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Big Ten hoops opens conference play

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We’ll find out who of Maryland and Illinois are for real, see if Minnesota can keep surging against a weaker Michigan State, and keep enjoying the Peter Jok Experience.

NCAA Basketball: LIU Brooklyn at Minnesota Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

All of the Big Ten but Michigan and Ohio State are set to hit the hardwood in the first round of Big Ten action today and tomorrow, with a quadruple-header on ESPN2 beginning this afternoon and a doubleheader on BTN tomorrow night.

But first, a quick Bracketology update:

FanSided (12/26) Joe Lunardi (12/22) Jerry Palm (12/19)
Team # Reg. Opponent # Reg. Opponent # Reg. Opponent
Purdue 4 MW Monmouth 4 E San Diego St 3 E IPFW
Indiana 4 S Akron 5 S UNC-Wilmington 4 W Monmouth
wisconsin 4 E UT-Arlington 4 MW Valparaiso 4 S New Mexico St
Maryland 6 W Maryland 7 W TCU 7 MW Providence
Northwestern 7 W Clemson 12* W Arkansas 7 E Rhode Island
Minnesota 8 W Wichita St 11* E Seton Hall 5 MW Ole Miss/Iowa St
Michigan 8 S Texas A&M 9 W Texas A&M 11* MW Wake Forest
Ohio State 10 MW USC 10 S Miami (FL)
Illinois 9 W South Carolina
Michigan St 10 MW USC

...oh god people believe. this ends badly.

To the previews!


Tuesday

Northwestern (11-2, KP 46) at Penn State (8-5, KP 96)

2pm || ESPN2 || NU -2

In the quest to see if this is The Year (it’s not), Northwestern travels to the Arena That Basketball Forgot to take on an athletic and up-tempo Penn State squad. With both Lunardi and Palm placing the ‘Cats in the Dance these days, games like this can make or break a run at the postseason.

Mike Watkins (10.5 ppg, 8.4 rpg) should get his inside, as Northwestern is still without Dererk Pardon. Gavin Skelly is prone to fouling and Barrett Benson will be seeing his first Big Ten action, necessitating strong help defense from glue guy Sanjay Lumpkin and the rest of the Wildcats’ defense. The ‘Cats will need to look out for Payton Banks, as well, as the junior has hit at least 3 threes in five straight games.

Northwestern’s at its best when Scottie Lindsey and Vic Law are slashing, Bryant McIntosh is dishing dimes and not shooting (36% on the season and the most shots on the team—woof), and Skelly and Lumpkin are bringing the energy inside. If the ‘Cats slow things down and force the Nittany Lions into chucking from the outside, they should be able to take this one.

Pick: Northwestern, 68-63

Illinois (10-3, KP 66) at Maryland (12-1, KP 64)

4pm || ESPN2 || MD -4

Is Maryland for real? Is Illinois for real? These two fanbases have hit a perfect point of self-loathing to kick off 2016 (Illinois for losing to Winthrop, Maryland for...well, just generally being good enough to win games and bad enough to make DJ Carver fill up Slack with obscenities), and this one should be good for more "How are we gonna lose tonight?"

Damonte Dodd is unlikely available for Maryland, but Dion Wiley should be available for the Terps (per CBS). In Dodd’s absence, Mark Turgeon’s club will need continued strong play out of Michael Cekovsky to hold off Maverick Morgan, who’s registered two consecutive double-doubles and provides Illinois the inside presence it desperately needs to free up Tracy Abrams and Malcolm Hill on the outside.

Morgan’s rise has paralleled the struggles of Leron Black over the last two games, but if the Illini get consistent contributions from both, look out. In the meantime, Maryland will likely keep doing what they’ve been doing—getting 18 a game out of Melo Trimble, streaky freshman-like play out of Justin Jackson, and hoping for a couple good bounces (they’re the 7th-luckiest team in hoops, per Kenpom, as opposed to Illinois’ 40th). As these two teams are statistically too similar for me to be comfortable, I’m taking the home team.

Pick: Maryland, 72-65

Rutgers (11-2, KP 115) at #14 wisconsin (11-2, KP 10)

6pm || ESPN2 || wi -18.5

Those of you hoping to find out if Rutgers is real might want to find a different game to learn it from—the badgers are one of the few teams in the conference with the size and ability inside to match up with what the Scarlet Knights do best. With Rutgers coming in off the 347th-toughest non-conference schedule and coming off a hard-fought loss to Seton Hall in which they faded late, we’ll see if they can impose Steve Pikiell’s defensive identity in the kohl center.

The Scarlet Knights will need a lot more out of CJ Gettys—the senior transfer center scored just four points before fouling out against Seton Hall and has struggled as of late to establish himself inside. Deshawn Freeman will be harried by Nigel Hayes and will struggle to put up his fifth straight game of double-digit rebounds, necessitating Mike Williams and Nigel Johnson to have big games shooting the ball from outside.

Look for Bronson Koenig to do more of what Kadeem Carrington did to the Knights—penetrate off the dribble and make the back-breaker from outside. Unfortunately for Rutgers, wisconsin has even more weapons than Seton Hall, and both Ethan Happ and Nigel Hayes should get their points around the hoop. The air’s not totally out of the Rutgers balloon yet...but we’ll leave this game questioning how much air was in there to begin with.

Pick: wisconsin, 72-56

Michigan State (8-5, KP 52) at Minnesota (12-1, KP 47)

8pm || ESPN2 || MN -5

Minnesota’s earning a lot of deserved attention for the turnaround Richard Pitino has engineered behind the revelation that is Amir Coffey and the fortunate legal status of Reggie Lynch, and they’ve earned an historic "favorite" status against Michigan State. This is the best matchup of the day and one you won’t want to miss after you’ve given up on Gophers football against Washington State.

Wow, that was a very Minnesotan paragraph about Minnesota sports. I can only apologize.

This is the weakest Michigan State team we’ve seen in...a long time, but they’re appearing to settle into new roles without Miles Bridges (who is "doubtful" for today’s game). Nick Ward took on his new starting role in style, dropping 25 points and grabbing 9 boards against Oakland, while Cassius Winston has dished out 9 dimes a game for the last five. If this offense can continue humming, they’ll test a Minnesota defense that’s one of the top 25 in all of college basketball.

While the Gophers will try to get out and run a little on the Spartans, their balanced attack should create some problems for Tom Izzo’s defense. All-World and Definitely Better than Jarrod Uthoff forward Jordan Murphy, together with Lynch, has given the Minnesota frontcourt a formidable scoring and rebounding one-two punch. Together with the outside shooting of Nate Mason (44.8%) and Dupree McBrayer (42.1%), Minnesota has the scorers to outpace the Spartans.

What I am concerned with is the Gophers in a close game. Shaky second halves against St. John’s and Arkansas State have me concerned about Minnesota if things go pear-shaped late. Then again, losses to Northeastern concern me about Michigan State. I am prepared to be wrong about this one, but the Minnesota train keeps rolling.

Pick: Minnesota, 70-68

Wednesday

Nebraska (6-6, KP 97) at #16 Indiana (10-2, KP 15)

5:30pm || BTN

I...uh...I don’t like Nebraska’s chances in this one. The Hoosiers have a Top 10 offense nationally, and they’re made to feast on a Nebraska club that can’t shoot the ball.

Tai Webster continues to pour it in for the Huskers, but after him and the supporting duo of Glynn Watson Jr. and Ed Morrow, no Nebraska player averages over 7 ppg or shoots particularly well (only Evan Taylor is above 40% from the field). Aggressive defense from the Hoosiers will force Nebraska to chuck from deep, where...well, it’s not pretty. Let’s just leave it at that, huh?

The biggest challenge for Indiana, to my mind, will be to avoid looking ahead to a showdown with #6 Louisville on Saturday. If James Blackmon Jr. and Thomas Bryant show up and neutralize the threats of Webster and Morrow, the Hoosiers will skate at home with the help of a healthy-again OG Anunoby.

Pick: Indiana, 85-67

Iowa (8-5, KP 68) at #15 Purdue (11-2, KP 12)

7:30pm || BTN

Two of the most-hyped players in the Big Ten, Peter Jok (22.6 ppg, 6.2 rpg) and Caleb Swanigan (18.3 ppg, 12.5 rpg), lead their teams into a Wednesday night showdown on BTN to cap off an intriguing start to Big Ten play. Both squads enter on hot streaks—Iowa has won five straight, including a state championship, and Purdue has only lost to Villanova and Louisville, taking their last six straight.

Fran McCaffery has shown a willingness to go zone this year, and the Hawkeyes’ perimeter defense could cause problems for the Boilermakers if they take away the frontcourt of Isaac Haas and Swanigan. That, however, is much easier said than done. No Hawkeye stands over 6’9", and Dom Uhl doesn’t bring the most imposing inside presence.

The expected return of 6’9", 253# forward Tyler Cook, however, should provide some much-needed physicality to bolster the Iowa frontcourt. If the Hawkeyes can’t keep the hot-shooting Dakota Mathias and Vince Edwards in check from deep, though, Purdue will make it a long night in Mackey Arena.

Pick: Purdue, 80-72


There’s lots of bowl action yet to come, but feel free to use this as your basketball open thread for the Tuesday and Wednesday action in the conference. Usual rules apply; thanks for following Big Ten basketball on OTE!

-MNW