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Illinois and Indiana collide in busy Big Ten Thursday

There are three games tonight on the Big Ten schedule. I'm from the east coast and as a result don't totally understand these midwestern battles, so I'll let Hail to the Orange set the tone.

Ask which team I want to beat most every year, and it is Indiana without even the slightest moment's hesitation.

The midwest is a wasteland in February. Drive across the state of Illinois, down 74, through Champaign, Danville, and cross the Indiana border into Covington and on down one of the state highways to Bloomington, and you probably wont see one growing thing, or even appreciable sign of civilization all that often. It's cold and wet and miserable in this part of the country this time of year. Good passive aggressive midwesterners like we are, we internalize our hatred for our lives and our surroundings, allowing it to spill out in a socially acceptable manner, screaming til you're purple at college basketball players. There is a reason basketball is so popular in the midwest, and it is to distract us from the fact that when we look out of the window it looks like a Cormac McCarthy novel.

Now I'm psyched!

Illinois at Indiana

8:00 PM ET, BTN

It's the Battle of Assembly Hall! Meyers Leonard versus Cody Zeller! Crean versus Weber! Assembly Hall (the one in Bloomington) should be a pretty exciting place to be tonight as Illinois and Indiana meet for the only time this season. By the way, shouldn't Big Ten basketball teams have protected rivalries just like in football? It seems like a shame that these two teams only play once in the regular season.

Anyway, Illinois has lost four of five since their season peaked with a win over Ohio State on January 19. The Illini's schedule does not get any easier for them any time soon, so this is a big one. Certainly with Leonard and the amazing Brandon Paul, Illinois is capable of beating anyone on a given night, but on the road this season they've only defeated Maryland and Northwestern (the latter by a single point).

Indiana has to be feeling a little better about themselves after a victory over hated Purdue on Saturday, but the Hoosiers are another team who has seen their season peak too early. However, they finish the Big Ten schedule with 4 of 6 games at home, where they are much more comfortable.

When Indiana has the ball, Zeller versus Leonard will be the match-up to watch. If Leonard can slow down IU's phenom, there is a chance for Illinois to pull off the upset. Committing just one defender to Zeller should allow Illinois to get out on the perimeter shooters, but of course there is also Christian Watford to deal with.

Brandon Paul will be the main focus of IU's defense when Illinois has the ball. The Hoosiers don't really have a pair of guys who match up well with Paul and Leonard, but that's what makes them so tough. Look for the Hoosiers to swarm the Illini stars and force someone else to beat them.

Hit the jump to preview the other two Big Ten games tonight.

Wisconsin at Minnesota

7:00 PM ET, ESPN

After losing Trevor Mbakwe and their first four Big Ten games, it was tempting to write Minnesota off as an NIT team. Not so fast! The Gophers have wins over Indiana and Illinois in their pockets and now welcome some of the conference's best teams into The Barn to battle for a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

First up is Wisconsin, another squad that started the conference season slow and has quality wins over Illinois and Indiana. The MO of the Badgers has been suffocating opponents with their elite defense, and then having point guard Jordan Taylor make enough plays on offense to win. Wisconsin does not turn the ball over much at all, so opponents rarely catch a break. The emergence of Ryan Evans as an offensive threat who doesn't depend on the three-pointer has helped balance the Badgers considerably.

Minnesota is a deep team that has not found a star to lean on since Mbakwe went down. The Gophers sort of have to ride each player's hot streak as it comes. Joe Coleman was a go-to guy for a few games. More recently it has been Chip Armelin who has stepped up. Rodney Williams plays the most minutes out of anyone, but he doesn't really have a good jump shot. Julian Welch is a great three-point shooter and Ralph Sampson III has great height and athleticism, but neither player seems willing to take over a game.

This game is tipped slightly in Wisconsin's favor because of how well they've handled their road games this season, but don't be surprised if Tubby Smith's revolving door of basketball finds a way to get the job done.

Iowa at Northwestern


Two scrappy underdog types in the same game? Playing against each other? How do we make a story out of this? It doesn't really matter, because it should be a good basketball game to watch.

Northwestern is coming off of two straight victories, including a stunning upset of the Illini in Champaign, and quietly thinking they may finally sneak into the NCAA Tournament. Iowa is also coming off of two straight wins, including a home triumph over Minnesota, but they are thinking that they shouldn't have crapped the bed in the non-conference part of the schedule.

While Northwestern is very top heavy and gets most of its points from John Shurna and Drew Crawford, Iowa can get scoring from a number of places. Usually those places are Matt Gatens and Roy Devyn Marble, but Aaron White, Bryce Cartwright and Zach McCabe are all very capable.

The problem for both these teams has been playing defense, so look for the Welsh-Ryan scoreboard to get a workout. If I had to guess, I would say Northwestern wins because of the home court advantage and because Iowa's talented big man Melsahn Basabe has fallen out of the regular rotation. Basabe is probably Iowa coach Fran McCaffery's best option to defend Shurna.