Which versions of Illinois and Minnesota will we get? How will Michigan respond from faltering late against Indiana? Can Iowa do the unthinkable and run the table in the Big Ten Tournament to punch a NCAA Tournament ticket? Those are some of the questions that are being asked as the 2013 Big Ten Tournament shifts into gear today. 11 games over four days in the best college basketball conference is quite the warm-up to next week's NCAA Tournament. In case you need a quick crash course on where to find the games, Luke has got you covered. If you are going to be in Chicago for any of the action, Matt offered up some tips if you're looking to enjoy your time in Chicago.
8) Illinois v. 9) Minnesota - 12:00 PM EST - Big Ten Network: The 2013 Big Ten Tournament tips off with a matchup between Illinois and Minnesota for the right to face Indiana on Friday afternoon. Both of these teams started off the season hot, with Illinois entering Big Ten play at 13-1, while Minnesota entered at 12-1. Mid-season struggles had both teams facing questions if they were even going to make the NCAA Tournament, but as of yesterday's SB Nation Bracketology both teams were projected as a 10 seed.
Naturally the rubber match between these two teams will happen on a neutral court, after in both meetings so far this season the road team won. On January 9th, the Golden Gophers went into Champaign ranked 8th in the country at the time, and capitalized on Illinois' poor shooting. The Fighting Illini went 3-24 from 3-point range, which allowed Minnesota to pull away in the second half. The Golden Gophers were paced by a career-high 29 points from Joe Coleman and 22 points from Andre Hollins.
A month later MInnesota was ranked 18th as Illinois came to Minneapolis, but unlike in the last meeting Illinois was hitting their 3-pointers. Illinois hit more field goals from behind the arc, going 11-23 from distance, than they did from inside, hitting 7 for 26 shots. Tyler Griffey's 16 points led the Illinois attack. The loss dropped Minnesota from the AP Top-25 and they haven't returned since. Rodney Williams did miss this game due to a shoulder injury, but has recovered and will play today.
Both teams enter the Big Ten Tournament trying to stop recent slides, with Illinois having lost three of their last four and Minnesota dropping their last two to end the regular season. The Golden Gophers should have the edge on the boards, as Illinois had no answer for Trevor Mbakwe in the two meetings this season. Mbakwe put up 32 points and 21 rebounds, registering a double-double in each matchup with the Fighting Illini. What could keep Illinois in the game is if Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson get hot from behind the arc. John Groce said that it is possible that Joseph Bertrand could return from a shoulder injury on Thursday to give Illinois some pop off the bench.
5) Michigan v. 12) Penn State - 2:30 PM EST - Big Ten Network: Michigan will have to rebound quickly from Sunday's heartbreaking loss to Indiana to face a team that defeated them just a few weeks ago. Had Michigan been able to beat Indiana on Sunday they would have claimed a share of the Big Ten regular season title and would have earned a first round bye.
In the first meeting between these two teams this season on February 17th in Ann Arbor, Penn State kept things close with Michigan most of the way, but just didn't have enough scoring punch to keep up with the Wolverines. Trey Burke took control and scored 29 points and Glenn Robinson III added 21 points, as Michigan recovered from a first half 8-point deficit to gain the victory. Jermaine Marshall and Sasa Borovnjak were the high scorers for Penn State with 17 points.
The Nittany Lions defeated the Wolverines in Happy Valley on February 27th to earn their first win of the season in Big Ten play . Jermaine Marshall hit six 3-pointers on his way to 25 points as Penn State fans stormed the court after the game ended. Michigan gave the game to Penn State as they were uncharacteristically sloppy with the basketball, turning the ball over 15 times.
While Penn State finished the season playing better basketball, this has the feeling of a game that might get out of hand. Not only will Michigan want some revenge for being the first Big Ten team to lose to Penn State this season, but a strong performance in the Big Ten tournament could help Michigan's seeding for the NCAA Tournament. Trey Burke should be ready for a big game, wanting to atone for the six turnovers he committed in the last game between these two teams. A matchup with Wisconsin awaits the winner of this game, but Michigan should able to win without the fear of getting trampled by Penn State fans if they lose.
7) Purdue v. 10) Nebraska - 6:30 PM EST - ESPN2: The matchup between Purdue and Nebraska tonight is the only one of the first round in which the teams only battled once during the regular season. In Lincoln on January 16th Purdue beat Nebraska 65-56 behind 18 points from Terone Johnson and 14 points, 8 rebounds, and 6 blocks from freshman A.J. Hammons.
The Boilermakers played better to end the season, winning in Madison, playing Michigan tough, and then blowing out Minnesota in the regular season finale. When it is all clicking together, Purdue could be hard to stop with A.J. Hammons on the inside and leading scorer Terone Johnson and D.J. Byrd hitting from long range. One Boilermaker to keep an eye on is freshman shooting guard Raphael Davis, who started the last two games and scored 33 points for Purdue. Davis is able to score quickly, as he showed earlier in the year when he scored 21 points in 18 minutes against Notre Dame.
Nebraska does have a couple capable big men, in Brandon Ubel and Andre Almedia, that can try and keep A.J. Hammons from taking over the paint. Nebraska plays tough defense which have allowed them to keep a number of games close, the problem is that their offense goes cold for long stretches. Dylan Talley, Ray Gallegos, and Shavon Shields all have the ability to score big for Nebraska, they just can't seem to put those efforts together in the same game.
Nebraska hasn't been very good away from home in conference this season, registering their only win against Penn State, while Purdue recently went into Madison and earned a rare win. This has the feeling of your hard-fought Big Ten game with both teams struggling to reach the 60-point barrier. Smart money would be on Purdue to move on to the second round against Ohio State, but if Nebraska is able to get a couple of their shooters going it could put a scare into the Boilermakers.
6) Iowa v. 11) Northwestern - 9:00 PM EST - ESPN2: Iowa is looking for a run deep into the Big Ten Tournament, with their only shot at a NCAA Tournament berth seemingly being to win it all in Chicago. The first step in Iowa's long shot journey to a NCAA bid will be against a injury-riddled Northwestern team. These two teams met twice during the regular season, with Iowa handling the Wildcats in each contest.
On January 13th in Evanston, Northwestern was ice cold from 3-point range, hitting only 5 of 26 attempts, as Iowa outscored Northwestern by ten points in each half to gain the victory. The Hawkeyes spread the ball around, registering 22 assists on 29 field goals, and were led by Aaron White's 17 points. The win snapped a 3-game losing streak for the Hawkeyes, with those losses all coming to Top 25 teams.
The rematch in Iowa City just under a month later was more of the same, as Northwestern hit only 6 of 25 attempts from long range. Northwestern only trailed by four points at half but Iowa put the result away in the second half, outscoring Northwestern again by ten points. Devyn Marble paced the Iowa attack with 21 points. Marble and White are the primary scores for Iowa and Northwestern will have to clamp down on them defensively if the Wildcats have any hope of winning.
The lack of quality wins by the Hawkeyes have really hurt their chances at making the NCAA tournament. Iowa failed to defeat any teams in the Top 25 this year, Wisconsin wasn't ranked when Iowa beat them, and their best non-conference win was against Iowa State. If Iowa doesn't run the table and win the Big Ten tournament, they can probably look back at the loss in Lincoln to Nebraska as the one that burst their bubble. Had the Hawkeyes won that game they might not be in the position of having to do so much work in Chicago.
Iowa figures to have the edge on the boards and in terms of depth, as Northwestern is struggling to deal with the losses of Drew Crawford and Jared Swopshire. The Wildcats have lost eight games in a row and they are going to need to be a lot more efficient with their 3-pointers to end that losing streak before having their season ended. Northwestern showed in both matchups with Ohio State that if their shots are falling from distance they can stick around and make their opponent sweat.
The winner of this matchup will move on to face the third-seeded Michigan State Spartans in the finale of Friday's play at the Big Ten Tournament.