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3/6 Big Ten Preview: Final Day of Regular Season

Illinois plays in hopes of a co-title while Iowa and Ohio State vie for a double bye.

NCAA Basketball: Penn State at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

On the last day of the regular season there is still plenty of things to be decided in the Big Ten conference race. The most notable race is for the Big Ten title. While Wisconsin already has locked up at least a co-title, the Illini can still become co-champs if they win and Wisconsin loses to Nebraska. That becomes even more relevant as the Illini hold the tiebreaker and would take the #1 seed in the Big Ten Tournament. Also left to be decided is who will land the last double bye, with Iowa and Ohio State both in contention for coveted spot.

Game of the Day

#24 Iowa Hawkeyes at #20 Illinois Fighting Illini

Time/TV: 7:30 PM ET FS1
Line: Illinois -3.5

A top 25 showdown, there’s plenty of intrigue here in Iowa and Illinois. Of course by the time this game tips off a lot of interest could be gone.

Entering today a game back, Illinois can still pick up a share of the Big Ten title if they win and Wisconsin loses. Of course Wisconsin plays Nebraska earlier today, so there’s a good chance the Illini won’t be playing for a title tonight. Even then there’s some relevance to the game, as they lost both games to Purdue and a loss tonight would drop them from the 2 seed down to the 3 seed in the Big Ten Tournament.

As for Iowa, they enter today tied with Ohio State for the fourth seed in the Big Ten. They hold the tiebreaker, so today’s game won’t matter if Ohio State losses. If the Buckeyes win, though, an Iowa win would keep them tied and give them the fourth seed. That’s important as it’s also the last double bye in the Big Ten Tournament and would keep Iowa off until Friday.

Iowa did not look good the last time these two teams played, losing by 14 in early December. They’re playing considerably better now, though, going 8-1 over their last nine games. The offense has always been there, especially with how good Keegan Murray has been, but the recent improvement in defense makes this Iowa team an even more dangerous opponent in March.

While Illinois is still in contention for a title, they probably could have been in better position if not for a road loss to Rutgers or an untimely home loss to Ohio State. The Illini haven’t always impressed as much as their record would indicate, but there’s a good base there and a team that could make a run in March. Kofi Cockburn has been an anchor inside once again, but the backcourts ability to shoot has been huge all season. Andre Curbelo has underwhelmed throughout a limited season, but the Illini have found ways to take care of business nonetheless.

If Iowa’s defense can continue to their recent success they could definitely land an upset tonight. That could be even more likely if Wisconsin wins and the stakes for this game lower for the Illini. Honestly this is probably a game Iowa will win, but it’s just hard to pick against the home team in Big Ten play.

Pick: Illinois

The Rest

Penn State Nittany Lions at Rutgers Scarlet Knights

Time/TV: 12:00 PM ET BTN
Line: Rutgers -5.5

Rutgers might have locked up their NCAA Tournament appearance with a win over Indiana earlier this week. A loss to Penn State today would put that bid back into doubt as Rutgers is on the back end of the field, and would require them to win a game or two in the Big Ten Tournament. Even if they win, depending on how the bubble plays out it would be beneficial for Rutgers to win at least two more games to help them feel a bit better heading into Selection Sunday.

Today they get a home game against a not particularly good Penn State team, but still a Nittany Lion squad that beat them by 17 earlier in the season. In that game Rutgers shot 33.9% from the field, 26.3% from three, 50% from the line and had 15 turnovers. They’ve played considerably better since. With Ron Harper Jr. being cold blooded at the end of games, and an offense that has improved just enough to match the Knights stout defense, Rutgers has turned into a formidable and difficult team to beat. Even better for Rutgers is the game today is at home, where they play considerably better.

Penn State is 1-3 their last four games, including a loss to Maryland and 23 point home loss to Nebraska. While Penn State plays tough, they haven’t had enough offense firepower to win games this season. They would love to play spoiler today, but Rutgers should know they need this win and find a way.

Pick: Rutgers

Michigan Wolverines at #23 Ohio State Buckeyes

Time/TV: 12:30 PM ET FOX
Line: Ohio State -4.0

Ohio State has been all over the place this season and it’s hard to get a good read on them. After finding a way to steal a win against Indiana in a game they should have lost, the Buckeyes knocked off Illinois on the road. Then they lost at Maryland by 15 and got beat on their home court by Nebraska. A home win over Michigan State was nice, but it won’t do much if they come right back out and lose to Michigan.

Today they face a 16-13 Michigan team that is still surprisingly listed in most brackets for the NCAA Tournament. Only surprising because it’s still hard to see this Michigan team getting in if they can’t rack up at least a few more wins, especially as they could be entering the conference tourney at 16-14. If Michigan finishes the year 17-15 do they still get a bid?

The best way to put all of that talk to rest is win tonight and add another quality victory to their resume, followed by at least another win (or two) in the Big Ten Tournament. The last time these two teams played Michigan couldn’t take care of business and now they need to do so on the road. Of course Ohio State’s ability to go from a team that can knock off a Big Ten frontrunner to a team that gets beat by a Big Ten bottom feeder makes it hard to know which Buckeyes program we’ll see, but this being a rivalry game should help influence them to actually show up.

The key to this game, like a lot of Michigan games, is can the Wolverines shoot from three? If Michigan’s backcourt can convert from the perimeter it will go a long way towards picking up a win, but if they struggle once again Ohio State has too many options on offense that can score.

One way or another Ohio State finds a way to close the season with a win.

Pick: Ohio State

Nebraska Cornhuskers at #10 Wisconsin Badgers

Time/TV: 2:00 PM ET BTN
Line: Wisconsin -13.0

Wisconsin enters today with a game lead over the Illini, guaranteeing at least a share of the Big Ten title. If they lose, however, the Illini could tie them at the top of the Big Ten and take the top seed in the Big Ten Tournament. Luckily for Wisconsin they are at home against an overmatched Nebraska program that is once again at the bottom of the Big Ten.

The Badgers managed to knock off Purdue earlier in the week thanks to a pair of incredibly lucky and clutch three pointers in the final minute, making up for a highly unlikely miss from the free throw line by Brad Davison. Johnny Davis has been one of the best players in the league and while Wisconsin continues to play almost everyone close, they keep winning.

Nebraska has been awful all year but picked up a huge win on Tuesday at Ohio State, giving them their first winning streak since November. Bryce McGowens continues to be a force on the offensive side of the ball, but Nebraska will have their hands full in Madison today. In theory Wisconsin could overlook this game, but it’s hard to see them losing to Nebraska at home.

Pick: Wisconsin

Maryland Terrapins at Michigan State Spartans

Time/TV: 4:30 PM ET CBS
Line: Michigan State -6.0

The last time these two teams played Michigan State won on the road by two points and improved to 17-4 and 8-2 in conference play. Since then they’ve gone 2-7 on a freefall throughout February. Michigan State’s two wins over that stretch, an upset over Purdue and 15 point win over bubble team Indiana, were big wins though and the Spartans have likely done enough to lock up a tourney spot.

A loss today wouldn’t really change that, but the Spartans would like to try to regain some momentum heading into the Big Ten Tournament after double digit losses to Michigan and Ohio State on the road. Maryland upset Ohio State last week, but today’s game is on the road. The Terps offense has been improving down the stretch, led by guard Fatts Russell, but with this game taking place in East Lansing the Spartans should take care of business.

Pick: Michigan State

Minnesota Golden Gophers at Northwestern Wildcats

Time/TV: 7:30 PM ET BTN
Line: Northwestern -7.5

In one of the last games tonight, a slumping Minnesota and Northwestern will face off and try to end the regular season with a win. The Gophers have gone 2-10 over their last 12 games, while Northwestern is 1-5 over their last six. These two teams played two weeks ago, with Minnesota winning by 17 at home.

In that game the Wildcats shot 37.3% from the field and 33.3% from three. Minnesota, not known for their offense prowess, shot 55.8% from the field and hit 11 of their 23 three pointers. Minnesota’s offense has played a bit better, including a 39 performance from Jamison Battle in their loss to Maryland earlier this week. The Gophers have only won one conference game on the road, paving the way for a Northwestern win.

Pick: Northwestern