What to watch: Can Northwestern contain Geary Claxton?
This is probably the most interesting match-up on Thursday as Penn State and Northwestern kick off the Big Ten Tournament. Northwestern sports the No. 2 scoring defense in the Big Ten, allowing only 61.6 points per game, in league action. This will be important in trying to contain Penn State's outside shooters, Geary Claxton and Travis Parker, as the Nittany Lions shoot 36.7 percent from three-point range, only a tenth of a percent behind league-leader Ohio State.
This game also matches two of the Big Ten's most underrated players, Northwestern's Mohamed Hachad and Penn State's Claxton. Hachad has been on a roll since scoring 25 points against the Badgers, averaging 13.2 points per game over his last four contests. He was recently named to the Big Ten All-Defensive team. Claxton has been the best player for Penn State the past two seasons. This year he finished in the conference's top 10 in points, rebounds and steals.
These two teams met twice in the regular season with Penn State winning both game, 65-61 in Evanston and 68-55 in State College.
The things to watch for in this game are if Penn State can shut down Big Ten second-team selection Vedran Vukusic and Hachad, as their entire Princeton offense runs through them. Penn State needs to get Claxton involved early and have him stay out of follow trouble, because he is the offense. If Claxton struggles, look for Big Ten freshman of the year Jamelle Cornley to lead the charge. With all the intangibles, it's so hard to beat a team three times in one season.
NORTHWESTERN – 58
PENN STATE – 55
Game two: No. 7 Michigan vs. No. 10 Minnesota, 1:30 p.m., ESPN2
Two of the most exciting players in the Big Ten headline the second matchup on Thursday with Michigan and Minnesota squaring off.
Grier is averaging13.9 points per game, the 14th-best total in the Big Ten. In addition to Grier, Minnesota guard Adam Boone has also stepped up in his senior season, and is sixth in the conference in assists (4.13 per game).
For Michigan, Horton has been the crown jewel for potent Wolverine offense, averaging 19.8 points per game, second in the conference. In addition to Horton, Courtney Sims, Dion Harris and Lester Abram, who has missed time due to injury, are all solid offensive options. Harris averaged 11.2 points per game this conference season.
This is an important game for Michigan, as the Wolverines are fighting for an NCAA Tournament birth. Although their résumé should be good enough to earn a spot in the 65-team field, Michigan could hurt its chances with a first-round Big Ten Tournament loss. Although Minnesota is a veteran team, Michigan has too much firepower for the Gophers to contain.
MICHIGAN - 68
MINNESOTA – 55
What to watch: How do the Spartans bounce back after late-season struggles?
This is a game the Spartans need to win for their own psyche, as they have been embarrassed as of late. Head coach Tom Izzo's bunch has lost five out of their last seven and those five losses have been by an average of 10 points per contest. After being ranked in the top five nationally and the preseason favorite to run away with the Big Ten, this season has been a big question mark for the guys from East Lansing.
What makes it even more surprising is that the Spartans have predominantly remained healthy during the season. It is somewhat amazing how much the team has struggled without power forward Matt Trannon in the lineup recently.
Senior Paul Davis continues to be one of the most dominating big men in the Big Ten. And guards Shannon Brown and Maurice Ager are also among the top seven scorers in the conference, as the trio averages 52 points per game. But MSU's lack of depth has been glaring.
Purdue has struggled all season long under first-year head coach Matt Painter, as the Boilermakers sport only one quality win against the top 25 RPI (Wisconsin). While Purdue will be a fan favorite playing in Indiana, and with Illinois and Wisconsin fans in attendance, Michigan State boasts too much talent for Purdue to keep up.
MICHIGAN STATE – 73
PURDUE – 57
Game four: No. 1 Ohio State vs. No. 9 Northwestern, 11 a.m., ESPN
What to watch: Ohio State begins their run at a top seed.
After having four days to rest after winning the Big Ten regular season title, the Buckeyes now take aim at winning their first Big Ten Tournament title since 2002. More importantly, a tournament championship would put the Buckeyes in consideration to earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA's field of 65.
Ohio State is playing its best basketball at the end of the season, winning nine of its last 10 conference games. Big Ten Coach of the Year Thad Matta and Big Ten Player of the Year Terence Dials have led the charge in a remarkable two-year turnaround that has brought the Buckeyes back from the dead. In just his second year on the job, Matta has erased all the problems that were present when he took over for coach Jim O'Brien. Banned from last year's postseason competition, the momentum for Ohio State's championship run dates back to late last year, when the Buckeyes beat then-undefeated and No. 1 Illinois on senior day.
Surprisingly, Northwestern has been one of the teams that has given the Buckeyes' offense fits all season long, despite not being able to close out a victory. Twice in the last month, the Wildcats have held a lead over Ohio State with less than five minutes left before allowing Ohio State to climb back into the game and escape with a victory. This time should be different however, as the Buckeyes have the momentum and a lot more to look forward to than the Wildcats.
OHIO STATE – 68
NORTHWESTERN – 56
Game five: No. 4 Wisconsin vs. No. 5 Indiana, 1:30 p.m., ESPN
What to watch: Can the Badgers' cool down suddenly resurgent Indiana?
This game matches two of the most surprising teams in the Big Ten for two different reasons. Indiana, picked to finish third in the Big Ten, was out of the NCAA picture just a few short weeks ago after losing seven of eight games. After Mike Davis announced his resignation after a road loss at Penn State, the Hoosiers have won their last four games and appear to be a lock for the NCAA Tournament on Selection Sunday.
On the other side, the Badgers were predicted to have a mediocre season at best after losing five core seniors from team that advanced to the Elite Eight. After starting out 4-0 in Big Ten play for the first time since 1962, Wisconsin ran into a wall of bad luck after Marcus Landry and Greg Stiemsma were ruled academic ineligible for the remainder of the season. The Badgers went into a tailspin over the next six games, losing five of them, including an embarrassing loss to newly Division I North Dakota State. The Badgers have bounced back however, winning games down the stretch, including an 18-point win over Indiana, to solid themselves for the tournament. UW, though, ended the regular season with three losses in its last four games.
The Badgers and the Hoosiers also sport two of the players that are most important to their individual team's success, Alando Tucker and Marco Killingsworth. Tucker has carried the Badgers all year long, leading Wisconsin in scoring in 19 of its 29 games this season. Killingsworth has also been the Hoosiers' primary support since D.J. White went down with a foot injury. Killingsworth leads the Hoosiers with 16.5 points and 7.9 rebounds per game.
The Badgers and the Hoosiers have only faced each other once this season. In that game, Wisconsin was able to pull away when Killingsworth fouled out with more than eight minutes remaining. Although Indiana has been playing better basketball as of late, the Badger should win this close game.
INDIANA – 65
Game six: No. 2 Iowa vs. No. 7 Michigan, 5:40 p.m., ESPN Plus
What to watch: The Wolverines' high-octane offense versus Iowa's gritty veterans.
After falling just short of tying for the regular-season title, the Hawkeyes are playing solid basketball down the stretch, including a sound beating of the Badgers on Saturday in Iowa City.
Led by a duo of seniors in Greg Brunner and Jeff Horner, the Hawkeyes rank in the top five in the Big Ten in scoring offense, defense and point differential. Brunner has been a force underneath the basket all season for Iowa, pulling down a league-best 9.6 rebounds per game. While Brunner cleans up the mess, Horner runs the show from the point guard position, averaging 13.4 points and 5.6 assists per game.
This game is going to come down to which team gets off to a fast start and can maintain tempo throughout the game. At times this season the Hawkeyes struggled with long scoring droughts. However, Iowa's defense has allowed it to hang in games that might otherwise have slipped away. If Harris can get going, the Wolverines will be tough to beat, but Iowa junior guard Adam Haluska is one of the league's best defenders, and center Erek Hansen is the league's defensive MVP.
But even though Iowa beat Michigan by 28 earlier in the year, Michigan has a lot more to play for and will have the Big Ten Tournament's first true upset.
MICHIGAN – 64
IOWA - 59
Game seven: No. 3 Illinois vs. No. 6 Michigan State, 8:10 p.m., ESPN Plus
What to watch: Can State's Big Three out-play Illinois' Big Two?
Probably the most hyped matchup on Friday, or perhaps in the entire tournament, if the Spartans can get through Purdue today. Illinois and Michigan State have constantly been mentioned among the top two basketball schools in the Big Ten since the mid-1990s.
Illinois has had a very strong season coming off of last year's run to the national championship game, despite losing three of their key players from that squad. Point guard Dee Brown, who was elected to the first-team All-Big Ten, led Illinois in scoring with 15.2 points per game, but more importantly, became a key ball distributor, leading the Big Ten with 5.6 assists a game.
This game hinges on how well each team's star players compete against each other. These two teams met twice this season, with Illinois pulling away from State in the final 10 minutes of each game. With Illinois rested and playing solid basketball, expect the Fighting Illini to fight their way to a season sweep over the Spartans
ILLINOIS – 70
MICHIGAN STATE - 63
Game eight: No. 3 Illinois vs. No. 7 Michigan, 12:40 p.m., CBS
This matchup showcases two of the top four rebounding teams in the Big Ten, statistically. Illinois is third in the league with a +2.9 margin per game, while Michigan is fourth at +2.6.
Not surprisingly, both teams are strong in the paint, particularly in the persons of Illinois' Augustine and Michigan's Graham Brown and Courtney Sims.
Augustine has had another stellar season for the guys in orange, averaging 12.6 points and 8.9 rebounds per game.
Although Graham Brown is not a big scorer, he is a blue-collar guy that gets the job done, no matter who is in his way. In his senior season, Brown has pulled down 8.2 rebounds, and 2.9 offensive boards, a game.
Both of these teams should be somewhat fatigued after difficult quarterfinal games. They met twice this season, with the home team winning each time.
ILLINOIS – 77
MICHIGAN - 66
Game nine: No. 4 Wisconsin vs. No. 1 Ohio State, 3:05 p.m., CBS
Thing to watch: Wisconsin's perimeter defense against Ohio State's 3-point shooters.
Over the course of the season, Ohio State has been the best team in the Big Ten at guarding and making shots from the perimeter. The Buckeyes led the Big Ten in making 36.8 percent of their three point attempts, while allowing opponents to only make 28.3 percent of shots beyond the arc. The last time these two teams played in Madison, the difference in the game was Ohio State's inability to make 3-point baskets.
When the Badgers defeated the Buckeyes just under a month ago, Ohio State was only 4 of 17 (23.5 percent) from long range. The Badgers, meanwhile, made their own 3-pointers (6 of 14 for 42.9 percent) and gained a five-point victory.
While Tucker led all scores with 27 points, the wild card of the game was the impressive play of Brian Butch, who scored 17 points on 6-for-9 shooting.
Although Wisconsin has played Ohio State tough this season, it would take a nearly flawless game to win this one. Unfortunately for Wisconsin, Ohio State doesn't need to play flawless in order to win games, as evident by its victory over Northwestern. Ohio State pulls away down the stretch.
OHIO STATE- 83
WISCONSIN – 70
SUNDAY'S CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
Game ten: No. 1 Ohio State vs. No. 3 Illinois, 2:30 p.m., CBS
What to watch: How will Illinois' underclassmen compare to Ohio State's seniors?
There's no question that this is the matchup most basketball fans want to see with the last two Big Ten regular season champions going head-to-head for this year's tournament crown.
Illinois and Ohio State met just once during the regular season and it turned into a Buckeye rout, as Ohio State cruised to a 16-point win in Columbus.
The story of that game was the accuracy of Ohio State's shooters (going 13-of-23 from 3-point range) and the collective scoring effort of Butler (22 points), Dials (19 points, 15 rebounds) and Foster (18 points), who outscored Illinois by themselves.
Illinois was also out-rebounded in the contest, a rare occurrence and especially noteworthy because OSU is one of the league's worst rebounding teams, statistically. Of course, Illinois' 37 percent shooting gave the Buckeyes plenty of defensive rebounds to snag.
The outcome of this game will be based on how Illinois' underclassmen can perform in the spotlight. Illinois has played several big games this season, but not one with this much attention. The Big Ten title game will be one of only two games televised on Sunday afternoon, putting many eyes on Indianapolis. Illini players like Jamar Smith and Shaun Pruitt will be playing a lot of minutes in a situation they aren't accustomed to competing in. With Dee Brown and James Augustine on your side, though, anything is possible.
This game really could go either way, as both teams matchup well on paper. If Ohio State can get Augustine into foul trouble and make shots from the perimeter, the Buckeyes will be cutting down the nets for the second time in a week. The same, though, goes for Illinois if it can get Dials in foul trouble. But Ohio State wins in a squeaker. Now, will the selection committee care, or will the late tip-off land the Buckeyes a No. 2 seed?
OHIO STATE – 67
ILLINOIS - 64