Thursday’s Big Ten action is jam-packed with key games, airing on ESPN and FS1. It features a bounce back opportunity for Michigan State and Ohio State, a road trip for Iowa to face Michigan, and Illinois hosting Penn State.
Let’s take a look at the slate.
Game of the Night:
-Michigan State Spartans at No. 23 Ohio State Buckeyes
- Time/TV: 7:00 PM ET (ESPN)
- KenPom Spread: Ohio State (-5)
Both Michigan State and Ohio State enter tonight’s action in a precarious position. Ohio State is fresh off a home loss to what’s normally the Big Ten’s punching bag in Nebraska. Immediately before that game, they dropped one on the road at Maryland by 15 points. Whatever your theory for what’s gone wrong in Columbus, the reality is they’ve played themselves off the four-seed and double-bye in the Big Ten Tournament, and are in danger of dropping to a seven-seed in the Big Dance.
As for Michigan State, things were starting to look up after they halted a three-game skid and beat Purdue at home. But they immediately followed this great win with a 17-point loss to Michigan in a game that was never close. This drops the Spartans to a measly 2-6 in their last eight games, and while they are still firmly in the tournament field, it’s entirely possible that they slide into the 8/9 matchup, should they continue to lose.
It’s safe to say things aren’t going great for these teams. Frankly, while I think there is still hope for Ohio State, Michigan State looks to be on a path to an early tournament exit. While “Mr. March” has proven himself to be capable of guiding teams to deep runs in the NCAA Tournament, this team simply doesn’t have the talent or leadership to pull things together.
And if you don't believe me, take it from Tom Izzo, who said “The lack of leadership in our juniors and seniors disappoints [him]”. While it’s disappointing to follow up a mediocre season with what’s looking to be another one, Izzo has proven that the Spartans don’t stay down long, and I believe they’ll be back with a vengeance next year.
Ohio State, I believe, still has a chance to turn things around and finish strong. Their final two games are at home, and while Michigan (OSU’s last opponent) is playing well, I think these are both winnable games. Iowa—the Buckeyes’ competition for the coveted No. 4 seed in the Big Ten Tournament—has a much more difficult path, playing at Michigan tonight and finishing at Illinois Sunday. So, if things go well, the Buckeyes could still clinch that double-bye in the BTT, and a five- or six-seed in March Madness.
Why do I think the Buckeyes can turn it around? Well, it comes down to talent, injuries, and fatigue. For starters, Zed Key, one of their key big men, has been out the past two games. Land of Holy Grant’s Josh Dooley makes the case that this could be a good opportunity to rest and reset, following a pedestrian six-game stretch. Additionally, the team has just looked gassed to me lately. EJ Liddell was battling the flu, and Kyle Young appears to have suffered a similar illness.
Once the Buckeyes get healthy, I think they can get back to playing at a high level, as they’ve proven they can do. Whether or not that happens this game or later, we shall see. But I like OSU to defend their home court here and pick up the win over MSU.
- Prediction: Ohio State wins, 72-68
-No. 24 Iowa Hawkeyes at Michigan Wolverines
- Time/TV: 9:00 PM ET (ESPN)
- KenPom Spread: Iowa (-1)
Truth be told, I think this is going to be a better game than MSU-OSU, but that game is certainly more important in setting the tone for postseason play for both teams.
Iowa enters Thursday night on quite the tear—they’ve won four straight and have moved into fourth-place in the Big Ten, which brings with it a double-bye in the Big Ten Tournament. The Hawkeyes have gone on this run largely on the back of star forward Keegan Murray, who is cementing himself as the frontrunner for Big Ten Player of the Year.
But the last loss for Iowa came at home by four points to—you guessed it—Michigan. The Wolverines have been playing much better basketball lately, most recently exhibited in their 17-point disassembly of Michigan State. While they are eighth in the conference, they are only one game out of fourth, and with a strong finish and some help, they could actually move into double-bye position. Michigan is relatively safe in the field after their win over Michigan State, but a win here would only strengthen their position and seeding.
- Prediction: Iowa wins, 87-84
- Time/TV: 7:00 PM ET (FS1)
- KenPom Spread: Illinois (-11)
Unfortunately for Illinois, their dream of a Big Ten regular-season championship is looking unlikely, as they would need to win out and hope Wisconsin drops their final game just to get a share of the title. And Wisconsin’s final game is . . . Nebraska at home. I suppose there’s some far-fetched reality that this happens, seeing as Nebraska has managed to string together two consecutive wins. But, call me crazy if you want, I don’t see them getting a third.
Still, Illinois has a clear path to the No. 2 seed in the Big Ten Tournament, and are certainly capable of making noise in the tournament with the right draw; they’re likely to be a four or five-seed at the moment. I’m somewhat pessimistic about this possibility—you can read my last column to find out why—but these last few games will be key to deciding their seeding in March.
Penn State is coming off a discouraging 23-point loss at home to Nebraska, but they are in position to avoid playing on the first day of the Big Ten Tournament; they are in 10th right now and dropping to 11 would mean losing the first-round bye. Prior to Nebraska, the Nittany Lions were able to pick up three wins, albeit against subpar competition, in the preceding four games.
I think the Illini handle this game fairly easily. Kofi Cockburn has shown his ability to feast against weaker competition, and Penn State has nowhere near the size to stop him.
- Prediction: Illinois wins, 78-61