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Big Ten Tournament Preview: Thursday Early Session

Let's get ready to rumble. (Photo by Chris Chambers/Getty Images)
Let's get ready to rumble. (Photo by Chris Chambers/Getty Images)
Getty Images

I sure do hope you've all saved up your sick days, because the Big Ten Basketball Tournament starts bright and early on Thursday morning, and right off the bat there are a couple of intriguing match-ups worth watching. They day starts at 11:30 AM ET when Iowa and Illinois tip off in Game 1 and continues with Indiana vs. Penn State right after that. In the evening, starting at 5:30 PM ET will be Minnesota vs. Northwestern and afterwards Nebraska takes on Purdue. This is your preview for the morning/afternoon early session.

Iowa vs. Illinois

There were points at different times during the 2012 Big Ten basketball season when it seemed like either of these teams might have a chance at making the NCAA Tournament. Illinois started hot with wins in four of its first five conference games, including a riveting victory over Ohio State in which Brandon Paul got the Assembly Hall rocking with 43 points on 11 of 15 shooting.

At that point, the Illini's prospects seemed brighter than their orange-colored jerseys, but the program has since fallen on hard times. In losing 11 of their last 13 games, Illinois has fallen completely out of the at-large picture and will very likely be looking for a new coach in the off-season.

Bruce Weber has done a lot of good during his tenure at Illinois, but this season he's failed to get the performance necessary to win games out of his star players Brandon Paul, Meyers Leonard and D.J. Richardson. Although there is obvious talent at the top of the roster, Illinois could only finish the Big Ten season ranked 9th in effective field goal percentage, 10th in turnover percentage, 9th in offensive rebounding percentage and 9th in free throw percentage.

The good news for Illinois, despite the horrible state of the program, is that the team standing right now in front of them, is also the last team they have achieved a victory over. Lacking the size up front to deal with physical specimen Meyers Leonard, Iowa allowed him 22 points and 14 rebounds when the two teams met in Champaign on February 26. Paul chipped in with 17 points on 3 for 5 three-point shooting and the result was a 65-54 Illinois win.

A major factor in the game was the 6 offensive rebounds grabbed by Meyers Leonard and 11 overall for the Illini. When asked about this problem in his Tuesday press conference, Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said, "You can lose the rebounding edge in a game and survive, but not when you're giving up multiple offensive rebounds and multiple possessions because those lead to baskets directly."

It sounds like Melsahn Basabe will need to get more involved this time around. During the game in Champaign, Basabe played 18 minutes and grabbed 1 defensive rebound. Iowa is going to need more out of the man who is second on the team in rebounding despite only playing 20 minutes per game.

Although Iowa only shot 36.7% in that game, its star player, Matt Gatens was 5 of 6 from beyond the arc with 22 points. He is clearly the MVP for Iowa. Back on February 19 and 23, Gatens scored 30 points in back-to-back games versus Indiana and Wisconsin to put the Hawkeyes in the NCAA Tournament discussion almost by himself. "Obviously, I thought he was a first team guy," said coach McCaffery after he found out that Gatens was only voted to the Second Team and Third Team by the Big Ten coaches and media, respectively.

Iowa has since lost to Illinois and Northwestern to put themselves far outside the bubble discussion. Its only hope now is to win the whole Big Ten tournament. I expect the Hawkeyes to figure out a way to slow down Leonard and keep themselves alive for the time being. However, the Illini will be desperate and with nothing to lose, so they should not go down easily.

Penn State vs. Indiana

The 6 seed/11 seed match-up was never a lot of fun in past Big Ten tournaments, so now that we have a 5 vs. 12 game, I don't suppose things will get better. That said, Penn State has been feisty as of late and Tom Crean's Indiana team could be looking forward a bit too eagerly to a potential Friday duel with Wisconsin.

To be honest, I don't believe much in "trap games," but it is otherwise tough to find a way for Indiana to lose this game. They've got a ridiculous amount of offensive talent and Penn State does not have the tools to stop them. Co-Freshman of the Year Cody Zeller is getting better everyday. Although the Lions were able to get him in foul trouble during the teams' first meeting on January 8, Zeller had 18 points and 4 blocks in the Bloomington rematch on January 22.

It's true that Indiana has had its struggles on defense this season, but recently it's put enough points on the scoreboard to overcome any deficiencies. The Hoosiers have won 6 of their last 7 Big Ten games, including a 70-55 drubbing of conference co-champion Michigan State. In that game, Indiana got a balance offensive effort with five players in double figures, while on defense they forced everyone not named Draymond Green into a miserable day. Penn State is even more unbalanced offensively than the Spartans, so expect Crean to throw multiple defenders at Tim Frazier and force other players to make shots.

At least Penn State does have the possibility of a surprise scorer showing up. In its most recent game, Penn State saw sophomore guard Jermaine Marshall and freshman forward Ross Travis score a combined 32 points in a 71-65 loss to Michigan. Victor Oladipo is Indiana's one good perimeter stopper, so if he's assigned to Frazier, look for Penn State coach Pat Chambers to see if Marshall is still feeling it from the Michigan game. If Oladipo is elsewhere, Frazier could be able to penetrate and draw fouls on Zeller.

It is on defense, though, where I expect Penn State to really have a hard time. Neither Jon Graham nor Sasa Borovnjak is skilled enough to bottle up Zeller and if Chambers chooses to double team, Indiana is chock full of lethal long range shooters like Jordan Hulls, Matt Roth and Christian Watford. Travis could be athletic enough to challenge Zeller one-on-one, but the freshman hasn't been consistent enough to give PSU fans that much hope. I expect IU to roll by at least 10 points.