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Big Ten Tournament Thursday Preview: Let the Madness Commence

A full slate of games means basketball from lunch until bed

NCAA Basketball: Maryland at Penn State Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Say what you want about the Big Ten’s equivalent of the First Four, but the real fun in Chicago begins in earnest Thursday afternoon.

Six new teams enter the bracket, joining the two winners from yesterday’s undercard, and with them comes compelling storylines and legit postseason berths that remain hung in the balance.

-No. 9 Indiana Hoosiers vs No. 8 Ohio State Buckeyes

  • Time/TV: 12:30PM ET - BTN
  • KenPom Spread: Indiana (-1.5)

Did I mention yet how NCAA Tournament berths very well could be on the line this week in Chicago? Well buckle up Hoosier and Buckeye nations, we got ourselves a loser leaves town match.

In Joe Lunardi’s most up-to-date bracket on ESPN, he has Ohio State and Indiana listed as the first two teams on the wrong side of the bubble. A lot can and will change between now and Selection Sunday, but it’s awfully hard to find a path into March Madness for the loser of this game.

Speaking of bubbles, it’s rather remarkable Indiana even finds itself in the NCAA Tournament conversation. It was just four short games ago that the Hoosiers were coming off a 1-12 stretch in Big Ten play that made qualifying for the NIT look like a remote possibility, let alone the Big Dance. But as I said, things can change quickly, and that they did as Indiana won it’s last four games to close the regular season.

And while IU has been trending up, the same can’t be said for Ohio State.

After navigating the non-conference schedule with relative ease, picking up impressive road wins against Cincinnati and Creighton, the Buckeyes managed to just tread water in conference play, with its most impressive win arguably being a home win over Iowa.

Luckily for Ohio State, however, it’ll welcome back sophomore forward Kaleb Wesson—the team’s leading scorer who missed the past three games due to an unspecified suspension.

So how does this one play out? You could honestly tell me anything as both Ohio State and Indiana have had a Jekyll and Hyde approach to the 2018-’19 season.

That said, getting Kaleb Wesson back for the Buckeyes has the potential to be a big lift at the right time.

  • Pick Against The Spread: Ohio State

-No. 13 Nebraska Cornhuskers at No. 5 Maryland Terrapins

  • Time/TV: 2:55PM ET - BTN
  • KenPom Spread: Maryland (-7)

So I believe I owe the Rutgers Scarlet Knights an apology.

In taking over guest writing duties of our BTP Power Rankings last week, I threw Rutgers some love, highlighting the Knights as a team on a meteoric rise up the Big Ten ranks. In response, RU lost three games in a row, including yesterday’s opening round game to Nebraska. Whoops.

Now, the Cornhuskers will quickly need to turn its attention to the Maryland Terrapins should it want to keep its season alive for another day.

Doing that, however, will be easier said than done.

I’ve been beating the Maryland drum for much of this season, and that’s because this team was built to succeed in March. Possessing a top-heavy roster with almost zero depth, the Terrapins are designed for games featuring shortened benches where talent ultimately wins out.

Looking throughout the Big Ten, you’d be hard pressed to find a more skilled group one-through-six than this Maryland team. Anthony Cowan Jr., Bruno Fernando, and Jalen Smith are top-level players capable of taking over a game, while Aaron Wiggins, Eric Ayala, and Darryl Morsell are interchangeable premium parts that allows for coach Mark Turgeon to ride the hot hand.

Nebraska, however, isn’t without talent. It’s just that talent pretty much starts and stops with senior guard James Palmer Jr. The Maryland native did everything he could to extend his final season against Rutgers, shooting 9-of-19 from the field on his way to a 34 point outing.

He’ll need to have left some fuel in the tank for today if he looks to help soften the blow of a frustrating season by beating his hometown university on the Big Ten’s biggest stage.

  • Pick Against The Spread: Maryland

-No. 10 Penn State Nittany Lions at No. 7 Minnesota Golden Gophers

  • Time/TV: 7:00PM ET - BTN
  • KenPom Spread: Penn State (-2)

Basketball is weird and confusing. You know why? Because while Minnesota finds itself semi-comfortably in the NCAAs field of 68, Penn State owns a KenPom rating six spots better than the Golden Gophers.

Like I said, weird and confusing.

For Penn State, it enters the Big Ten Tournament with an overall record of 14-17, needing a modest run to have even a punches chance at defending its 2017-’18 NIT Championship crown. It also, however, enters play in Chicago one of the hottest teams in the entire country over the past 10 games, with maybe the best chance of any team playing today to put a run together to Sunday’s Big Ten Championship.

And while I’m not saying it’s likely, Penn State’s style of play (it has a top 25 defense, along with an offense that’s become surprisingly competent) and it’s late blooming-ness (thanks to the continued development of its freshmen class), the Lions profile as a team capable of making some noise this week in the Windy City.

To do so, however, it’ll have to navigate a compelling Thursday evening game against Minnesota.

Much like with Ohio State and Indiana, the Golden Gophers have had an up and down season. If you want a microcosm of this, look no further than it’s last four games which saw Minnesota pick up an impressive win (Purdue), an expected W (at Northwestern), a frustrating loss (at Maryland) and a gut-punch defeat (at Rutgers).

That said, the Gophers have a talented roster led by the duo of Jordan Murphy and Amir Coffey, so it remains more than capable of extinguishing Penn State’s hot hand.

  • Pick Against The Spread: Penn State

-No. 11 Illinois Fighting Illini at No. 6 Iowa Hawkeyes

  • Time/TV: 9:25PM ET - BTN
  • KenPom Spread: Iowa (-3.5)

This game is for exactly three types of people: Illinois fans, Iowa fans, and anyone who watches NASCAR solely to see the cars wreck.

Seeing as I’m none of the three, the odds of me staying up to watch this game are slim to quite slim. That said, if a preview is what you want, than a preview is what you get.

For starters, it’s beginning to look more and more likely that Iowa sold its soul to win a road game at Rutgers. Since it’s buzzer-beating prayer was answered in New Brunswick, the Hawkeyes have seen everything go from bad to worse, picking up only one win in its last five games.

However it’s most recent defeat — a 93-91 overtime loss at Nebraska — at least featured some silver linings and reasons for optimism. In that game against the Cornhuskers, sophomore forward Luka Garza shot 10-of-16 from the field, scoring 25 points while chipping in seven rebounds.

Junior guard Jordan Bohannon was only a little off Garza’s pace, scoring 20 points of his own on 6-of-12 shooting. Say what you want about Iowa’s recent run of play, but with Garza, Bohannon, Tyler Cook, and Joe Wieskamp, the Hawkeyes are capable of running out four guys averaging double-digit scoring outputs.

For Illinois, it should view getting to the second day of the Big Ten Tournament as an accomplishment, especially considering the flawed lens one would need to look at its overall body of work through.

But Iowa is such a group in disarray that I wouldn’t blame anyone rocking orange for thinking there’s more than a punchers chance of advancing to the next round in the semi-familiar confines of its home away from home.

Do you know who will be the real winner of this game, though? Michigan. Because at the end of the day (quite literally as it’s fairly late over here on the East Coast) the Wolverines will meet either the sleepwalking Iowa Hawkeyes or the incredibly flawed Illini on Friday evening.

  • Pick Against The Spread: Illinois

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Season Record vs KenPom’s Spread: 17-23