As questions about the relative strength of the Big Ten become louder, it is increasingly important for teams to play well in conference games. Only three B1G teams are currently ranked in the AP poll, and only four sport unblemished records in conference play after just a week and a half. Though it's only the beginning of January, these games are greatly important if the conference is to right the ship and salvage its national reputation.
Here's a closer look at what to watch for on Thursday.
Game of the Day
Iowa Hawkeyes vs. Michigan State Spartans - 7:00 p.m. ET (ESPN/WatchESPN)
One of the Big Ten's unbeatens has a chance for a statement win on Thursday night, as Iowa hosts Michigan State at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The Hawkeyes are second in the AP poll among teams receiving votes and a victory against the Spartans could be enough to get them over the hump. Tom Izzo's squad followed up a double overtime loss to Maryland with a 20-point win over Indiana Monday night and is looking to gather some momentum after losing two of its last four.
Iowa (11-4, 2-0 in the Big Ten) has already scored a big road win at Ohio State, but the meat of the Hawkeyes schedule begins on Thursday. By the end of January, Fran McCaffery's team will have faced off with Ohio State twice, Michigan State, Minnesota twice, a surprising Purdue squad, and conference favorite Wisconsin twice. The Hawkeyes are an experienced squad, with two seniors and three juniors receiving the bulk of the minutes. Forward Aaron White is putting together an All-Big Ten type of season, leading the team with 16.5 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 1.7 steals a game. The Strongsville, Ohio native has been even better of late, averaging 21.3 points and 9 boards in his last three games.
Complementing White is the trio of Jarrod Uthoff (11.4 ppg, 6.7 rpg), Gabriel Olaseni (9.1 ppg, 5.5 rpg), and Adam Woodbury (6.7 ppg, 5.6 rpg). Iowa's length and athleticism has helped it to a top three position in the Big Ten in scoring defense, opposing field goal percentage, rebounding, blocked shots, and steals. The Hawkeyes also lead the conference in offensive rebounding, and will look to be opportunistic at home against the Spartans.
Michigan State (10-5, 1-1 in the Big Ten), which has struggled through some injuries this season, is finally getting healthy and looked very good on both sides of the ball against the Hoosiers on Monday. Seniors Travis Trice and Branden Dawson are the heart and soul of this team, and both are having outstanding final seasons. Trice leads the Big Ten in assist-to-turnover ratio, averaging 6 dimes per game, while also contributing 13.3 points. Dawson, who missed three games early in the season, leads the conference with 9.1 rebounds per game, and scores just under 11 points.
Izzo will need his seniors to step up on the road in Iowa City if the Spartans hope to avoid their second Big Ten loss. Looking to remain unbeaten, White and the Hawkeyes will certainly be a stout test.
Nebraska Cornhuskers vs. Rutgers Scarlet Knights - 9 p.m. ET (ESPN/WatchESPN)
Nebraska (8-6, 0-2 in the Big Ten), which is one of the biggest disappointments in the Big Ten this season after last year's NCAA tournament run, is trying to avoid falling to 0-3 in conference play. The Huskers' feature two players having all-conference type seasons, but have struggled to find a third scoring option. Junior Terran Petteway, an All-Big Ten performer as a sophomore, is having another stellar year, averaging 18.9 points and 5.8 rebounds per game. Shavon Shields, who has really made a jump in his game in his third season in Lincoln, is right behind him with 17.9 points, and leads the team with 6.9 boards a night.
In contrast to Nebrasketball, Rutgers (9-6, 1-1 in the Big Ten) entered the season with low expectations, and has had a few good moments. The Scarlet Knights scored their first conference win as a member of the Big Ten last Saturday, outlasting Penn State 50-46 in Piscataway. The Knights are led by the inside-out duo of senior guard Myles Mack and junior big man Kadeem Jack. Mack leads the team with 13.7 points, 4.5 assists, and 2.1 steals per game, while Jack paces the squad with 6.8 rebounds a night, adding 12.2 points.
Both teams are sorely in need of a win, but the Huskers in particular have been reeling, and their upcoming schedule is brutal. After unprecedented heights for the program a year ago, a first home win in Big Ten play against Rutgers could be its last win for awhile.