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Big Ten Tournament Preview: Opening Night

There are two games in the first night of the Big Ten Tournament.

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Minnesota David Berding-USA TODAY Sports

The 2021 Big Ten Tournament tips off tonight and this year it looks like we’ll actually get the whole thing in. Last year things looked dire at the end of the opening night, with COVID-19 finally being taken seriously stateside and a noticeably ill Fred Hoiberg trying to coach his Nebraska thru the opening round. Now a year later and we’ll have the full conference tournament and the upcoming NCAA Tournament after missing out on the experience last year.

Minnesota Gophers vs Northwestern Wildcats

  • Time/TV: 6:30 PM ET BTN

Well, this is a familiar sight.

If you remember back in 2020 these two teams faced off in the first game of the night, with Minnesota knocking off Northwestern 74-57. These teams also faced each other recently, with Northwestern knocking off Minnesota 67-59 at the end of February. That game ended a 13 game skid for the Wildcats and started a three game winning streak that includes wins over Maryland and Nebraska.

It’s safe to say Minnesota has fallen off over the past month. The team has had some inconsistency issues throughout the year, but a win over Purdue put them at 13-7 with wins against the previously mentioned Boilers, Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan State. The Gophers were looking like a tournament team down the stretch even at the beginning of a three game losing streak. It wasn’t until losses to Northwestern and Nebraska that it looked like the Gophers finally played themselves out of the postseason. It hasn’t ended there, either, with the losing streak now reaching seven games. In a matter of weeks Minnesota went from a tourney team to looking like they might start looking for a new head coach in a week or so.

Minnesota has fell so far out of contention they likely need to win the Big Ten Tournament to reach the postseason. If they can at least make a deep run they could reenter NIT contention and potentially save Richard Pitino’s job, but the team is in free fall mode and hasn’t quite bottomed out yet. Even worse is the team’s one consistent player, Marcus Carr, has struggled down the stretch. In their last loss the guard was 1 of 13 from the field for only 7 points.

To further complicate things the Gophers won’t have center Liam Robbins or key guard Gabe Kalscheur, neither of which have been cleared from injuries yet. The last time these two teams faced off the Gophers went 4 of 27 from three and couldn’t stop Boo Buie, who added 25 points for the Wildcats. Minnesota currently ranks 333rd in field goal percentage and 341st in three point shooting percentage (last in the Big Ten in both categories) and has to play without their second and third best players. That’s not a good recipe for a win.

Northwestern was in free fall earlier this year, but they actually started looking a lot better throughout February. While in the midst of a 13 game losing streak, they had narrow defeats to Purdue, Indiana and Illinois in games they could have won. They then closed the season with a nice string of wins over Minnesota, Maryland and Nebraska. Northwestern hasn’t been great this year, but they’ve came together and have been a tough out for plenty of teams this year. Going against a short handed and struggling Minnesota team that might be enough.

On paper the Gophers are the more talented team. But considering how they have been playing and their injury issues, a healthier and rolling Northwestern team repeats what they did a couple weeks ago and gets another win over the Gophers.

Pick: Northwestern

Nebraska Cornhuskers vs Penn State Nittany Lions

  • Time/TV: 9:00 PM ET (25 Minutes Following Game 1) BTN

In another familiar sight, Nebraska is once again playing in the second game of opening night after finishing last in the conference. This year they’ll square off against Penn State instead of Indiana.

Interestingly enough, Nebraska has seemingly been better since Teddy Allen fell out of the rotation due to injury and then announced he was leaving the program. The 1-14 Cornhuskers wrecked havoc on a pair of bubble teams with unexpected wins over Minnesota and Rutgers and almost closed the season with a win at Northwestern.

Tonight’s matchup with Penn State will be the third meeting in the past month for these two teams. The first two outing were definitely entertaining, with Nebraska and Penn State splitting the series and both games being decided by three or less points. That being said, Teddy Allen is no longer with Nebraska. While the Cornhuskers have played better without him, it should be mentioned he scored 41 in their loss to Penn State and also led the team in scoring in their one point win.

While Penn State is only 10-13, they have both NET and KenPom rankings in the top 40. The team has struggled to win close games, however, losing to Seton Hall, Michigan, Indiana, Purdue, Ohio State, Michigan State, Nebraska and Iowa all by single digits. Even with the narrow defeats the Nittany Lions still have wins over likely postseason teams in Virginia Tech, Rutgers, Wisconsin and Maryland (twice). They also closed the season on a 3-1 run, with a comeback win at Maryland to close out the regular season.

Penn State is typically a team that has played hard over the past several seasons and that remains the same here. Myreon Jones and Izaiah Brockington form a pretty dynamic backcourt, while Seth Lundy has been big at times throughout the season. Penn State might not wow you on paper but they have a pretty balanced team that has proven capable of playing with almost everyone in the Big Ten.

Nebraska hasn’t been able to reach that level, even if they’re playing their best basketball right now. While the team has seemingly played better without Allen, he was their main offensive weapon in both games against Penn State. Without him it’s unlikely they pick up a win in their third game against Penn State.

Pick: Penn State