Twenty four points.
That was the combined margin of victory in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament on Thursday, and average of six points over the four games. It made for an entertaining first day of basketball from Indianapolis.
Now that the heavyweights are taking the stage in the quarterfinal round, however, will those margins grow? Or will underdogs — half of Thursday’s winners were upset winners — keep competing for their own Big Ten championship?
No seed lower than a six has ever won the tournament, but after Thursday, the seven, nine and 11 are still alive.
It’s on to the quarterfinals. Here’s a look ahead:
No. 1 Michigan vs. No. 9 Illinois, 11 a.m., ESPN. Illinois scored a huge win Thursday, knocking off Indiana in the first round thanks to an incredible effort from junior point guard Tracy Abrams. Abrams went off for 25 points to lead the Illini, who played terrific defense to shut down Hoosiers center Noah Vonleh and limit the crimson and cream to just 54 points. That will be very difficult to replicate Friday, as Michigan is a multi-faceted offensive machine. Since the start of Big Ten play, the Wolverines have scored fewer than 60 points just three times, still winning two of those games. Plus, these two teams just met 10 days ago, when Michigan destroyed Illinois, 84-53. The Illini’s main goal Friday? Keep it closer than that.
No. 4 Nebraska vs. No. 5 Ohio State, ESPN, 25 minutes after first game. Uncertainty surrounds this matchup. Nebraska has played extremely well of late, seemingly clinching a spot in the NCAA tournament with a season-finale win over Wisconsin. The Huskers carry a ton of momentum into the tournament as the feel-good story of the conference this year. But can that translate into a win in Indy? As good as the Huskers were at home this season (15-1), they weren’t at all impressive away from home (4-10). Ohio State, meanwhile, entered the tournament riding high following its win over Michigan State but then needed a frantic finish Thursday just to get past league-worst Purdue. The two teams split their regular-season matchups, with the Huskers unsurprisingly winning the game in Lincoln and the Buckeyes winning in Columbus.
No. 2 Wisconsin vs. No. 7 Minnesota, 5:30 p.m., Big Ten Network. Another season split, Minnesota knocked off Wisconsin during the Badgers’ midseason stumble, when they dropped five of six. Since, Bo Ryan’s team has figured everything out, though it couldn’t avoid a season-closing loss at Nebraska. Still, the Badgers are one of the tournament favorites. Minnesota is not. But, the Gophers will be driven, as they need a marquee win to get themselves into the NCAA tournament. The great play of the Huskers might have boxed the Gophers out already, but take down the Badgers and it’s time to talk about the Big Ten potentially sending seven teams to the Big Dance. There’s still time for the Gophers to make their statement, but it needs to come today.
No. 3 Michigan State vs. No. 11 Northwestern, 25 minutes after third game, Big Ten Network. The Wildcats scored a huge upset of Iowa on Thursday night, and they might not be stopping there. Northwestern took advantage of Iowa’s horrible slide of late, and the next opponent is experiencing troubled times of its own. The Spartans have gone just 5-7 in their last 12 games, alternating wins and losses and never really giving any hints to which team will show up. The Cats took Thursday’s bout with the Hawkeyes after losing to them twice in the regular season. Can they do the same Friday? Michigan State, meanwhile, is running out of time to figure things out before the NCAA tournament. Believed to be a juggernaut once they returned to full health, the Spartans have been anything but. It’s now or never to get everything sorted out.