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2/18 Big Ten Preview: A Big One In State College

Plus Madison and College Park

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Penn State Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

Somewhere Jim Delany is smiling. The former Commish is the architect of the Big Ten’s move eastward—adding Penn State in the 90s, then Maryland and Rutgers in the 2010s. Tonight, two of those teams are first and second in the conference, with the third tied for third. Both the first place team (Maryland) and second place team (Penn State) have home games tonight.

Game of the Night:

-Illinois Fighting Illini at Penn State Nittany Lions

  • Time/TV: 6:30 PM EST, FS1
  • KenPom Spread: Penn State (-7)

Oh, Illinois. I could have told you that success doesn’t come all at once. I’ve been skeptical of the Illini since the preseason, arguing that not sucking wasn’t the same thing as being good. There’s a mediocre stage that you have to move through first; you don’t go from a Wednesday BTT team to a Big Ten title contender in one season. Through the end of January, it looked like Brad Underwood was going to prove me wrong. But since the calendar changed to February, the Illini are 0-4. Now, those are all “good losses”, but still. If you want to win the conference, you have to win games.

Penn State has bee doing just that. After a three-game losing streak that saw Pat Chambers’ team fall to 2-4 in the Big Ten, the Lions have rattled off eight straight wins, including road wins at Michigan, Michigan State, and Purdue.

As you look at the stats, there’s nothing that jumps out at you. Yes, Lamar Stevens is a beast, but he’s not hoisting a ridiculous number of shots, and he’s barely above 50% from two and below 30% from three. Mike Watkins is a nationally-elite shot-blocker, but nobody on this roster is putting up eye-popping numbers. No, this is just a blue collar squad that is bought in, clicking, and executing. They’re already at ten Big Ten wins; as a program they’ve only hit double-digit conference wins twice since joining the Big Ten in the mid-90s.

If Illinois is going to have any chance in this one, they need Ayo Dosunmu. The Illini guard injured himself late in the Michigan State game, and an MRI has indicated that the injury isn’t serious. Still, we don’t know if he’ll be 100% tonight in the Bryce Jordan Center.

I’m not sure it’ll matter. With the exception of the Wisconsin game, Penn State has been great at home.

One last thing to point out is that three years ago, nobody would have expected that Penn State would be the team that wants to push tempo, while Illinois wants to slow it down, but that’s exactly what we’ll see. The Illini are 251st in tempo, whereas Penn State is 39th. In the 2018 season, Penn State was 217th while Illinois was 81st.

  • Pick against the spread: Penn State

The Rest:

-Purdue Boilermakers at Wisconsin Badgers

  • Time/TV: 7:00 PM EST, ESPN
  • KenPom Spread: Wisconsin (-3)

Just when it looked like Purdue had solved their road woes in Bloomington, the old Boilermakers reappeared in Columbus. Purdue is maybe the most enigmatic team in the country this year. When they’re on, they look unstoppable. When they’re off, they look like they’re setting the game of basketball back 30 years.

But Purdue isn’t so strange; they’re just an extreme example of the old maxim: when you’re hitting shots things go well, and when you aren’t things go badly. Their inconsistency is entirely attributable to whether shots are falling or not. And that’s not necessarily predictable. If you want my advice, don’t bet either for or against Purdue the rest of the year. You never know what kind of shooting night they’ll turn in.

As for Wisconsin, they might be the most consistent team in the Big Ten this year. As we’ve come to expect from a Greg Gard squad, they win games they’re supposed to but don’t go beyond that. (The road win at Penn State looks much better in retrospect than it did at the time.) They don’t turn the ball over, don’t force turnovers, don’t foul, and don’t get fouled.

That said, the one thing they do have in common with Purdue is that their outside shooting can be maddeningly inconsistent. Against Ohio State, Brevin Pritzl was 5-6 from three. Against Nebraska? 0-6.

It surprises me that Wisconsin isn’t a bigger favorite tonight. Maybe KenPom knows something I don’t, though Matt Painter has traditionally done very well against Wisconsin. But Purdue is a team that needs easy transition points if the shots aren’t falling, and they usually don’t fall on the road, and Wisconsin isn’t a team you’ll find yourself in transition against very often. I like the Badgers tonight.

  • Pick against the spread: Wisconsin

-Northwestern Wildcats at Maryland Terrapins

  • Time/TV: 8:00 PM EST, BTN
  • KenPom Spread: Maryland (-16)

Though Maryland is technically in the lead in the Big Ten race, apart from tonight, they have a much tougher remaining schedule than Penn State. And most casual fans would be a lot happier to see Penn State hoist the trophy at the end of the year—there’s just something about Maryland fans that makes them easy to hate. (Though there’s also something to be said for a team that everyone loves to hate.)

Last Tuesday, I said there was zero chance Nebraska had a chance in the Xfinity Center, and they went and played the Terps within two. So despite the fact that Northwestern is bringing a nine-game losing streak into a venue where Maryland has yet to lose, you can never say never.

Northwestern doesn’t turn the ball over, and Maryland doesn’t force turnovers, so the Wildcats are going to get shots off. Probably not very good shots, and a decent number of them will get blocked by Stix Smith, but if they hit a few tough ones, this could be a game.

For those of us hoping that Penn State wins their first ever Big Ten title, let’s just hope that if Northwestern does get a lead, that they don’t slap the floor.

  • Pick against the spread: Maryland wins, but Northwestern covers