USA TODAY Sports
The first round of the Big Ten tournament kicks off Thursday, and while Michigan plays in one of the games, the other three are equally noteworthy. Let's look them over.
Game One: (8) Illinois vs. (9) Minnesota; 11am CT
This one is perhaps the most intriguing first round matchup that doesn't involve Michigan trying its best not to piss all over its own leg again. Mostly because both of these teams started the season hot, climbed into the top of the polls, then gradually fell apart, but not without getting in a huge home upset each against the team waiting in the second round, Indiana.
Minnesota has been all kinds of inconsistent this year, but one thing the Gophers do well is rebound the hell out of the basketball on the offensive end. Minnesota stands first in that category in conference, cleaning up 41 percent of available rebounds against Big Ten opponents. Indiana is second and is the only team within five percentage points of the Gophers. Minnesota's offense is going to live and die with Andre Hollins, who has the best assist rate on the team, shoots the best percentage from three (40 percent), and has the third best eFG% on the team. The other Hollins, Austin (no relation), is also an efficient player, but isn't depended on as heavily. Inside, Minnesota will go early 6'8 Trevor Mbakwe, and 6'--it-doesn't-matter-because-he-can-jump-a-mile Rodney Williams. Both guys are well regarded rebounders, who shoot well, and can block shots. Minnesota's biggest issues are defense (where the Gophers rank in the bottom half of the conference in three of the four factors -- OR% allowed is 5th), and turnovers, where the Gophers cough up the ball on a league worst 21.3 percent of possessions.
Illinois is remarkably similar to the Gophers in narrative. The Illini started hot with impressive wins vs. Butler and Gonzaga in the non-conference before stumbling to start the conference season. Still, Illinois has an impressive collection of pelts on its wall with the previous two as well as wins against OSU and Indiana, and it is these wins that will put the Illini in the NCAA tournament. Of course, a lot of this is thanks to the play of Brandon Paul, who is still a great wing scorer, and the best player on Illinois. Tracy Abrams is the other heavily used player, and he mans the point. DJ Richardson is a shooter that leads the team in made 3pt FGs. Nnanna Egwu is tall, but doesn't really rebound like you'd want a 6'11 guy to rebound. The story of Illinois season is streak shooting. The Illini found a lot of success when they connected on long shots, and struggled against almost everyone when that wasn't happening. The Illini are third in the conference in 3FGA/FGA with two-fifths of the team's shots coming from deep. Defense isn't a strong suit either, as Illinois is 10th in eFG% allowed, 11th in FTA/FGA, and ninth at OR% allowed. But, if those outside shots are falling, watch out.
Previous meetings: One win for each team (84-67 for Minnesota, 57-53 for Illinois)
Kenpom predicts: A two point Minnesota win (60%)
Game Three: (7) Purdue vs. (10) Nebraska; 5:30pm CT
You would think Purdue would be better than this. The Boilermakers had a rough season that saw the team finish under .500 after being one of the stronger Big Ten programs over the last few years. Add in the resurgence of Indiana, and Purdue fans can hardly be happy now that Purdue is arguably the fourth best team in the state of Indiana, without much hope of making a strong push back to the top. Things started off bad as Purdue finished the non-conference season at 6-6 (it would add one more non-con win over West Virginia a couple weeks into league play). The offense has mostly run through the sporadically effective Terone Johnson, and the much less effective Ronnie Johnson. Terone is an effective shooter (36 percent from three), with a solid assist and turnover rate. Ronnie can't shoot to save his life (eFG% of 37), but has been a moderately effective point guard -- albeit one with a troubling turnover rate. The other high usage player is seven-foot center AJ Hammons, a good rebounder (the only PU player ranked nationally to kempom in OR% and DR%), shot blocker (8.6% block rate), and an effective offensive player due to a solid ability to get to the line (4.8 FD/40) and hit free throws (67 percent). The last player of note is DJ Byrd, a shooter that has taken nearly half of Purdue's three point attempts, and connects at a 37 percent clip. Purdue's defensive game is less about chaos -- the Boilermakers are dead last in turnover rate on defense -- and more about forcing teams to win from the floor. Purdue is fourth in three categories, defensive eFG%, defensive 3FGA/FGA, and defensive point distribution from three (28 percent). Thanks to Hammons, Purdue is second in the conference in 2pt FG% (44.1) and fourth in block rate (11.4). Of course the Boilermakers have one of the worse offenses in the conference, thanks to a turnover rate of 18.9%, an eFG% of 45.6, and just 20 percent of points coming from three, despite Purdue shooting the fourth best 3pt percentage in the league.
Thankfully, Nebraska isn't a whole lot better. Only one player on the team has a ORtg better than 100, and that is 6'10 Brandon Ubel, an effective rebounder with an eFG% of 48.4 and a nice shot from the line (80 percent from the stripe). The two main offensive weapons for the Huskers are Dylan Talley and Ray Gallegos. Talley's overall efficiency is hurt by a terrible 2pt percentage (he is 34 percent from outside and just 39 percent from inside). Gallegos is more of a shooting threat, but not quite as accurate. He has taken 259 threes this year, making 31 percent, and he draws just two fouls per forty minutes. Senior center Andre Almeida is a solid defensive and rebounding presence (he leads the team in OR%, DR% and Blk%), but is too foul prone at nearly seven fouls committed per forty minutes. Nebraska is just ahead of Penn State for title of worst offense in the conference. I'm not going to spend a whole lot of time describing it. In the four factors, the Huskers are 11th (eFG%, 43.3; OR% 25.8), 12th (FTA/FGA, 26.2), and somewhat surprisingly second in TO% at 16.2. Defensively, they are no higher than eighth in the four factors.
Previous meeting: Purdue won 65-56
Kenpom predicts: a six-point Purdue win (73%)
Game Four: (6) Iowa vs. (11) Northwestern; 25 minutes after Game Three
This one figures to be the least competitive of the first round of games.
Iowa finished 9-9 in the conference on the basis of pretty much living up to expectations. The only real upset losses were @Purdue and @Nebraska. The rest of the losses came to tournament teams, and Iowa even notched wins over Minn and Ill. Of course, none of this is enough to build the kind of resume that a bubble team with a chance needs, so Iowa is going to have to make quite a bit of noise in the BTT if it wants to keep playing basketball past this weekend.
The Hawkeyes are led by a trio of wing/forward type players. Roy Marble is one of the main scorers. Not only is he the best three-point threat, but he is a slasher capable of getting to the line (five fouls drawn per forty). Aaron White and Melsahn Basabe play more inside roles, and both are capable offensive rebounders as well as solid defensive rebounders. Basabe, has played more of a reserve role this year. One thing that could hurt Iowa's chances in the BTT is an injury to Mike Gesel that sidelined the freshman guard over the last few games. He is expected to be back, but this will be his first game back after the foot injury, and he isn't yet 100 percent. This is bad news because he is the third most used player on the team in terms of minutes per game. Iowa plays like you would expect for a team that relies on its frontcourt: lots of twos, few threes. Iowa shoots the worst three point percentage in the conference, but gets to the line at a good rate (40.2 FTA/FGA) and rebounds its misses (34 OR%). Defensively, Iowa has the second best eFG% defense in the conference and the fourth most efficient defense overall in the conference.
Northwestern is about what you expect from a Wildcats team missing its two best players from a year ago (Drew Crawford was injured ten games into the season and John Shurna graduated). The team takes a ton of threes (45.3 3 FGA/FGA) but doesn't make a whole lot. (31.1 percent from deep). The main offensive pieces are Reggie Hearn, Dave Sobolewski, and Alex Olah. Add in the loss of Jared Swopshire a few weeks back, and things are looking grim. Of course, that doesn't get into defense, where Northwestern is downright bad. Last in defensive effiiciency, (111.5), eFG% allowed (50.9), OR% allowed (40.4), all while being foul prone enough to send opposing teams to the line at the 10th worst rate in the conference (FTA/FGA rate of 40.6).
Previous meetings: Iowa won both, 70-50 and 71-57.
Kenpom predicts: an eight-point win for Iowa, which is probably too close because Northwestern is considered "semi-home", which, LOL, because the Cats are barely semi-home when they play on campus. This one probably gets out of hand. Poor Northwestern.
Iowa and Purdue will most likely move on to face Michigan State and Ohio State, respectively. I like Iowa to possibly pull off the upset there as the Spartans are looking at a long layoff. Meanwhile, Minnesota and Illinois will be a toss-up for the right to get stomped by Indiana in a bit of a revenge game.
We'll talk about the Michigan game tomorrow.