Day 1 of the Big Ten Tournament provided some exciting action. In the first matchup, Penn State edged out a surging Nebraska team. D.J. Newbill and Terran Petteway went right at each other and the Nittany Lions came out on top in a game that came down to the final shot. Minnesota struggled a bit with Rutgers early on, but was able to pull away down the stretch and extend their season, thanks to some timely shooting. Let's take a look at the bracket and today's matchups:
No. 8 Illinois vs. No. 9 Michigan, Noon ET, BTN
Reasons to Watch: Illinois cannot lose this game. They are currently one of the next 4 teams out of the NCAA Tournament. A loss to Michigan would certainly end any NCAA hopes for Illinois. In fact, even if they win this game, Illinois will likely need to win a couple more games and hope for some movement ahead of them. On the other side of the court is Michigan. The Wolverines have been snakebitten by injuries this year and have no chance at an NCAA Tournament bid outside of winning the Big Ten Tournament outright. Thus, expect a highly energized and motivated Illinois team to come out of the gates and do everything in their power to keep their NCAA Tournament dreams alive.
Fun With Numbers: Ever since injuries hampered Michigan, they've struggled mightily. As of February 1, they are 2-7, although they did manage to beat Ohio State. In terms of numbers that the committee cares about, Illinois currently has an RPI of 61, which would be low for where teams historically are to get at-large bids. Illinois certainly has some work to do, and Michigan is well coached enough to beat them. The two teams split their season series this year, with both games going into overtime.
Players to Watch: With Levert and Walton Jr. out, Michigan will look to Spike Albrecht, Zac Irvin, and Aubrey Dawkins to carry the load for the Wolverines. Dawkins is currently coming off a career high 31 points in their win over Rutgers. Don't expect Dawkins to match that effort, but thats an impressive feat that indicates Dawkins is progressing and coming into his own a bit. Illinois is going to lean heavily on their best player: Rayvonte Rice. Rice, a senior, has missed his fair share of games this season as well and the Illini have been thrilled to have him back.
Prediction: Illinois uses some NCAA Tournament motivation and edges Michigan, 72-69
No. 5 Iowa vs. No. 13 Penn State, 2:25 p.m. ET, BTN
Reasons to Watch: Penn State is coming in hot off of a thrilling victory over Nebraska in the first round. D.J. Newbill lived up to his usual billing and put on a sensational performance. The Nittany Lions will continue on and face an Iowa team that has been playing great basketball as of late. After starting off 6-6 in the Big Ten, Iowa is 6-0 since. If Penn State is going to come away with a victory here and extend their season, they will need a monster game from Newbill and significant contributions from other members of the squad. Aaron White, Gabriel Olaseni, and Adam Woodbury will be hard for Newbill to take on alone. Additionally, while Iowa is comfortably in the NCAA Tournament, their seeding could be impacted by an early exit today. Look for Iowa to try to extend their current hot streak and push by Penn State.
Fun With Numbers: As previously mentioned, Iowa is currently on a 6 game winning streak. However, none of those six wins are great wins. Beating Indiana at Assembly Hall is as close as they have come in their streak to a quality win. Additionally, during that streak, Penn State was able to push Iowa to the brink in an overtime loss, 81-77. Finally, Newbill took 22 shots yesterday in their win over Nebraska. Look for him to get the glut of the shot attempts today as well, as he is their only player who can create his own offense.
Players to Watch: Setting aside Newbill, the player to watch for Penn State is Shep Garner. In their last matchup with Iowa, Garner scored 17 points on 11 shots and went 4-8 from behind the arc. Yesterday, Garner helped the NIttany Lions advance with a 19 point performance on 11 shots. Look for Garner to contribute early and often to try and keep Penn State in this one. The player to watch for the Hawkeyes is Aaron White. White has been the offensive leader all year for Iowa and he will need to assert himself in this game. White should have a well rounded game, contribute on both ends of the floor, and make his impact felt on the floor.
Prediction: Iowa continues their winning ways and wins in solid fashion, 75-66.
No. 7 Indiana vs. No. 10 Northwestern, 6:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Reasons to Watch: If Indiana loses this game, they are probably not going to make the NCAA Tournament. As of right now, they are one of the last four in and an early exit in the Big Ten Tournament could be the death knell on their season. If they don't make the tournament, I will be anxiously awaiting the moment Tom Crean tuns down their NIT bid. It will be interesting to see if he still believes Indiana is too good for the NIT after being left out of the big dance two years in a row. Northwestern can only keep their season alive by surviving and advancing at this point. However, couched in the background of previous seasons, this has been a decent year for the Wildcats.
Fun With Numbers: Indiana can absolutely light it up. They are one of the best in the Conference in points per game at 78. Led by Yogi Ferrell, Indiana relies heavily on their offensive output and simply tries to run away from their opponents offensively. The flip side to that is that they are depressingly bad on the defensive end. They don't have one player over 6'9 that gets significant minutes, which could mean Alex Olah could have a productive night. Indiana's RPI is also at 60 for the moment, and badly needs a push for them to feel comfortable about the NCAAs.
Players to Watch: As previously mentioned, the Hoosiers have a small front court. Enter Alex Olah. Olah is a true 7 footer for the Wildcats and is currently averaging a little over 11 points and 6 rebounds per game. With his size, he can terrorize the undersized Hoosier squad. The Hoosiers are going to need a strong performance from Hanner Mosquera-Perea. He will need to man up Olah and keep him out of the paint. Aside from the bigs, expect strong performances from Yogi Ferrell for Indiana and Bryant McIntosh for Northwestern. Ferrell has been a star all year and McIntosh has emerged as the future of Wildcat basketball.
Prediction: Given how poorly the Hoosiers have played recently, Northwestern uses their size and pulls out the upset, 76-71.
No. 6 Ohio State vs. No. 11 Minnesota, 9:00 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Reasons to Watch: This is Ohio State's first game of the Big Ten Tournament. The fact that Ohio State is playing should be reason enough to watch. The Buckeyes take on a Minnesota team coming off of a decisive win over an inferior Rutgers team. Minnesota will look to run on the Buckeyes and work the ball inside. However, Ohio State will counter with the electric D'Angelo Russell and stalwart Jae'Sean Tate. Maybe the seniors will even contribute! Also, while Ohio State is firmly in the NCAA Tournament these next few games will affect their seeding. If Ohio State wants to crawl out of the 8-9 slot, or worse, they need to grab a few wins this week.
Fun With Numbers: Some numbers Ohio State would like to forget are 72-48. That loss to Wisconsin was foreseeable in a lot of respects. The absolute bloodbath, on the other hand, was surprising. Hopefully the Buckeyes are able to put that embarrassing home loss behind them and walk into this game with a clear collective mind. Another thing to keep in mind is that Minnesota gave Ohio State all the could handle earlier in the season in a 74-72 Ohio State overtime win. In that previous game, Russell notched 27 points and helped to push the Buckeyes to victory. For Minnesota, Maurice Walker clobbered the Buckeyes inside to the tune of 18 points and 9 rebounds.
Players to Watch: Clearly the Buckeyes need a big performance from Russell. As he goes so go the Buckeyes. However, as the post season progresses, the Buckeyes cannot entirely lean on Russell. Ohio State needs at least one or two players to step up and contribute. Jae'Sean Tate has proven that he is a more than adequate second banana to Russell and the two run the court well together. In terms of a difference maker performance goes, a Marc Loving revitalization would be monumental for the Buckeyes. Expect Maurice Walker to eat on the inside again. There isn't anyone for Ohio State playing at a high enough caliber to completely stop him right now. However, if Thad Matta throws Tate on Walker like he did with Kaminsky, things could get interesting down low.
Prediction: Russell puts on the cape and elevates the Buckeyes to a 78-73 victory.