IOWA HAWKEYES VS. ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI
Despite their inferior conference record, the Fighting Illini are the favorites in this one. Meyers Leonard has proven himself this season as a truly dominant big man, averaging 13.4 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game, and the Hawkeyes lack the size to contain him.
Iowa (16-15, 8-10) vs. Illinois (17-14, 6-12). 10:30 a.m. Big Ten Network.
Illinois lost 11 of its last 13 this season, thus blowing its NCAA Tournament chances, but one of those two wins did come against Iowa a little more than a week ago. In their recent matchup at Assembly Hall, the Fighting Illini won by 11, fueled by 22 points and 14 rebounds from Leonard.
The Hawkeyes never led in that contest, shooting just 37 percent in Champaign. They will rely heavily on Matt Gatens, the senior sharpshooter who will need to have a field day against one of the Big Ten’s weakest three-point defenses in order to give Iowa a shot.
INDIANA HOOSIERS VS. PENN STATE NITTANY LIONS
The Nittany Lions are hoping that the third time is the charm against the Hoosiers. Penn State nearly beat Indiana at home on January 8, before falling by 19 points in Bloomington on January 22. Tim Frazier leads the Nittany Lions in points (18.6), assists (6.3), steals (2.3) and rebounds (4.8). If only he had some help. Penn State lacks a post threat and shoots just 30 percent from behind the arc. It’s not like the Nittany Lions turn the ball over; they just can’t seem to figure out a way to score other than putting the ball in Frazier’s hands.
Indiana (11-7) vs. Penn State (4-14). Shortly after Iowa/Illinois. BTN.
Hoosiers coach Tom Crean is too smart to allow Frazier to beat his team. Meanwhile, his shooters went 23-of-40 from behind the arc in two games against Penn State this season. The inside-outside combination that Indiana boasts will probably be too much for Penn State. As upset-heavy as the Big Ten has been this season, the one team that has been unable to pull off any miracles thus far is Penn State. I doubt that changes Thursday.
NORTHWESTERN WILDCATS VS. MINNESOTA GOLDEN GOPHERS
The Golden Gophers destroyed the Wildcats at the Barn. Northwestern returned the favor at Welsh-Ryan Arena. Now, here comes the tiebreaker. Minnesota lost six straight before pulling out a win over Nebraska in its regular-season finale, and has had a particularly difficult time putting up points of late. The last time the Golden Gophers topped 70 points was on January 28 in an overtime win over the Fighting Illini. The Wildcats, meanwhile, have no difficulties putting up points as long as their threes are falling. Five of the top 15 three-point shooters in the conference, astoundingly enough, don the purple and white.
Northwestern (8-10) vs. Minnesota (6-12). 4:30 p.m. ESPN2
While Golden Gophers guard Julian Welch is also present in the top 15, he’s hardly an elite scorer, and indeed, Minnesota clearly lacks stars. Rodney Williams, its leading scorer, averages just 10.9 points. Northwestern, on the other hand, has plenty of starpower, with John Shurna and Drew Crawford leading the way with 19.8 points per game and 16.4 points per game, respectively. The Wildcats’ weakness pertains mainly to depth, something the Golden Gophers have in spades, so Thursday’s contest quite simply pits depth and mediocrity against a star-studded and short-handed Northwestern lineup.
PURDUE BOILERMAKERS VS. NEBRASKA CORNHUSKERS
Purdue won five of seven to finish off its conference schedule while Nebraska lost eight of nine to cap off its first season within the Big Ten. The Boilermakers have been led by a remarkable renaissance from senior Robbie Hummel, who torched the Cornhuskers for 29 points and seven rebounds the last time these two teams met. Both teams actually shot greater than 50 percent in that meeting but scored 65 points or less, pointing to slow, methodical possessions.
Purdue (10-8) vs. Nebraska (4-14). Shortly after NU/Minn. ESPN2.
With the exception of Bo Spencer, who is a legitimate swoop to the hoop kind of guy, Nebraska lacks true scoring options. Purdue, on the other hand, boasts Hummel and a slew of no-name players who can light it up from behind the arc. Just to put a name or two to the Boilermakers roster, D.J. Byrd and Ryne Smith are both in the top 11 of the conference in three-point percentage, with each draining greater than 40 percent of their attempts from behind the arc. The Cornhuskers, on the other hand, are not present in the top 15.