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NCAA Tournament: Previewing Day One for the Big Ten

Five Big Ten teams tip off the NCAA Tournament on Thursday.

NCAA Basketball: Selection Sunday-Northwestern Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

No Big Ten teams have a gimme in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. However, four of the five Big Ten teams that take the court on Thursday are favored to reach the second round. Minnesota is the lone exception, but the fifth-seeded Gophers are more than capable of advancing a round or two.

All betting lines are from Bovada as of 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday, while all game times are in EasternTime.

Big Ten Game of the Day:

-No. 8 Northwestern Wildcats, No. 9 Vanderbilt Commodores

  • TV/Time: TBS/4:30 p.m.
  • Spread: Vanderbilt -1

Have to give Northwestern the Game of the Day tag for their first NCAA Tournament game in program history. It should also be a good one, as the Wildcats (23-11) are just one-point favorites against Vanderbilt (19-15). Both teams finished fifth in their respective conferences, but they closed the season in different fashions.

After a great start to the year, Northwestern stumbled to the finish line, losing seven of their final 12 games. However, they looked good at the start of March and won two Big Ten Tournament games, including a 72-64 win over No. 25 Maryland. Vanderbilt has won seven of it’s last nine games, including three wins over ranked teams.

The teams look fairly similar numbers-wise. Northwestern is scoring 71.1 points per game and holding opponents to 65.1 points per game, while Vanderbilt is averaging 71.3 points per game and giving up 68.1 points per game.

Both teams are balanced offensively, as the Wildcats are paced by Bryant McIntosh’s 14.4 points per game and the Commodores are led by Matthew Fisher-Davis’ 13.6 points per game. However, McIntosh runs more of the show, averaging 5.2 assists per game as everything goes through him.

The Wildcats will need to get out to Vanderbilt’s shooters, as the Commodores are shooting 37.7 percent from behind the arc and have made 337 3-pointers on the season. Northwestern has made 241 3-pointers at a 34.1-percent clip.

There’s not much separating these teams, but I’m going to go with Northwestern to get this first one. After watching Michigan roll through the Big Ten Tournament, it just feels like the good stories are going to continue a little longer this year.

  • Pick against the spread: Northwestern

The Rest:

-No. 5 Minnesota Golden Gophers vs. No. 12 Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders

  • TV/Time: TNT/4 p.m.
  • Spread: Minnesota +1

This has been one of the most discussed first-round games of the tournament. Fifth-seeded Minnesota (24-9) is a one-point underdog to Middle Tennessee State (30-4) despite being the second-highest seeded team in the Big Ten.

It’s being painted as the prototypical 5 vs. 12 upset pick, as Minnesota hasn’t been on the national stage much in recent years. Middle Tennessee State also inspired confidence with last year’s upset of No. 2 seed Michigan State in the first round of last year’s tournament.

However, if the five seed is giving points (even if it’s basically a pick ‘em), you’ve got to go with them. Plus, Minnesota has a point guard in Nate Mason that should be made for the one-and-done tournament scenario.

The Gophers also boast several athletic big men, including Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Reggie Lynch, that will look to limit a high-scoring Middle Tennessee State team that put 90 on Michigan State last year.

  • Pick against the spread: Minnesota

-No. 6 Maryland Terrapins vs. No. 11 Xavier Musketeers

  • TV/Time: TNT/6:50 p.m.
  • Spread: Maryland -2

Maryland has been a trendy upset pick thus far as well. The Terrapins (24-8) didn’t close the season well, dropping six of their final 10 games and losing big man Michal Cekovsky to injury.

However, Xavier (21-13) has problems of their own. The Musketeers lost six straight games late in the regular season to fall squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble before rallying with two wins in the Big East Tournament.

While Maryland is missing a role player in Cekovsky, Xavier is missing arguably its best player in Edmond Sumner. The sophomore guard was averaging 15.0 points, 5.0 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game before going down with an injury on at the end of January.

The Musketeers struggled defensively without Sumner, giving up 80.8 points per game during their six-game losing streak. They seemed to figure it out in the last four games, giving up just 65.3 points per game.

Maryland continues to be led by Melo Trimble. The junior point guard is averaging 17.1 points and 3.7 assists per game. Outside of Trimble and big man Damonte Dodd, the Terrapins have little to no experience.

Freshmen Anthony Cowan, Justin Jackson and Kevin Huerter are Maryland’s most important players behind Trimble. The Terrapins will need that trio to play above their years if they’re going to beat a team like Xavier. The Musketeers boast a veteran group led by Trevon Bluiett’s 18.1 points per game. They won’t wilt if Maryland goes on a run.

Fortunately, Maryland’s freshman trio was forced to play all year and have built up plenty of experience. All three of them have started a majority of the season and have had the ball in their hands in key situations.

It’s basically going to come down to how well Trimble can pierce the Xavier defense and if the Maryland role players hit their shots. If that happens, the Terrapins should have enough to hang on. If the Musketeers are able to put on their attention on Trimble and he can’t control the show, the Terrapins will be in trouble.

  • Pick against the spread: Xavier

-No. 4 Purdue Boilermakers vs. No. 13 Vermont Catamounts

  • TV/Time: truTV/7:27 p.m.
  • Spread: Purdue -9

Big Ten champion Purdue (25-7) takes on a streaking Vermont (29-5) team that has won 21 straight games, including a 56-53 win over Albany in the America East Conference championship. With two losses to Michigan since late February, 15th-ranked Purdue hasn’t lost to anyone else since an 83-80 defeat at Nebraska at the end of January.

Both teams are outscoring opponents by at least 12 points per game. Purdue is scoring 80.1 points per game and holding opponents to 67.2 points per game, while Vermont averages 73.6 points per game and is giving up just 61.6 points per game.

The Catamounts do a good job of guarding the 3-point line, which will be needed against a Purdue team that is shooting 40.6 percent from behind the arc. Vermont is out rebounding opponents by 4.0 rebounds per game, but Purdue’s size should still give them an advantage on the glass.

Finally, the Boilermakers have one of the better players in the country in Caleb Swanigan. The sophomore forward is averaging 18.5 points and 12.6 rebounds per game while shooting 53.4 percent from the floor. The 6-foot-9 Swanigan is taller than anyone on Vermont’s roster and will look to control the game from the paint.

Anthony Lamb (12.6 points, 5.6 rebounds) and Payton Henson (11.4 points, 5.3 rebounds) lead the Catamounts, but they stand at just 6-foot-6 and 6-foot-8, respectively. That being said, their size likely won’t allow Purdue’s 7-foot-2 center Isaac Haas to see much playing time.

The best players in the country don’t always do well in the tournament unless they get support. Therefore, Swanigan is going to need his supporting cast to hit shots and limit the Catamounts on the other end.

  • Pick against the spread: Purdue

-No. 8 Wisconsin Badgers vs. No. 9 Virginia Tech Hokies

  • TV/Time: CBS/9:40 p.m.
  • Spread: Wisconsin -5.5

Style of play is always a talking point when Wisconsin reaches the NCAA Tournament. And Thursday is no different, as the slow-paced Badgers (25-9) take on a Hokies (22-10) team that is scoring 79.3 points per game.

Which style will win out on Thursday? It’ll depend on which team can defend the other’s bread and butter the best. Wisconsin likes to run its offense through Nigel Hayes and Ethan Happ inside, which could cause trouble for an undersized Virginia Tech team that will likely look to double the post. On the other end, the Badgers will work to defend a Virginia Tech team that will push the pace a bit.

While the spread is set at a pretty good number, Wisconsin’s experienced roster and the motivation of being seeded below four other Big Ten teams should be enough to get the Badgers through.

  • Pick against the spread: Wisconsin