During a preseason forum in Chicago last October, the head coaches of the Big Ten expressed a universal desire: to earn redemption after a sorry showing last season by loading the NCAA Tournament with as many league members as possible. At that point, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Illinois appeared — barring some disastrous turn of fate — destined for March Madness. Indiana and Iowa clearly possessed the talent to make, at least, a run for the bubble, and defending NIT Champion Michigan’s continued improvement seemed a foregone conclusion.

Exit Daniel Horton, Pierre Pierce and Lester Abram.

With injuries and disciplinary troubles ravaging Iowa and Michigan, only Indiana remains in reach of a berth, and that bubble may have burst Tuesday night in Madison. In a bizarre twist, 2003-04 cellar dwellers Minnesota and Ohio State emerged to respectability. Yet, a self-imposed sanction also removes the Buckeyes as an NCAA tournament possibility.

Still, despite all the hardships, an outside possibility exists of placing five squads in the Big Dance. Granted, the ACC typically posts as many teams above an eight-seed, but it still, potentially, stands as a 67 percent improvement. The third edition of the State of the Conference breaks down the chances and likely placement of Big Ten programs on the tournament scene — save the obvious top billing of the Mean Orange Machine.

On the way out: Working as a bartender for several years in Milwaukee, I developed a knack for identifying the poor bastard with a pink slip in his pocket. The dreary demeanor, reclusive behavior and wandering eyes of the recently dismissed always shine through with remarkable clarity.

After dropping a must-win contest to Wisconsin Tuesday at the Kohl Center, Indiana head coach Mike Davis displayed all these symptoms. And while it’s premature to call the Hoosiers down and out just yet, the defeat suffered at the hands of the Badgers proved devastating for a number of reasons.

Coming out of a horrendous non-conference run, the Hoosiers revived mid-season to post a respectable 9-5 Big Ten record heading into the Wisconsin matchup. With a win over the Badgers, Indiana could have put itself in position to finish the season 16-11 by icing the struggling Northwestern Wildcats in their regular season finale at Assembly Hall.

More importantly, a victory at the Kohl Center would have given the Hoosiers control over their own destiny by all but delivering the coveted three-seed in the Big Ten Tournament. Why does it matter? Although the Big Ten championship game takes place too late to affect the NCAA seeding, the opening rounds provide an opportunity for bubble teams to rack up some quality wins.

For Indiana to get back into berth consideration, the Hoosiers will almost certainly need to advance to the championship game. Unfortunately, whether Davis’ squad nabs a four- or a five-seed, a daunting obstacle blocks that path — the No. 1 Fighting Illini. Folks in the basketball capital of the world won’t suffer another March out in the cold. Davis better start packing his bags.

Quality over quantity: Defying all odds, the Golden Gophers continue to take care of business. After a rough stretch to open the month, head coach Dan Monson’s squad returned to form to brush aside Ohio State, Iowa and Purdue in their quest for an NCAA berth.

With a respectable showing in the Big Ten Tournament, the Gophers could score as high as a 10-seed, though their less-than-impressive RPI score remains a problem. As of right now, a 60-50 victory over No. 19 Wisconsin stands out as the team’s only quality win. As a result, the Gophers currently rank 49th in the RPI rankings. Other prospective 10-seeds St Mary’s (30), Mississippi State (26), Buffalo (43) and Miami-Ohio (27) all sport better marks.

Minnesota’s best hope to avoid facing a powerful opponent in the opening round depends on the Gophers’ ability to grab at least one quality win during the Big Ten Tournament. At this point, a second round showdown with Indiana seems the most likely of scenarios, with the winner, as mentioned earlier, facing Illinois in the semis. Even though the Hoosiers are playing like a top-25 team right now, that won’t help the Gophers’ RPI in the event of a win.

Best-case scenario for Minnesota: Wisconsin loses to Purdue at the Kohl Center this weekend, allowing the Gophers to slide into third place — although, that hardly constitutes a safe bet. Look for Monson and Co. to grab a low 11-seed and subsequently get pulverized by a battle-tested major (for example, Pittsburgh) or a dangerous mid-major (Pacific).

Playing off the X-Factor: Criticizing the Wisconsin defense is a lot like bringing the annoying copy room girl to the company office party. On that note, Badger Herald readers, this is Marla — she hates the secretary from accounts payable and wants to tell you all about it — now excuse me while I get drunk.

Boasting of the Big Ten’s stingiest defense at 60.7 points per game, the Badgers stifle opponents with a potent combination of sound fundamentals and veteran poise. Although, every so often, Wisconsin suffers a breakdown containing the dribble penetration, particularly at the off-guard slot.

Over the course of the season, Pepperdine’s Glen McGowan, Minnesota’s Vincent Grier, Indiana’s Bracey Wright and Michigan State’s Alan Anderson have each achieved massive success taking it to the rim against the Badgers. Additionally, the Illinois backcourt trio of Dee Brown, Luther Head and Deron Williams also left a mark on the pair of occasions when the two squads clashed (even if, in all fairness, they are the most dangerous backcourt in recent memory).

Since the departure of Wisconsin’s own guard-extraordinaire Devin Harris following the 2003-04 season, the Badgers have shown difficulty matching that kind of offensive effort. Oddly enough, the best hope for the defending Big Ten Tournament Champions might rest with a freshman two-guard currently averaging just 1.5 points per game.

During a first-half surge by Indiana in Wisconsin’s latest victory, Wright walked the floor conspicuously hunting a look off the dribble. Guarded by true freshman Michael Flowers, the Hoosier guard broke right, broke left and tried a crossover move, all to no avail. In the end, the refs blew the whistle for a five-second violation. The possession proved a notable sample of Flowers’ blooming defensive prowess.

Sometime down the road, perhaps in the Big Ten semifinals against Michigan State, the skills of this young player just might pave the way to a five-seed for Wisconsin.

Pac-ing the three-seeds: Despite clinching second place in the conference, the events of this past week didn’t bode well for Michigan State’s seeding chances. With the loss to Indiana nearly neutralizing the ground gained following a 77-64 victory over Wisconsin last Thursday, the Spartans’ RPI appears as great a liability as ever.

It’s impossible to ignore — considering the helter-skelter state of college basketball this year — the remarkable parity between prospective two- and three-seeds heading into the tournament. An Oklahoma loss to Texas Tech pushes the Sooners out of a three, but Gonzaga (with an RPI ranking of 10 to Michigan State’s 19) remains the more likely candidate to fill that void. Ultimately, the Spartans will need to prove themselves worthy of placement ahead of Pac-10 contenders Washington and Arizona.

A win over Wisconsin might be enough, but not likely.