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2/11 Big Ten Preview: Showdown in Mackey

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Plus two teams looking to stop the bleeding

NCAA Basketball: Iowa at Purdue Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Three games on tap tonight:

  • One involves two teams playing their best basketball right now.
  • One involves two teams both looking to snap mini losing streaks.
  • And one will only be watched by fans of those two schools.

Let’s get to it!

Game of the Night:

-Penn State Nittany Lions at Purdue Boilermakers

  • Time/TV: 6:30 PM EST, BTN
  • KenPom Spread: Purdue (-4)

While most of America focuses on the New Hampshire primary, where the killer B’s—Bernie, Biden, and Buttigieg—are duking it out, Big Ten basketball fans will be tuning into an early-evening battle between the killer P’s—Purdue and Penn State.

The Nittany Lions come into this one hotter than any team in the conference except Maryland. Their current six-game winning streak includes wins in the Crisler Center and the Breslin Center, two very difficult places to win. They will try to run the gauntlet by getting their seventh straight at the toughest venue in the Big Ten over the past five years, Mackey Arena.

Purdue, Saturday’s performance in Bloomington aside for a moment, has been Jekyll and Hyde this year—beating the tar out of people at home while going so cold on the road you could use them to remove warts. Illinois is the only opponent that’s had the formula for containing the Boilers in Mackey Arena.

On the one hand, Penn State looks a lot like Illinois. Tough interior defense keeps opponents shooting a low percentage in the paint. But Penn State has embraced the style that Brad Underwood abandoned—forcing lots of live-ball turnovers. Mike Watkins and Lamar Stevens get all the attention for Penn State, and rightly so, but Jamari Wheeler’s defense should not be overlooked.

Of course, the Boilers themselves are no slouches at the defensive end. In Big Ten play, they’ve actually forced more turnovers than anyone else in the conference (Penn State is second), but a greater proportion of those are dead-ball turnovers rather than steals.

Defense travels, though. The secret to Purdue’s magic in Mackey is improved offense. And given how Aaron Wheeler has performed in the last two games, including 4-of-4 for 11 points in Bloomington, this Purdue team has started to look like the team Boiler fans expected at the beginning of the year.

T-Rank says that this game is between the No. 10 and No. 11 teams in America. I fully expect Purdue to come out swinging like they did against Iowa, but I also expect that Penn State will be able to take a punch better than the Hawkeyes did. This has all the makings of a prize fight, with the momentum swinging back and forth, and fans of both fans panting, sweating, and throwing things at their television screen when a 50/50 call goes the other way. Worse Penn State teams have played better Purdue teams close. A four-point spread feels about right. Tie goes to the school I attended for four years. Nothing personal, Penn State fans.

  • Pick against the spread: Purdue

The Rest:

-Michigan State Spartans at Illinois Fighting Illini

  • Time/TV: 9:00 PM EST, ESPN
  • KenPom Spread: Illinois (-1)

This is another game that I expect to remind fans why they love Big Ten basketball. Whereas Purdue and Penn State are both coming in feeling confident, both the Illini and Spartans are coming in with a chip on their shoulder.

Michigan State, preseason No. 1 in the AP poll, has fallen out of the Top 25 altogether after the three-game losing streak. The one-point loss in Madison is excusable, but they didn’t protect home court against Penn State and they were never really in the game against Michigan.

Cassius Winston remains one of the best players in the Big Ten, and the Spartans still rack up more assists than anyone else in America—when the offense is in rhythm it really works. But when the next pass doesn’t kick to an open shooter and the Spartans have to manufacture something, they aren’t as successful. Winston can still get into the lane whenever he wants, but whereas last year it felt like he couldn’t miss, this year he’s having to get his points on higher volume. Fans of the green and white are starting to realize that they miss Matt McQuaid more than they thought.

As for Illinois, they struggle to score against a zone. They have one of the best centers in the Big Ten in Kofi Cockburn, one of the best forwards in the Big Ten in Giorgi Bezhanishvili, and one of the best penetrating guards in the Big Ten in Ayo Dosunmu. What they lack is outside shooting. It takes shooting to bust a zone.

I’m not saying that I expect Izzo to come out in a zone, but I do expect the Spartans to pack it in tight. This one is going to be a slugfest. Both teams pride themselves on their toughness. I expect the key stat tonight will be rebounding—the team that is able to win the battle on the boards will win the game.

  • Pick against the spread: Instead of picking either side to cover, I’m taking the under

-Nebraska Cornhuskers at Maryland Terrapins

  • Time/TV: 8:30 PM EST, BTN
  • KenPom Spread: Maryland (-18)

Maryland is really good, almost certainly the best team in the Big Ten, and Turgeon might finally be having his breakout year. They will win this game, though eighteen is a big spread to try to cover.

Now let’s talk about Nebraska.

Nebraska is one of the weirdest teams in the country. They are either really good at something, or really bad at it. Check out their team stats from KenPom:

Nationally elite at not turning the ball over and not fouling. Abysmal at shooting, rebounding, and getting their shot blocked. Really fast on offense. Really slow on defense.

This is the only time Maryland fans will see the Huskers this season. It will be a revelation. Not because the game will be particularly good, but because Nebraska is literally a team that’s taken Revelation 3:16 to heart:

So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.

There’s nothing lukewarm about Nebraska. You should keep them in your mouth.

OK, that got weird.

  • Pick against the spread: Nebraska.