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1/17 Big Ten Preview: Battle for First Place

Plus Hawkeyes and Wolverines

NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Purdue Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

So I’ll say it—this year might be the most fun this league has ever been. There are good games every night, and there are 12 teams that feel like they’re one of the four teams who will be earning a double-bye in Indianapolis in March. (Sorry, NU. Both of you.) Four of those twelve are in action tonight in a pair of games that will have major implications in the league standings.

Game of the Night:

-Wisconsin Badgers at Michigan State Spartans

  • Time/TV: 7:00 PM EST, FS1
  • KenPom Spread: Michigan State (-7)

With wins over Penn State (one of the rare road wins in the conference this year) and Maryland, Wisconsin is one of the hottest teams in the league right now. Now’s the time to be hot, too, because on paper this will be the biggest challenge that Greg Gard and company face all season.

Here’s a list of Big Ten teams that have beaten Michigan State in East Lansing over the past three seasons:

  • Purdue (2017)
  • Michigan (2018)
  • Indiana (2019)

That’s it. Izzo and the boys drop one home conference loss per year.

Will this be the one?

It’ll come down to two things. One is something that can be said of almost any game: who can hit shots? Neither one of these teams is lights-out from three. Wisconsin has only cracked 40 percent from beyond the arc once this conference season.

Meanwhile, the Spartans are coming off an atrocious shooting night in Mackey Arena. It’s hard to predict that Wisconsin finally has a great shooting night during a road game, particularly in what’s arguably the toughest building in the midwest to play in. So, the Badgers have to home Michigan State doesn’t get hot.

But missed shots mean lots of opportunities for transition play, which brings us to our second factor tonight: pace. Wisconsin wants to be methodical in the halfcourt . Michigan State wants to push the ball up the floor at every opportunity. If the Spartans get an early lead, it’ll be really hard for Wisconsin to rally back. And you know the crowd is going to want to get their team off to a fast start.

With a win tonight, the Badgers would be tied with Michigan State for first place. But it’s hard to see a path to victory for Wisconsin. Sparty by 12.

  • Pick against the spread: Michigan State

The Rest:

-Michigan Wolverines at Iowa Hawkeyes

  • Time/TV: 9:00 PM EST, FS1
  • KenPom Spread: Iowa (-4)

The nightcap might actually be the more interesting game tonight. Whereas we pretty much know what to expect from Michigan State and Wisconsin, this one is anybody’s guess. Michigan has lost five of their last seven against power conference opponents. One win was a double-OT squeaker at home against Purdue. The other was a blowout win over Iowa. Is Michigan’s season foundering after that hot 7-0 start? Or is this the same team that blew the doors of No. 1 Gonzaga in November?

As for Iowa, is this the same blitzkrieg-offense-no-defense Fran McCaffery system that we’ve come to expect? Well... in their trip to Ann Arbor in December, the Hawkeyes put up 91, whereas in their last three games, they’ve only scored 70, 67, and 75 points. But they lost in Ann Arbor badly, and they won two of those last three games. The offense has slowed down, but the defense has picked up. Just when we thought Fran was going to be his most Franatical, he’s switching things up on us.

This game is going to come down to one guy—Jon Teske. When he’s good, Michigan’s good. When he’s bad—like, say, Sunday afternoon against Minnesota when he let Daniel Oturu go off for 30—Michigan is mediocre.

His assignment will be the man that KenPom considers to be the best player in the Big Ten and second-best in the country: Luka Garza. Garzilla has developed into an absolute beast. His game is the same as it always was; he’s just able to do it pretty much every trip down the floor now. With great balance and footwork and a really good shooter’s touch, he’s the closest thing the Big Ten has seen to Frank Kaminsky since 2015, though his not the passer that Big Frank was.

When you don’t know what to expect, you fall back on what you know, and what I know is that I’m going to keep picking home teams until road teams start to perform better. Maybe Michigan bucks the trend tonight, but I doubt it. My guess is that the Hawkeye offense heats back up and they break into the mid-80s.

  • Pick against the spread: Iowa