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2017 Big Ten Tournament Preview: #6 Northwestern Wildcats vs #14 Rutgers Scarlet Knights

Can the Scarlet Knights continue their momentum against the Wildcats?

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

The first day of action in the 2017 Big Ten Tournament was a great day for the conference. It featured a thrilling overtime win for Penn State and an upset win for the Scarlet Knights. And as fans move to the second day of action, they will be expecting even more excitement, as many of the conference’s best teams begin play.

On Thursday evening, the Rutgers Scarlet Knights will tip for what is the team’s second game of the conference tournament against the Northwestern Wildcats. The game should offer major implications for Northwestern’s NCAA Tournament hopes and could be the second step in a miraculous run for Rutgers in Washington, D.C..

Here are the three biggest things fans should be watching for tonight.

1. Can Dererk Pardon Contain Rutgers On The Boards?

Look, whether fans want to hear it or not, Rutgers isn’t a great team. The Scarlet Knights have an underwhelming 15-17 overall record and are ranked No. 127 nationally on KenPom. Since racing out to an 11-1 record to start the season (largely against weak opponents), Rutgers has won just four games.

Simply put, this hasn’t been a pretty season for Rutgers.

But, with that said, there is one thing that Rutgers does really well. Rutgers is an elite offensive rebounding team. The Scarlet Knights have a group of forwards and big men that can hit the boards with the best of them. Notably, Deshawn Freeman and CJ Gettys both have offensive rebounding rates among the top 20 players in the league.

Northwestern needs to do more than win the rebounding battle to win tonight’s game, but if the Wildcats are going to avoid an upset tonight, it needs to start on the boards.

And the most important player in this regard will be Dererk Pardon. He’s the team’s leading rebounder and should be tasked with slowing down Freeman and Gettys. Whether he can hold up here will tell a lot about the game’s outcome.

2. Who Wins The Point Guard Battle?

While the battle on the boards should be a fun one, the matchup that has the most sizzle will be the one between Northwestern’s Bryant McIntosh and Rutgers’ Corey Sanders. Both are among the conference’s best point guards and each will be looking for a big performance tonight.

During Wednesday’s win over Ohio State, Sanders had an off day with just six points, three assists, and an offensive rating of 50. However, he’s scored double-digits in six of his last nine games, including a 25-point game against Penn State in early February.

On the other side, McIntosh has been playing really well over the last few weeks. He scored 25 points in the team’s close loss to Purdue on Sunday and has scored double-digits in each of his last five games. McIntosh was also pivotal in Northwestern’s epic win over Michigan a little over a week ago. Of course, he will be looking to make some big plays tonight to secure Northwestern’s first-ever NCAA Tournament bid.

The biggest area to watch will be if McIntosh can limit Sanders from getting inside and feeding the team’s big men. Similarly, Sanders will look to keep McIntosh limited to the perimeter as well, where McIntosh is shooting just 28.7 percent from three-point range on the season.

3. Don’t Expect Rutgers To Have a Second Day Drop-Off.

Perhaps the biggest aspect of the Big Ten Tournament that continues to fly under the radar is the challenge of playing back-to-back games. While Big Ten teams are filled with great athletes who are more than capable of playing for extended periods, there’s no debating that playing for two or more days in a row can take a physical and mental toll on a player’s body.

However, don’t expect such a drop-off for Rutgers tonight.

It’s easy to think that Rutgers could take a step back from arguably the team’s best win of the season over Ohio State last night, but the Scarlet Knights play a style that should hold up well in this back-to-back format.

Specifically, Rutgers isn’t a shooting that risks losing its legs or a team overly reliant on a single player. It’s a physical group that will look to play quality defense and do work on the boards. There might be some drop-off physically, but don’t expect it to be significant with this Rutgers team.

In short, buckle up for a tough game on Thursday night.