Dienhart: Setting the stage for today's action

Well, that was a fun opening day of the Big Ten tourney, wasn’t it? Officially, there was a pair of upsets, although No. 9 Illinois’ win over No. 8 Indiana isn’t all that much of a stunner.

Anyway, all eyes move to Friday’s quarterfinals. Get my Day 2 primers in this post.

[ MORE: Check out all of our Big Ten tourney coverage ]

No. 1 Michigan vs. No. 9 Illinois

The skinny on Michigan: The Wolverines have clearly established themselves as the hunted, winning the league crown by forging a 15-3 conference mark, which is three games better than anyone else. How much motivation will Michigan have? It’s projected by most to be a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tourney and may not be able to do much to alter that in the Big Ten tourney. The Wolverines bring a five-game winning streak into this game.

Key number:
39.7, Michigan’s shooting percentage from 3-point range. This team’s deadly shot from long range has been a big key to success, as the program won its first outright league title since 1986. Big Ten Player of the Year Nik Stauskas leads the way by shooting 45.8 percent from 3-point range. Oh-by-the-way: Michigan also shoots a league-best 48 percent from the field.

The skinny on Illinois: The Fighting Illini remain hot, dispatching Indiana by 10 points on Thursday. That’s five wins in six games for John Groce’s team. The only loss? To Michigan, 84-53, on March 4 in what was the worst home loss ever for Illinois in the State Farm Center.

Key number: 35.3 percent, which was Indiana’s field-goal percentage vs. Illinois in the opening round. Illinois’ late surge has been fueled by good defense—and that must continue if the Illini want to keep advancing.  In their last five wins, the Illini have yielded 49, 49, 46, 63 and 54 points. That defense will be put to the test by the best shooting team in the Big Ten in Michigan, which has an array of marksmen.

The series: The teams met once this season, with Michigan prevailing in the aforementioned historic fashion.

[ MORE: Dienhart: Let's hear it for Tracy Abrams | Big Ten Geeks break it down ]

No. 4 Nebraska vs. No. 5 Ohio State

The skinny on Nebraska: The Cornhuskers are the Big Ten’s Cinderella, confounding experts by finishing fourth after many forecast a last-place finish. The Huskers finished with eight wins in their last nine games. The lone defeat was at Illinois.

Key number:
0. Big Ten wins for Nebraska in its first four league games. From that point, the Cornhuskers went 11-3. This is a team that believes in itself and is playing well on both ends of the floor under Tim Miles.

The skinny on Ohio State: The Buckeyes have endured a season of streaks. When this team is playing well, it’s dialed in on defense. The win on Thursday vs. the Boilermakers was often an ugly affair. But OSU showed a lot of grit—and defensive toughness–by grinding out the victory despite not playing its best. This is the type of win that can galvanize a team and send it on a run.

Key number: 59.1, points allowed per game by Ohio State. That leads the Big Ten. And no one plays defense better than Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott.

The series: The teams split the season series, with Ohio State winning 84-53 in Columbus and Nebraska winning 68-62 in Lincoln.

[ MORE: Dienhart: Buckeyes win back-and-forth affair | Big Ten Geeks break it down ]

No. 2 Wisconsin vs. No. 7 Minnesota – 6:30 p.m. ET, BTN/BTN2Go

The skinny on Wisconsin: The Badgers were on a roll to this point, ripping off eight victories in success before closing the season with a loss at Nebraska. This is a skilled offensive team that shoots with aplomb. What it lacks up for in its typical Wisconsin toughness it compensates for with offensive skill and athletic ability.

Key number:
1.5, Wisconsin’s assist-turnover ratio, which is third in the Big Ten. Protecting the ball has become a hallmark of Bo Ryan teams. The Badgers just don’t beat themselves.

The skinny on Minnesota: The Gophers, most believe, can punch their NCAA tourney ticket with a win over rival Wisconsin on Friday. Minnesota topped No. 10 Penn State on Thursday night for the second time in less than a week. It was the Austin Hollins show, and when he’s playing well, Minnesota is a tough team.

Key number: 20, Minnesota’s win total on the season following Thursday’s triumph over Penn State. No matter what happens Friday, and no matter what else happens around the nation, 20 wins will look better than 19 come Selection Sunday.

The series: The teams split the season series, as these fierce rivals each won on their home court.

[ MORE: Dienhart: Austin Hollins leads Gophers to win | Big Ten Geeks break it down ]

https://twitter.com/BTN_Minnesota/status/444249462962003968

No. 3 Michigan State vs. No. 11 Northwestern – 9 p.m. ET, BTN/BTN2Go

The skinny on Michigan State: The Spartans were hailed as the class of the Big Ten before the season. And they often played like it early on. But injuries have chipped away at the team all season, from Adreain Payne’s foot to Keith Appling’s wrist. It has been one thing after the other for a team that went 5-7 to close the season. But MSU is getting healthy—and that makes them dangerous. Tom Izzo has questioned his team’s toughness.  Still, there is plenty of grit and talent to make the Spartans dangerous.

Key number:
47.2, Michigan State’s field-goal percentage. That ranks second in the Big Ten. This team likes to pound the ball inside. And it doesn’t often take bad shots.

The skinny on Northwestern: The Wildcats pulled the stunner of Thursday, knocking off No. 6 seed Iowa. NU has now won two in a row and has some mojo. Tre Demps and Drew Crawford played well. If the Wildcats can shoot 52 percent from the field again like they did vs. Iowa, they will have a chance in every game. But that may be tough to do vs. Michigan State.

Key number: 11, three-pointers hit by NU. And they came on 23 attempts, which means the Wildcats shot 47 percent from long range.

The series: Michigan State won both games this year, taking a 54-40 decision in Evanston and an 85-70 win in East Lansing.

[ MORE: Dienhart: Take a bow, Tre Demps | Big Ten Geeks break it down ]

About Tom Dienhart BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

And if you want to leave a comment on this post, use the box below. All comments need to be approved by a moderator.

Find out more about:

2 Comments

Your Opinion?
Show Comments (2 Comments)
maw on 3/14/2014 @ 1:20pm EDT Said:

GO ‘CATS!!!

Andrew on 3/14/2014 @ 6:37pm EDT Said:

Go GREEN

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Have a question for BTN Customer Service? Please e-mail us here