Today will be a pivotal day for several Big Ten teams in the hunt for a bid to the NCAA Tournament. Kicking things off early in the day will be Illinois as they travel to East Lansing in search of what would be a huge win if they can knock off Michigan State on the road. Later in the day Purdue will look to continue their recent surge as they travel to face a Minnesota team that desperately needs a win. Also on the schedule is Nebraska in a must win game against Penn State while Northwestern and Wisconsin close out the day with an early evening showdown in Madison.
Game of the Night:
Illinois vs. Michigan State; 12 PM EST; ESPN; MSU -9.5
The Breslin Center will certainly be rocking when the Fighting Illini come to town Saturday Morning. Both the Spartans and the Illini have looked solid lately with two straight wins. That means that something has to give. Though the Spartans are the clear favorites on paper, Illinois will undoubtedly put up a fight in East Lansing in hopes of sparking a late season surge that propels it into the NCAA tournament. The Illini pulled off a grind-it-out 53-46 victory at Michigan State last year as part of a three game winning streak. Will history repeat itself?
The key for Illinois lies in its ability to be active on the defensive end, as that tactic proved highly successful last time out in East Lansing. The Illini used stifling defense to hold the Spartans to just 46 last year and will need contributions from numerous players in order to impact the game in a similar manner, and it starts with center Nnanna Egwu. After recently breaking the all-time block record at Illinois, Egwu has been relatively quiet as of late, and the Illini could use a monster game out of him on the defensive end of the floor. Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn have been exceptional for the Illini averaging 14.6 and 11.3 points per game respectively. Possibly the biggest question going into Saturday's match up is whether or not guards Rayvonte Rice and Aaron Cosby will get a chance to play. Having been cleared from recent injuries, the two guards received indefinite suspensions for "violation of team rules" and remain unable to contribute for the time being. Coach John Groce has not commented on whether or not we will see them take the floor anytime soon.
The Spartans will certainly look to rely on their post game to wear out the injury-plagued Illini. Forward Branden Dawson averages 12.0 points per game for the Spartans and leads the conference in rebounding at 10.1 per contest. Getting him going will certainly be a major focal point for this Spartan squad, especially against a young and inexperienced Leron Black. Denzel Valentine and Travis Trice remain dominant threats for Michigan State, and if all three are firing on all cylinders right out of the gate, the Spartans will be difficult to stop. One issue for Michigan State thus far has been free throw shooting. The Spartans are making only 63.1% of their free throws, which has hurt this team, especially in late-game situations. The Illini lead the Big Ten in free throw shooting at 79%, so if Illinois utilizes this significant advantage, they could end up pulling off the upset in East Lansing.
Purdue vs. Minnesota; 3 PM EST; BTN; MINN -5.5
Purdue has been hot recently, winning its last four games, three of which were over ranked opponents. Despite some questionable early season losses, Purdue has found itself in the projected field of 68 as one of Bracketology's "Last Four In." Though this is particularly impressive, the Boilermakers haven't won a tough road test this year, and will have their hands full with a Gopher team whose record does not properly represent its talent. Minnesota has only lost twice this year at home and certainly won't look to give Purdue anything for free when it comes to town.
Nebraska vs. Penn State; 4 PM EST; ESPNU; PSU -5
This match up could very well dictate whether or not we will see the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the NCAA Tournament this year. A win would send this team in the right direction with a home game coming up against Wisconsin, but a loss would cast doubt on the Huskers' ability to close out a less than impressive season. Terran Petteway has been a force to be reckoned with and will be relied on heavily against top-tier guard D.J. Newbill of Penn State. Petteway averages 19.0 points per game, but Newbill tops him with 21.3 per contest. This game will be a battle of the superstars, but to Nebraska's credit, Sam Shields (16.0 PPG) has been an impressive Robin to Petteway's Batman. Winning on the road is never a cinch in the Big Ten, but the Huskers will need to do all that they can to pull this one out if they want to go dancing come March.
Northwestern vs. Wisconsin; 5:30 PM EST; BTN; WIS -19
The Badgers shouldn't have too much to worry about as the struggling Wildcats come to town. Wisconsin has now won its last five Big Ten match ups and would be shocked to see Northwestern come in and put up a fight. That being said, stranger things have happened. En route to a 6-12 Big Ten finish last season, the Wildcats were able to steal one on the road in Madison and shock the Badgers with a 65-56 road victory. The Badgers can't overlook their opponent and lose an easy one.