With just a handful of games remaining in the regular season, the Big Ten standings remain tightly packed together. In the race for second place behind Wisconsin, there are seven teams within 2.5 games of each other, four of which will be taking the floor on Thursday. As the schedule winds down, wins are at a premium, and postseason hopes hang in the balance.
Let's take a look at tonight's matchups.
Game of the Night
Purdue Boilermakers at Indiana Hoosiers - 7:00 pm ET (ESPN/WatchESPN)
It's been a while since the in-state rivalry between the Boilers and Hoosiers could be considered a marquee matchup in the Big Ten, but this game carries serious implications. Purdue (17-9, 9-4 in Big Ten play) is currently sitting in the fourth position in the conference standings, a game ahead of Indiana (18-8, 8-5), and fighting for both a double bye in the Big Ten tournament and a spot in the NCAA tourney's field of 68.
Purdue has been one of the hottest teams in the conference over the past month, having won seven of their last nine games, but still has some work to do to hear its name called on Selection Sunday. The remaining schedule for the Boilermakers includes tough games against Ohio State, Michigan State, and Illinois, in addition to tonight's trip to Bloomington.
The Boilers got big contributions from an array of players in their win on Sunday at home against Nebraska. Vince Edwards, the Big Ten's reigning Freshman of the Week, led three Purdue players in double figures with 15 points, complemented by 12 from sophomore Kendall Stephens and 10 from fellow newcomer Dakota Mathias.
"My teammates did a good job finding me when I really wanted to complement our big men," Edwards said after the 66-54 victory. "Most of the time, our big men were being doubled inside. Our bigs draw a lot of attention, so that can create opportunities. We had to knock down open shots, and we made those shots."
Junior big man A.J. Hammons had a quiet night offensively with just 7 points, but propelled the Boilermakers to a 44-29 rebounding edge over the Huskers, pulling down 12 boards.
While Purdue has been surging, Indiana has been mostly treading water. After a four-game winning streak was snapped in late January, the Hoosiers have lost four of their last seven, but are coming off a 19-point rout of Minnesota on Sunday that featured a school-record 18 three-point field goals.
Indiana will need to stay hot from the perimeter in this game given Purdue's advantage in the paint. Freshman James Blackmon, Jr. had a big bounce-back game, putting up 24 points in the 90-71 win, including 6-of-10 from the beyond the arc. The Fort Wayne native, who missed the Hoosiers loss to Wisconsin two weeks ago and had averaged just 9 points a game since coming back, will be a key to the team's push down the stretch.
"I think that it was a mindset thing," Blackmon said after Sunday's game. "We knew that we were going to get good shots, so we just wanted to get everyone involved and run the offense, and I think that we did a good job of that."
Thursday night at Assembly Hall, this Hoosier state rivalry takes on renewed importance.
"We're obviously going to get tested big time on Thursday," Purdue head coach Matt Painter said on Monday's coaches conference call.
Nebraska Cornhuskers at #16 Maryland Terrapins - 7:00 pm ET (BTN)
Maryland (21-5, 9-4) and Nebraska (13-12, 5-8) will be getting to know each other well over the season's final weeks, as the teams will square off on Thursday in College Park and then again in the regular season finale in Lincoln. The two squads are having very different seasons, with the Terps currently in second place and the Huskers perhaps being the Big Ten's biggest disappointment.
Head coach Mark Turgeon has Maryland on a two-game winning streak coming in, and feels good about the progress the team has made throughout its first season in the conference.
"I knew we had a chance to be a pretty good team," he said on Monday's conference call. "We've been good, we've been lucky. The ball has bounced our way."
Particularly good of late has been senior Dez Wells, who was named Co-Player of the Week after leading the Terrapins to wins over Indiana and Penn State. In the two games, Wells averaged 20 points and 4 rebounds.
Equally impressive was freshman Melo Trimble, who scored 19 a game while pulling down 5.5 boards and handing out 3 assists, and junior Jake Layman, who added 13.5 points and 5.5 rebounds in the two victories.
"It's really a good feeling," Turgeon said after Maryland's 76-73 win over the Nittany Lions. "I have three guys to go to. Some guys have zero, some have one. I can call on any one of them. They are carrying us offensively."
Meanwhile, Nebraska is sliding, having lost three straight and five of six. Despite the presence of two of the Big Ten's top seven scorers in Terran Petteway and Shavon Shields, the Huskers have struggled mightily all season on the offensive end. Head coach Tim Miles' team is in or near the bottom quarter of all Division I schools in scoring, field goal percentage, rebounding, and assists.
"You have to have an offense with pace and rhythm," Miles said after last week's loss to Wisconsin. "It seems like we're so impatient - if we run an action, to get to the end of the action - that it's really hurt our offense even more."
Things don't get any easier for the Huskers after their trip to the Xfinity Center on Thursday, as matchups with Iowa, Ohio State, Illinois, and a rematch with the Terps are on the horizon. A season after a trip to the NCAA tournament, Nebraska is facing the very real possibility of finishing the year below .500.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights at Iowa Hawkeyes - 8:00 pm ET (ESPNU/WatchESPN)
Just as no one could have predicted that Rutgers (10-16, 2-11) would hand the Badgers their only loss of the Big Ten season thus far, one would have been hard pressed to foresee that game being the last time the Scarlet Knights came out on top. Rutgers has lost nine in a row since that night and occupies the cellar in the conference.
Eddie Jordan's squad is one of the most offensively inept in the country, averaging less than 59 points a game and shooting just 39 percent as a team.
"We want to get out in the open floor," Jordan said Monday. "We need to convert whenever we get a chance to get out and run."
Iowa (15-10, 6-6) has also been struggling, dropping its last two games and five of the last seven. At .500 in conference play, the Hawkeyes are having similar difficulties down the stretch to those they had last season, causing some fans of the black and gold to panic.
"We have to play better," head coach Fran McCaffery said after Sunday's overtime loss to Northwestern.
The lone bright spot against the Wildcats, who had not won a game in the new year, was junior Jarrod Uthoff, who put up 25 points, making 5-of-11 from three-point range.