The 2015 Big Ten Tournament will tip-off in the United Center on Wednesday and postseason play will officially be underway for the Big Ten. There is a lot on the line for teams across the conference and though the first day of action only features four teams, there are still some interesting details to follow.
Game of the Day
#12 Nebraska Cornhuskers vs. #13 Penn State Nittany Lions
Game Time: 3:30PM CT (ESPN2)
The Big Ten Tournament will tip-off with a game that is not extremely appealing on its face, but actually should have some important implications for Chicago and the seasons ahead. Plus, considering that KenPom has predicted the final score in this game to be within 2 points, it looks to be a tight battle as well.
Nebraska entered the season with high expectations. Most thought they were nearly a lock to the NCAA Tournament and a serious contender in the Big Ten. However, things never seemed to click and the team entered Big Ten play at just 8-4 with losses to Incarnate Word and Rhode Island. They seemed to get things together in early January and pushed their record to 12-7 overall, but then the wheels fell off. The Huskers lost 10 of their final 11 games including a matchup with Penn State and their final 3 home games.
As a result of their struggles, Nebraska enters the Big Ten Tournament at just 13-17 overall and 5-13 in Big Ten play. They began the season widely considered as a Top 25 team and were ranked #36 on KenPom. Now, when they face off against Penn State, they will be ranked #129 on KenPom. It's been a rough season, but Chicago will give Nebraska a chance to get a few more wins before the end of the season and potentially put a bright spin on things.
Penn State entered the season with significantly less expectations. Most expected the Nittany Lions to be a Big Ten bottom-dweller, but with DJ Newbill on the roster, there was at least some potential to make some noise. Early in the year, it looked like things were working well and Penn State might be able to have a serious shot at an NCAA Tournament berth. At one point, Penn State was receiving Top 25 votes, 12-1 overall, and had a 10 game winning streak. Unfortunately, that's when things went downhill.
Despite coming into Big Ten play at 12-1, they lost their first six conference games including a game to Rutgers and two games at home. They were able to salvage a few wins down the stretch, but even with an upset of Minnesota on the road to finish the regular season, they finished at 16-15 overall and 4-14 in the conference. At this point, the Nittany Lions are looking to score a win or two and get back into position for an NIT bid.
Neither team is fighting for an NCAA Tournament bid in this game, but there is still a lot on the line. Nebraska is looking to keep the momentum in their program going heading into an offseason filled with questions. Penn State is trying to get an NIT bid and to add something to the resume of head coach Patrick Chambers, who appears to be sitting on the hot seat heading into next season.
The players to watch in this game are Nebraska's Terran Petteway and Shavon Shields and Penn State's DJ Newbill and Shep Garner. However, the matchup that could determine this game is the play upfront as neither team has shown consistent frontcourt production. The play of Walter Pitchford for Nebraska could be vital as he is a bit of a wildcard the Huskers. Penn State is considered to be the favorite.
#11 Minnesota Golden Gophers vs. #14 Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Game Time: 6:00PM CT (BTN)
The second game of the day looks much different on paper. Unlike the first game, it features two teams in very different places coming into Chicago.
Minnesota entered the season with high expectations, but have simply been too inconsistent to achieve anything signifiant. Heading to Chicago, the are 18-14 overall and 6-12 in the Big Ten. What has frustrated Gopher fans even more is the fact that Minnesota could do something like beat Illinois, Iowa, and Purdue in a 5 game stretch, but lose to Nebraska and Penn State in a three game stretch. If Minnesota had been consistent at all this season, they might be on the NCAA Tournament bubble. Instead, they are looking to secure an NIT bid for the second year in a row after winning the NIT last season.
Rutgers entered the season with virtually no expectations. Most viewed them as the clear favorite for last place in the conference and at least a year away from being competitive. For all of non-conference play, this looked accurate with the team entering Big Ten play at 8-5 with losses to St. Francis PA and Saint Peter's. In Big Ten play, Rutgers scored wins over Penn State and Wisconsin in a three game stretch and appeared to be taking the next step. However, following their upset of a Top 5 Wisconsin team, they lost 14 games in a row and enter the Big Ten Tournament at 10-22 overall and 2-16 in the Big Ten. Their last win was on January 11th.
Entering this game, Minnesota is certainly not in a great spot themselves, but they are looking to secure an NIT bid and to make an upset run in the conference tournament to put a better finish on this year, but Rutgers has virtually no shot at a postseason and is looking to enter the offseason with at least a semblance of momentum, especially considering that the team's best players Kadeem Jack and Myles Mack will be gone after this season. There is not as much on the line in this game, but it could be important for both programs to grab a win here and take some momentum into offseasons with a lot of pressure on the coaching staffs.
The players to watch in this game are Minnesota's Andre Hollins and Maurice Walker and Rutgers' Kadeem Jack and Myles Mack. The most important battle will be in the backcourt. In the first matchup between these teams this season, Minnesota's press gave Rutgers a lot of trouble and caused 19 turnovers. Myles Mack and Bishop Daniels have to do a good job at controlling the ball. Minnesota will be the favorite in this game.
The winner of the Nebraska and Penn State game will feed in to face Iowa and the winner of the Minnesota and Rutgers game will feed in to face Ohio State. Both winners will be heavy underdogs in the next round of the Big Ten Tournament. Here is a look at the bracket.
2015 Big Ten Tournament Bracket
One interesting thing to watch will be whether any of these teams can make a run. This is the first season that the Big Ten Tournament will feature 5 days of action and two games on Wednesday. As such, any run would be historic and could show how first day teams will perform in the future.