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3/16 Big Ten NCAA Tournament Preview: The First Round

Five Big Ten teams will take the court on Thursday for the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Syndication: HawkCentral Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK

The ball is tipped.

Sorry, anyway. Five Big Ten teams will open first round play of the NCAA Tournament here on Thursday with Purdue, Michigan State and Indiana following on Saturday.

There’s plenty of games to get to, so let’s just jump on into it.

No. 9 West Virginia Mountaineers vs. No. 8 Maryland Terrapins

  • Time/TV: 12:15 p.m. ET (CBS)
  • KenPom: West Virginia by 1

The first of three 9/8 matchups of the day features venerated Bob Huggins and the Mountaineers vs. first year head coach Kevin Willard and the Terrapins.

Maryland most recently fell to Indiana in the Big Ten Tournament following a win over Minnesota. The Terps are led in scoring by guard Jahmir Young with 16.1 points per game.

West Virginia is No. 17 overall in KenPom with its best stat being offensive efficiency, where the Mountaineers are No. 15 with a rating of 117.2. Willard will have his work cut out for him, but brings experience in this seed-line and has both the talent and coaching ability to advance to the Round of 32.

  • Pick: Maryland

No. 9 Illinois Fighting Illini vs. No. 8 Arkansas Razorbacks

  • Time/TV: 4:30 p.m. ET (TBS)
  • KenPom: Arkansas by 1

There’s another close matchup hours later between the Fighting Illini and Razorbacks.

Both programs have experienced a good amount of success in recent years both in conference play and the NCAA Tournament, but each finds itself at the 8/9 line here in the postseason.

The Illini entered the season to much fanfare with highly touted freshmen and transfers that never quite found chemistry. While transfer Matthew Mayer has proven a key piece for Illinois on offense, the team was hurt early on when star freshman guard Skyy Clark opted to leave the program midseason.

Arkansas’ season has been streaky, with winning streaks usually being followed by a string of losses. The Razorbacks performed well in the nonconference, only losing to Creighton, before a haphazard conference slate.

Nevertheless, the Razorbacks are No. 20 overall in KenPom with the team’s strength lying in its defense, No. 15 in the country with an efficiency rating of 94. They rank near the top of the country in block and steal percentage while limiting opponents’ shooting.

I think that defense will prove enough to down an Illini squad that struggled to find its way through the conference.

  • Pick: Arkansas

No. 9 Auburn Tigers vs. No. 8 Iowa Hawkeyes

  • Time/TV: 6:50 p.m. ET (TNT)
  • KenPom: Auburn by 1

Finally, the 8/9 matchups will conclude on Thursday evening when the Hawkeyes take on the Tigers.

Iowa is... well, Iowa. They’re the usual high-scoring offense with the defense that shows up once in a blue moon, the Fran McCaffery special. The Hawkeyes are No. 3 in the country in offensive efficiency with a rating of 120.5. Defense? 166th with a rating of 104.8.

Gotta counter Iowa football somehow I guess.

Much like Arkansas, Bruce Pearl’s Auburn is a usually-stout SEC program that stumbled down the stretch in conference play. The Tigers just couldn’t string two straight wins together, every win after January was followed by a loss and those losses were usually followed by more losses (what was going on in the SEC, man).

What Auburn can do is defend, ranking 28th in the country in defensive efficiency. Their strength lies in perimeter defense, limiting opponents to shooting just 28.8% from the arc, good for 5th in the country.

It’s gonna be strength on strength, but I feel as though Iowa has just enough firepower to outlast Auburn and take the win.

  • Pick: Iowa

No. 10 Boise State Broncos vs. No 7 Northwestern Wildcats

  • Time/TV: 7:35 p.m. ET (TruTV)
  • KenPom: Boise State by 1

Hey, welcome back to the tournament, Northwestern. Yep, the surprise story of the Big Ten season isn’t just in the dance, they’re one of the better seeds in first round play on Thursday.

Northwestern won in the conference with the same ingredient it takes to win in the tournament: strong guard play. Boo Buie and Chase Audige were the best backcourt in the league this season thanks to defense, playmaking and a ton (like really, a TON) of experience.

The Wildcats’ reward? A pretty good Boise State team they’re not favored to beat by KenPom. Ouch.

Boise State is No. 31 overall in KenPom thanks to having the No. 13 defense in the nation with an efficiency rating of 93.9. The offense isn’t stellar but it certainly isn’t lackluster, proving just enough to overcome opponents and get the Broncos into the dance.

But Northwestern just has too much experience in the backcourt to overcome. Gimme the ‘Cats.

  • Pick: Northwestern

No. 10 Penn State Nittany Lions vs. No. 7 Texas A&M Aggies

  • Time/TV: 9:55 p.m. (TBS)
  • KenPom: Texas A&M by 2

Speaking of stories out of the Big Ten, how about Penn State? Not calling it a surprise because Micah Shrewsberry’s coaching ability and literally everything about Jalen Pickett were plain to see if you watch Big Ten ball.

The Nittany Lions are back in the tournament thanks to a versatile offensive attack that prioritizes 3-point shooting and playmaking from Pickett, one of the best guards both in the league and in the country.

Penn State is so confident in its shot that the Nittany Lions rank in at No. 362 in offensive rebounding percentage. THREE HUNDRED AND SIXTY TWO!!! KenPom only HAS 363 teams!

Unfortunately their reward for such an incredible display is a nationally undersung Texas A&M team which got through the same league that stymied coaching stalwarts Eric Musselman and Bruce Pearl with relative ease.

Texas A&M is No. 26 overall in KenPom with both an offense and defense in the top-30 in efficiency.

But... every March has its hero. Penn State is red hot after an incredible run in the Big Ten Tournament and Pickett is poised to take the national stage he deserves. I’ve got the Lions in this one.

  • Pick: Penn State