; at Iowa.
NCAA outlook: The Wildcats' first NCAA tournament bid is right there for them to reach out and grab. A home win over the Wolverines or Buckeyes would be a huge resume builder; likewise, Northwestern's stock could plummet with a damaging road loss to either the Nittany Lions or Hawkeyes.
Record: 17-10, 5-9.
Remaining schedule: Michigan State; Indiana; at Wisconsin; Nebraska.
NCAA outlook: The Gophers are 1-4 in February. That said, there's still time for them to make a strong case for an at-large berth. A season sweep of Indiana — or a win over either Michigan State or UW — would give Minnesota's profile a huge boost.
Record: 16-11, 5-9.
Remaining schedule: at Ohio State; Iowa; Michigan; at Wisconsin.
NCAA outlook: The Fighting Illini have lost eight of their past nine games and appeared to quit on coach Bruce Weber during an 80-57 loss at Nebraska over the weekend. But if Illinois can somehow regroup and win its last two home games, it would have home wins over Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan — the Big Ten's three best teams — on its resume.