There are three games in the Big Ten conference tonight. It’s no exaggeration to say this is the best three-game slate I’ve previewed all season. One of the games has conference title implications, one has bubble implications, and the last one has both.
Let me check the calendar. Yep. March.
With apologies to Christmas, this is the most wonderful time of the year.
Game of the Night:
- Time/TV: 7:00 PM EST (BTN)
- KenPom Spread: Rutgers (-1)
Somewhere Jim Delany is falling over with glee.
The two most recent additions to the conference, in a showdown on BTN, in a game that’s essentially a pick’em, with one team bucking for its first Big Ten title and the other bucking for its first NCAA Tournament appearance in recent memory.
Yeah, this is absolutely the game of the night.
That said, both of these teams have looked vulnerable recently. Maryland still has sole possession of first with a one-game lead, but they have lost two of three. Rutgers has lost four of five, but the one was a butt-whipping of Illinois in the RAC, which is quickly earning a reputation as the toughest arena in the conference. Only Michigan has been able to win there this season.
If the stats and the first matchup between these two teams are any indication, this should be a classic Big Ten rock fight. Both these teams pride themselves more on defense than on offense, but that’s more due to a complete inability to consistently hit the outside shot than to aggressively trying to force turnovers. This game will come down to which team makes the other team takes more tough shots, and which team can hit those tough shots.
Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the elephant in the room—Mark Turgeon has a reputation for losing inexplicably in the third month of the year. KenPom says that this is the best team in College Park since the 2002 national champions, and a win would clinch at least a share of the conference title. Big life, big stage, Big Ten. Big choke?
But the truth is, it wouldn’t be a choke job if Maryland lost tonight. It’s getting almost impossible to read an article about Rutgers that doesn't mention the RAC as a “house of horrors”. And this is a rivalry game of sorts. The Scarlet Knight faithful were able to will their team to big wins over Seton Hall and Penn State in similar environments. Let’s be clear, I’m not picking against Turgeon, I’m picking Rutgers on their own merits. But if Maryland does lose, I’ll still have fun reading Testudo Times after the game.
- Pick against the spread: Rutgers
Other Big Ten Action:
- Time/TV: 7:00 PM EST (ESPN)
- KenPom Spread: Penn State (-1)
While I think Maryland/Rutgers is the game of the night, the television powers that be apparently believe it’s this one, putting it on the Worldwide Leader. And you know, they have a point. This is another pick’em. And both these teams have a chance to win a share of the conference title, though obviously Michigan State is far more likely to accomplish that feat.
They really need this win tonight, though. And Penn State already got them in East Lansing. You have to think most people are going to pick the Nittany Lions to win this one tonight. But Pat Chambers’ team is in the middle of a four-game stretch where the only win was a one point home dub against Rutgers. Meanwhile Sparty is in the middle of their own four-game stretch where they’ve won three of four, and the one loss was to Maryland at home, which they avenged in College Park Saturday. Does Tom Izzo’s squad have the firepower to get a second road revenge win out east?
Everyone knows about how good Lamar Stevens is, but for those of you who haven’t been paying attention to Penn State, Stevens might not even be the best player on the roster anymore these days. Myreon Jones has come on strong. Buoyed by 40% shooting behind the arc, the sophomore guard has an offensive rating 13 points better than Stevens.
The green and white have a sophomore guard of their own who is stepping up. Gabe Brown has an offensive rating above both Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman. Part of that is taking care of the ball and not fouling, but the biggest thing is his ability to hit free throws. Brown is 95%—yes, 95%!—from the charity stripe. Late in a close game, he’s the guy whose hands you want the ball in.
I said above that Turgeon’s reputation in March had nothing to do with that pick. Izzo’s reputation in March does have a bearing on this one. Once again, it looks like Michigan State is playing their best basketball at the right time of year. Despite what I’m sure will be a good crowd in the Bryce Jordan Center, I like Sparty tonight.
- Pick against the spread: Michigan State
- Time/TV: 9:00 PM EST (BTN)
- KenPom Spread: Iowa (-4)
Since the beginning of February, Purdue has beaten Northwestern (barely), Indiana (twice), and Iowa (by 36). That’s a pretty unimpressive record. Were this game against anyone but Iowa, I’d predict that my Boilermakers lay another egg on the road.
But maybe Purdue has figured out the Hawkeyes. Luka Garza is the best player in the league and is going to get his. Only one team this season had held him under twenty. But even if he puts up 40, that’s not enough to win if you don’t get meaningful contributions from the supporting cast.
Purdue has the players that can guard Iowa’s guards. And they have two bigs to throw at Garza. Neither Trevion Williams nor Matt Haarms can shut down Garza, but they can play him one-on-one and make him work every possession. Don't enable easy kick-outs to three-point shooters. Of course, Purdue will have to hit shots of their own, which has been a struggle outside of Mackey Arena.
The most interesting thing to me will be tempo. Will Purdue try to take the air out of the ball, knowing that might stagnate their offense, or will they be willing to play Iowa’s game and run up and down the floor? As a disillusioned Boiler fan, it’s easy to see the downsides of both approaches. This is a game that Purdue has to win to move to the right side of the bubble. I don’t think they will. Hawkeyes by 13.
- Pick against the spread: Iowa