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Big Ten Tournament First Round Preview: Illinois Looks to Knock Out Rival Wildcats

The Big Ten Tournament tips off tonight with two games this evening.

NCAA Basketball: Penn State at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

The Big Ten Tournament starts tonight with two games on BTN as the bottom four teams take the court in Chicago.

#12 Rutgers Scarlet Knights vs. #13 Nebraska Cornhuskers

  • Time/TV: 6:30 PM ET - BTN
  • Spread: Nebraska (-1.5)

For the first time since joining the Big Ten the Scarlet Knights didn’t finish in last place. Of course they only finished 12th, but it’s definitely an improvement from past seasons. Tonight they’ll host a Nebraska team that was ranked at one point before going 5-13 in 2019.

It’s been a rough close for the Cornhuskers, but they did manage to end their regular season on a high note with an overtime win against Iowa in what could be Tim Miles last game in Lincoln. The first time these two teams played Rutgers won at home by seven points, with the Scarlet Knights erasing a first half deficit by going on a 15-0 run late in the first and eventually taking control of the game in the second.

The Cornhuskers had a big performance last time out from James Palmer Jr., who scored 27 points, and will likely rely on him and Glynn Watson Jr. to lead the offense. Nebraska and Rutgers both averaged 67.3 points per game in conference play and have had offensive issues, but Nebraska definitely has the firepower to piece together a solid offensive performance. Eugene Omoruyi and Geo Baker typically pace the Scarlet Knights on the offensive side of the ball.

Last year the Scarlet Knights won two games against Minnesota and Indiana before losing to Purdue in the quarterfinals. That task will be more difficult this year as the winner will go on to face Maryland tomorrow afternoon.

While Rutgers has been considerably improved this season and Nebraska fell off considerably the last couple months, Nebraska has enough weapons on offense that they should be able to move on to Thursday.

#11 Illinois Fighting Illini vs. #14 Northwestern Wildcats

  • Time/TV: 9:00 PM ET - BTN
  • Spread: Illinois (-2)

The second game tonight will be a battle between the two Big Ten schools from Illinois and will likely be an entertaining affair if it plays out like these teams last two games. The first time they played the Wildcats won at home by two, but the Illini evened the series in early March with a five point win on their court.

The Illini looked rough early this season, even if they were competitive at times versus some good teams. A four game win streak, including wins against Michigan State and Ohio State, seemed to show the Illini turning the corner before they faded with a 1-5 run to close the season. That’s not as bad as Northwestern, who rode a ten game losing streak before beating Ohio State last week.

While the Illini have had their problems this season they can still score, finishing fourth in points per game during conference play. The Illini consistently get to the line and take plenty of shots, creating plenty of opportunities to score. And while they’re second to last in turnovers, they’ve forced the most turnovers on defense during conference play as well. Ayo Dosunmu, Trent Frazier and Giorgi Bezhanishvili provide a dangerous core of young players that provide plenty of weapons on offense and should prove to be difficult for Northwestern to slow down.

On the other side of the ball Northwestern will have a serious challenge keeping pace with the Illini. In Big Ten play the Wildcats finished 14th in field goal percentage, 13th in three point percentage, 13th in free throw attempts and 14th in scoring. Leading scorer Vic Law also suffered an injury in the regular season finale, though he’s considered probable for today’s game (as of Tuesday evening). If Law can’t go for Northwestern than it’ll be an even more difficult task for a Northwestern team that has been offensively challenged.

The one positive for the Wildcats is their defense has down a solid job of slowing down their opponents. But with their inability to score this season it’s hard to call for Northwestern to advance to the second round, especially against an Illini team that has showcased an impressive offense this year.