With the Super Bowl behind us, college basketball now becomes the center of the sports universe. And the Big Ten will get a lot of that attention this week with a collection of nice games headlined by Michigan State’s titanic visit to Ohio State on Saturday in a showdown between the top two teams in the Big Ten. In this week’s Big Ten Whiteboard, I draw up my game of the week, a sleeper matchup, the head-to-head battle between players you need to see, plus a few more items.
Game of the week: Michigan State at Ohio State, Saturday, Feb. 11. This is it, ladies and gentlemen. The game we have been waiting for all season, the game that will feature the Big Ten’s two best teams. The Buckeyes are in sole possession of first place, coming off an impressive victory at Wisconsin on Saturday to push their winning streak to five games. The Spartans enjoyed a bounce back home victory over Michigan on Sunday following that ugly loss at Illinois on Tuesday. The good news for the loser: It will get another shot when these teams meet March 4 in East Lansing.
Don’t overlook this matchup: Wisconsin at Minnesota. The Gophers’ are still trying to augment their NCAA resume. A win over a solid Badger team sure would look nice for a Minnesota squad coming off a solid victory at Nebraska on Sunday. Wisconsin saw its six-game winning streak end with a home loss to Ohio State on Saturday. How will the Badgers respond in this study of contrasts? Wisconsin loves to shoot the 3, while the Gophers prefer to do their work inside.
Individual matchup to watch: Aside from Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger, there are no better big men in the Big Ten than Illinois sophomore Meyers Leonard and Indiana freshman Cody Zeller. And the two will meet Thursday in Bloomington. Each is strong and nimble. Though Zeller is a year younger, his game is a bit more advanced than Leonard’s. But Leonard is a bit more athletic. These guys will be seeing a lot of each other in the NBA. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Must win: It’s this simple—Purdue has to beat visiting Northwestern on Sunday. And the Wildcats have to beat the Boilermakers. NCAA hopes may hang in the balance for each squad. Purdue escaped Evanston with a win in late January after Robbie Hummel hit a late game-winning shot. But Purdue has lost three of its last four and is coming off a humiliating 17-point loss at home to Indiana. The Wildcats have some glide in their step after recording back-to-back wins, including a victory at Illinois on Sunday. It was Northwestern’s first win in Champaign since 1999 and first Big Ten road victory of the season. Defense and rebounding aren’t strengths for either team. So, whose offense will step up?
Injury update: Northwestern’s roster is perilously thin. How thin? The Wildcats have played just six players in each of the last two games. The good news: Northwestern won each contest, toppling Nebraska and Illinois. Still, Northwestern needs to get injured center Luka Mirkovic (left ankle) and guard JerShon Cobb (left leg) back as it makes a run for its first NCAA tourney bid.
Also, Nebraska likely has seen center Jorge Brian Diaz’s season end because of chronic foot pain. That’s bad, because the Huskers need his inside presence to open the perimeter.
Big week: Illinois. The Fighting lllini have been a maddening team, beating Top 10 foes Ohio State and Michigan State, and also losing at Penn State and at home to Northwestern. Last week was especially vexing. Illinois beat the Spartans at home on Tuesday and then lost to Northwestern in Assembly Hall on Sunday. Go figure. This week, Illinois has two monster road games: at Indiana on Thursday and at Michigan on Sunday. Know this: Illinois is 1-3 on the road in the Big Ten. Still, the Illini needs to at least get a split. One thing we can count on: a close game. Illinois’ last eight contests have been decided by five points or less.
Stat watch: Plus-21, Ohio State’s Big Ten-leading scoring margin. The Buckeyes are just dominant, as the next closest team is Michigan State with a plus-14.6 scoring margin. Ohio State averages 76.5 points (second in the conference) and allows an average of 55.4 (also second in the conference).
BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart’s Big Ten Whiteboard appear every Monday during the basketball season. Find all of his work at www.btn.com/tomdienhart, follow him on Twitter at @BTNTomDienhart, send a question to his weekly mailbag here, and subscribe to his RSS feed.