In four days, a Big Ten champion will be crowned and a ticket to the NCAA tournament will be punched.
The Big Ten Tournament tips off Thursday with four first-round games, and there’s plenty on the line. Not only is the obvious stake of advancing to the quarterfinals out there, but some Big Ten teams in action Thursday still find themselves on the NCAA tournament bubble and need a postseason win or two or three to keep those hopes alive.
Here’s a look at each of today’s four games. (Seeds listed ahead of team names.)
No. 9 Illinois vs. No. 8 Indiana, 11 a.m., Big Ten Network. This looks to be an evenly contested game as these rivals meet for the third time this season. Illinois took the first matchup in overtime to open the Big Ten schedule in Champaign, and Indiana took the second at the end of January in Bloomington. The key for the Illini is to buckle down on defense, as they’ve been doing for the better part of the last month. They closed the season winning five of their last eight, and they allowed an average 58 points to opponents over that span (54.3 in seven games if you exclude a blowout loss to Michigan). For the Hoosiers, they need production from the guys who have been doing it all season. Yogi Ferrell finished fifth in the Big Ten in scoring (17.4 points per game) and fifth in assists (3.9 assists per game). He also made more 3-pointers (86) than anybody in the league. Meanwhile, Freshman of the Year Noah Vonleh was the conference’s leading rebounder at 9.1 boards per game. The next closest guy averaged 7.5.
Winner gets No. 1 Michigan on Friday.
No. 5 Ohio State vs. No. 12 Purdue, 25 minutes after Game 1, Big Ten Network. This figures to be a fairly one-sided affair. There’s no such thing as a sure win in the Big Ten, especially this season, but Purdue is about as close as teams will get. The Boilermakers finished last in the conference, winning just two of their last 13 games. The Buckeyes, meanwhile, boast the league’s best defense, holding opponents to 59.1 points per game. And while Purdue isn’t as low-scoring as you’d expect from a last-place team, Matt Painter's team has the Big Ten’s worst defense, allowing an average of 71.9 points per game. All the Buckeyes need to do is score points, and they’d figure to advance to the next round.
Winner gets No. 4 Nebraska on Friday.
No. 7 Minnesota vs. No. 10 Penn State, 5:30 p.m., ESPN 2. This matchup just happened last weekend, and the Gophers emerged easy winners. While that could be the case again Thursday, this one is being played away from the comforts of the Twin Cities. Minnesota is in desperate need of an impressive Big Ten Tournament win if it wants to reach the NCAA tournament, and while a victory over Penn State would not provide that, a win over Penn State at least puts Richard Pitino’s team in position to better boost their tourney resume. Don’t forget, the Gophers have handed the Badgers — their would-be second-round opponent — a loss this season. For the Nittany Lions, it’s about taking another step for the program. The good news is that it’s more than possible, as the backcourt duo of D.J. Newbill and Tim Frazier — who both ranked in the conference’s top 10 in scoring this season — can strike at any time.
Winner gets No. 2 Wisconsin on Friday.
No. 6 Iowa vs. No. 11 Northwestern, 25 minutes after Game 3, ESPN 2. Perhaps a blowout on paper, this game has potential for a shocking first-round upset. Northwestern hasn’t been playing well, losing seven of its last eight, but neither has Iowa, dropping five of its last six. The Hawkeyes haven’t been able to stop anyone on the defensive end, and while the Wildcats are the conference’s lowest-scoring team, they dropped 74 points on Purdue in the season finale. In the final six regular-season games, Iowa allowed an average of 82.5 points per game. Northwestern, though it would be a challenge to keep up with the high-scoring Hawkeyes, could capitalize on Iowa’s rut and pull a shocker.
Winner gets No. 3 Michigan State on Friday.