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2016 Big Ten Men's Basketball Tournament: Thursday previews and open thread

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Can Illinois build off its dominating victory?

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Two games were nice, but four games are better. The 2016 Big Ten Men's Basketball Tournament tipped off last night when Illinois demolished Minnesota 85-52 and Nebraska used a second-half outburst to cruise by Rutgers 89-72. Today in Indianapolis, the action gets a little more intense as tournament dark horse Wisconsin attempts to get its run started while Michigan and Ohio State battle upset-minded opponents with NCAA Tournament bids on the line.

No. 9 Northwestern Wildcats vs. No. 8 Michigan Wolverines

12:00 p.m. ET on BTN, Michigan -3

A 10-8 record in the Big Ten used to be good enough to reach the big dance with no questions asked, but Michigan is living in a world where the bottom of the conference isn't fit to compete for a MAC title (or even a MAAC title). As a result, only two of those 10 wins come against NCAA Tournament teams, which leaves Michigan's resume feeling a little shallow. The Wolverines have only won once in their last five games, but that triumph was against this very Northwestern team.

As usual, John Beilein's squad will look to spread the floor and shoot its opponent into oblivion. Northwestern ought to counter by getting the ball to Alex Olah as often as possible to exploit Michigan's squishy interior defense. The senior big man is on a role with double-figure scoring in six of his last seven games.

MNW: Aaron's got it right here, though balance for the 'Cats would be nice. Space the floor against Michigan, allow Tre Demps (whose wife is due any minute now) and Bryant McIntosh to slash and get into the lane, and get a decent shooting day from Aaron Falzon.

The last time these two teams met, Northwestern failed to get to the line against the Wolverines (an abysmal .093 FT/FGA rate), failed to keep the Wolverines from getting to the line, and failed to crash the offensive boards in any meaningful way. For some reason, additionally, Olah decided to take 6 threes (he only made 1). It was a weird game, OK?

Ultimately, the 'Cats aren't playing their way onto the bubble, even the NIT bubble, with a win over the Wolverines, but it would go a long way in shoring up their case to earn an invite to the Vegas 16. If Northwestern can avoid a second half swoon like they had in Crisler just two weeks ago, they could make some noise. I don't see it, though. Michigan, 71-64.

OTE Pick Em Predictions

No. 12 Illinois Fighting Illini vs. No. 5 Iowa Hawkeyes

2:25 p.m. ET on BTN, Iowa -10.5

Here's Thump on the Illini's big win over Minnesota in last night's opening round:

Illinois might have just had their second-best game of the season. Yes, it was against Minnesota, but they were losing to this Minnesota team at halftime just last Thursday. And the best part: It wasn't all Hill. Finke and Nunn found their shots again!

I expected a win, but so many players shot so well that I'm actually planning to watch the game today. If we just had a point guard...

Illinois has been hard to watch for Thump and other fans this year, but one of the team's strengths has been knocking down three-point shots thanks to the lethal accuracy of Jalen Coleman-Lands. The freshman added three triples against the Gophers while Kendrick Nunn hit three of his own and Michael Finke came off the bench with a career-high five three-pointers. The result was a 33-point margin of victory over the Gophers, a new record for the Big Ten Tournament. And Malcolm Hill only needed to pitch in 14 points.

That performance could make the Illini a trendy pick to upset an Iowa team that has faded down the stretch with just two wins in its last seven. Still the Hawkeyes boasted the best three-point defense in conference play and have no trouble knocking down shots of their own, so it will be interesting to see if Illinois has really found something here or if their big win was just the product of Minnesota missing too many players to properly compete.

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No. 10 Penn State Nittany Lions vs. No. 7 Ohio State Buckeyes

6:30 p.m. on ESPN2, Ohio State -5.5

Just like rival Michigan, Ohio State has a good-looking conference record but will still be on the outside looking in if it doesn't get serious work done this week. That starts with beating Penn State, a team that has surprised doubters (including myself) by not being as unsightly as some of the Big Ten's more severe tire fires. Still, the Lions only managed 46 points in their lone matchup with the Buckeyes in 2016, losing that game by 20.

Even with Jae'Sean Tate -- who scored 15 points in the first matchup -- done for the season, Penn State will have to do better than shooting 4-for-25 from beyond the arc to prevail in the rematch. The good news is that Shep Garner appears to have rediscovered his jump shot since then and has reached the 20-point mark in four of Penn State's last five games. If the Lions can be smart with the ball and merely shoot the ball as poorly as Ohio State does (10th in the league in effective field goal percentage), Penn State could pull away in an ugly one.

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No. 11 Nebraska Cornhuskers vs. No. 6 Wisconsin Badgers

8:30 p.m. on ESPN2, Wisconsin -7.5

Jesse seems super excited about Nebraska's triumph over Rutgers:

Nebraska thought about losing to Rutgers for a really long stretch of basketball but then they remembered that Rutgers is bad at basketball and won their first of five. NCAA tournament here we come!

Following a too-close-for-comfort first half, the Huskers pulled away thanks to strong performances by Shavon Shields (20 points, 11 rebounds, four assists, four steals) and Tai Webster (18 points, five rebounds, four assists). It's going to take a similar brand of firepower to knock off Wisconsin, a team that at one point, we all earnestly thought was going to finally miss out on the NCAA Tournament.

Starting with an upset win over Michigan State in mid-January, the Badgers turned their season around thanks to a balanced offense led by Nigel Hayes and the emergence of Big Ten Freshman of the Year Ethan Happ. With a slow-and-steady attack that is as dangerous from the perimeter as it is in the paint, Wisconsin pressures opponents to make the most of their very few possessions. With a conference-leading defensive turnover rate, those opponents haven't responded well to that strategy. Will the experience and poise of Shields and Andrew White III lift Nebraska into the quarterfinals?

There's only one way to find out.

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