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B1G Thursday Preview and Open Thread: Spartans Look to Stay Hot

Michigan State is looking to extend its winning streak to five against Minnesota ahead of a big matchup Sunday in Madison. Meanwhile, Purdue wants to keep its own streak going against Rutgers and Ohio State tries to bounce back against Nebraska

Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Tuesday night's road loss for Wisconsin at Maryland probably only delayed the Badgers' eventual wrapping up of the Big Ten regular season title, but it makes the final week and a half of the season a little more interesting. Mathematically, the door is still cracked for a few squads to challenge Wisconsin, and two of them will be on the court on Thursday.

Both Michigan State and Purdue have been hot of late, and are hosting opponents in the bottom half of the Big Ten. Each will need to defend their home court to take advantage of the Terrapins' Tuesday night upset.

Let's take a look at tonight's slate.

Game of the Night

Minnesota Golden Gophers at Michigan State Spartans - 7 pm ET (BTN)

Michigan State (19-8, 10-4 in Big Ten play) has gotten hot at the right time, winning four in a row and five of six in the month of February. The Spartans currently sit third in the Big Ten standings, 2.5 games behind Wisconsin, and in line for a double bye in the conference tournament. Tom Izzo's squad has a meeting with the Badgers in Madison on Sunday, and would like to go into that game with momentum.

"We're going to focus everything on them [Minnesota] and see if we can keep our mini streak alive," Izzo said on Monday's coaches conference call.

During the stretch, Michigan State's big three of Travis Trice, Branden Dawson, and Denzel Valentine have been carrying the load. One member of the trio has led the team in scoring in every contest this month, with Valentine leading the way at 16.3 points per game.

Last time out, the Spartans withstood a late rally by Illinois for a 60-53 win on the road. Trice, who has come off the bench the past four games, sparked the green and white with his aggressiveness on the offensive end. Despite shooting just 4-13 from the floor, including 0-3 from beyond the arc, the senior got to the free throw line 12 times. Trice finished with 18 points, five rebounds, and four assists.

"Travis was the best he's been," Izzo said after the game.

Minnesota (16-12, 5-10) enters the game on the other end of the spectrum, having lost three in a row. Those three defeats have come on the heels of a three-game winning streak, typifying the Gophers' season-long inconsistency.

Andre Hollins had been on a tear in February, averaging over 18 points a game through the month's first four, before a dismal showing in Saturday's 63-53 loss to Wisconsin. The senior had just two points on 1-8 shooting, breaking a streak of nine straight games scoring in double figures.

"I thought our guys gave great energy today," head coach Richard Pitino said after the game. "I thought we were very positive. We didn't get down. We just lost to a really good team."

Pitino is trying to guide his team back to the NIT, which Minnesota won last year, but the road ahead is tough. In addition to visiting East Lansing, the Gophers still have one more tilt with the Badgers before concluding the regular season at The Barn against Penn State. Currently 10th in the conference standings, Minnesota is trying to hold on to a first day bye in the Big Ten tourney.

Despite a tough schedule to finish out the regular season and postseason positioning on the line, Michigan State cannot afford to overlook Minnesota on Thursday night. The Gophers have shown that, regardless of their record, they can play with anyone in the conference.

The Rest

Nebraska Cornhuskers at Ohio State Buckeyes - 7 pm ET (ESPN/WatchESPN)

Both Ohio State (19-8, 8-6) and Nebraska (13-14, 5-10) come limping into Thursday night's matchup in Columbus. The Buckeyes have dropped consecutive games to Michigan State and Michigan, while the Huskers have lost five in a row.

Nebraska head coach Tim Miles has gone so far as to bar his players from the locker room in Lincoln following a 28-point blowout at the hands of Iowa on Sunday. The loss was the worst for the Huskers at home since January 2012.

"You never want to throw your players under the bus, but that was just beyond disappointing," Miles said after the 74-46 throttling. "That's not what we represent. I honestly didn't expect this."

During the five-game drought, Nebraska has struggled mightily scoring the ball, shooting just 36.6 percent from the floor and failing to top fifty points twice. Both Terran Petteway, who is third in the Big Ten in scoring, and Shavon Shields, who is eighth, have struggled. The pair, which usually combines to average 33.5 points a game, has produced just 26.4 a night during the streak.

With a three-game stretch of Ohio State, Illinois, and Maryland to finish out the conference schedule, the Huskers must get the top scoring duo in the league to bust out of their slumps.

For Ohio State, Thursday night's game signals the end of a four games out of five stretch on the road, and the beginning of being home for three of its final four. The Buckeyes could use a little home cooking after coming up on the losing end in three of those four road contests.

"We haven't been home forever," head coach Thad Matta said on his radio show on Monday. "This is what we've been waiting for. Hopefully our fans are rip-roaring ready to go."

As has been the case for Ohio State all season, the team's performance ebbs and flows with that of freshman D'Angelo Russell. In the three games since posting a triple-double against Rutgers, Russell is shooting just 34 percent from the field and averaging 14.3 points. That's nearly five points below the Louisville native's season average of 19 per game, which is second in the Big Ten.

The Buckeyes have been eliminated from Big Ten title contention, but are still fighting for a spot in the top four and a coveted double bye in the conference tournament. Matta's squad sits two games behind Michigan State and Purdue, who currently occupy the third and fourth spots, and will host the Boilermakers on Sunday.

Coming off last Sunday's flat performance against the Wolverines, Ohio State needs to build momentum if it hopes to hit its stride for the postseason.

"I was disappointed we didn't fight a little harder," Matta said after the loss in Ann Arbor.

Rutgers Scarlet Knights at Purdue Boilermakers - 9 pm ET (ESPNU/WatchESPN)

It would be hard to argue that there has been a hotter, or more surprising, team in the Big Ten than Purdue. The Boilers have come out on top in seven of their last eight games, and currently occupy the fourth spot in the conference standings.

Purdue has not played since last Thursday's 67-63 win over Indiana in Bloomington, which gave the team a sweep in the Hoosier state rivalry. Big man A.J. Hammons was huge in the game for the Boilermakers, scoring 20 points, grabbing four rebounds, and blocking four shots. Fellow center Isaac Haas added 12 points and nine rebounds.

Hammons hit a pair of free throws with 4.3 seconds remaining to ice the game, and was named Big Ten Player of the Week for his efforts.

"Hammons was huge for us, and Haas gets 12 points and nine rebounds in 12 minutes," head coach Matt Painter said. "Without question, that is the best game they have played together this season."

Purdue finishes the season with two tough road games at Ohio State and Michigan State and a home finale against Illinois. After a week layoff, the Boilers need to use Thursday's night game to get back in rhythm.

While Purdue has been red-hot in conference play, Rutgers is having having a season of misery. The Scarlet Knights have lost 11 games in a row, and have not eclipsed 60 points in a game in nearly a month. Last time out, Rutgers was blown out by 30 at home against Indiana.

"If it seems like there's not enough fight, we just aren't good enough right now to guard certain things," head coach Eddie Jordan said. "Good teams take advantage of a team that's not doing well."

To say the Scarlet Knights are not doing well feels like an epic understatement. Of the 351 Division I basketball teams in the country, Jordan's squad is 341st in scoring and 335th in field goal percentage.

Still, Rutgers pulled perhaps the season's biggest upset in early January when it outlasted the Badgers. Putting an end to the losing streak could be the kind of thing that salvages (relatively speaking) the team's season.