As the season readies to turn the corner into the all-important month of February, teams are jockeying for position in the conference standings and attempting to pad their resumes for the NCAA tournament. As we have already seen throughout the first month of the Big Ten season, any team can beat any other on any given night. This parity has resulted in seven teams being within two games of first place Wisconsin, but has also damaged the league's national reputation and presence in national polls.
With most teams in the Big Ten having a dozen or fewer games remaining, time is dwindling for those on the tourney bubble to bolster their chances of selection and for safe teams to improve their seeding. There is also the matter of the conference tournament, revamped due to the addition of two schools, in which the top four seeds will receive a double bye. Getting hot at the right time is what every contender in the conference wants to do.
Two such teams headline Thursday's slate of Big Ten games, as No. 16 Maryland visits Ohio State in a matchup that will pit two of the top freshmen in the country against one another. Michigan State will also travel to Rutgers for a game that was rescheduled due to Tuesday's blizzard on the east coast. Let's take a closer look at what to expect in tonight's Big Ten tilts.
The Best of the Night
Ohio State Buckeyes vs. #16 Maryland Terrapins
--7 p.m. (ESPN/WatchESPN)
When the Buckeyes and Terrapins take the floor, the focus will be on two of the most electrifying freshmen in the country, and there's no reason to pretend any different. Ohio State's D'Angelo Russell, the leading scorer among freshmen nationally, and Melo Trimble, who leads Maryland in scoring, have both rejuvenated their respective teams and are big reasons both squads have lofty aspirations for the postseason.
"You're looking at two very talented freshmen that are playing big roles for their teams," Ohio State head coach Thad Matta said of the pair on the Big Ten coaches' teleconference this week.
Russell, who last week was honored as both the Big Ten Player and Freshman of the Week, had a career-high 33 points, along with 7 rebounds and 6 assists, in a one-point win over Northwestern a week ago, and followed that up with 22 points, 6 boards, and 10 assists in a convincing twelve-point victory over Indiana on Sunday. For the season, the Louisville native leads the Buckeyes with 19.4 points and 5.2 boards per game, while also averaging 5.1 assists.
"He's played more consistently," Matta said on Wednesday. "He's been steady production-wise. He gets better defensively every time he's on the floor."
Ohio State (16-5, 5-3 in Big Ten play) has won two in a row after Matta juggled his starting lineup, replacing Marc Loving and Amir Williams with Anthony Lee and Jae'Sean Tate. While the Buckeyes' coach has intimated that his lineups will be predicated on matchups going forward, it's clear he wants to see more of the kind of effort the team put forth against the Hoosiers.
"This team still has a lot to prove in my mind in terms of what level we're going to play at consistently," he said.
To his credit, Trimble beat Russell to the punch as the first Big Ten player to sweep Player and Freshman of the Week honors this season. The Upper Marlboro product carried the Terps through the non-conference schedule while senior Dez Wells was injured, and has continued to pace the team offensively. Trimble is averaging 16.3 points per game, and is coming off a 27-point outburst in a tight win against Northwestern on Sunday.
"Boy is he good," Matta said on Monday. "He's a handful, that's for sure."
Maryland (18-3, 6-2 in Big Ten play) has played two of its most disappointing games the last two times out, getting ripped by Indiana a week ago and needing a furious last minute comeback against the Wildcats.
"There's so much basketball left, I think we can continue to get better," head coach Mark Turgeon said on Monday.
In addition to Trimble, Wells contributes 13.6 points per game and brings veteran savvy. Junior forward Jake Layman adds 14.3 a night, and leads the team in rebounding at 6.9 per game. The Terps are very good at keeping the opposition off the offensive glass, ranking 20th in the country on controlling the defensive boards, and have shown the ability to come up big when they need it the most.
"The thing that's been great about this team is that they've figured out how to win," Turgeon said.
Thursday's game should be a great barometer of how these two schools stack up, and will provide one side with a quality win and much-needed momentum heading into the home stretch of the Big Ten season.
"Tryouts are over," Matta said. "It's time to do your job."
Rutgers Scarlet Knights vs. Michigan State Spartans
--6 p.m. (BTN)
Thanks to Winter Storm Juno, Michigan State's trip to Piscataway on Tuesday was rescheduled, and both the Spartans and Scarlet Knights have been dealing with some stormy weather of late. Michigan State has lost two of its last three games, while Rutgers has dropped four straight since it stunned Wisconsin.
Tom Izzo's squad lacks the star power of recent years, relying on a more balanced offensive attack and crashing the boards. Senior guard Travis Trice leads Michigan State with 14.3 points and 5.5 assists per game, while junior Denzel Valentine has made a jump in his all-around game, contributing 14.2 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 4.2 dimes per contest. Senior big man Branden Dawson is putting up a double-double every night in his final season in East Lansing, averaging 11.3 points and a conference-high 10.1 boards per game.
The Spartans (13-7, 4-3 in Big Ten play) are in unfamiliar territory as a bubble team for March Madness, and cannot afford to drop a game they are favored in with a tough slate the rest of the way in the Big Ten regular season.
Three weeks ago, Rutgers was on top of the world after knocking off the then-4th ranked Badgers by five at home. Eddie Jordan's team has crashed back down to earth ever since, though, losing four in a row and settling near the bottom of the conference. The Scarlet Knights (10-11, 2-6 in Big Ten play) have little in the way of postseason hopes at this point, but a win against the Spartans could spark a run at the most important time of the season.
Rutgers is paced by the inside-out duo of Myles Mack and Kadeem Jack. Mack, the senior point guard, leads the team with 14.4 points and 4.3 assists a night, while the 6'9" junior Jack adds 13.1 points and a team-high 6.3 rebounds per game.
It's rare territory to call a game a must-win for an Izzo-coached team in January, but falling to .500 in Big Ten play could put the Spartans behind the eight ball. With a tough stretch coming up, Michigan State needs to handle business on the road. Rutgers has played the role of spoiler already this season, and would like nothing more than to derail another conference titan and prove they belong.