Tom Dienhart, Senior Writer, March 7, 2012

The 2012 Big Ten Men's Basketball Tournament tips off at 11:30 a.m. ET Thursday with No. 8 seed Iowa taking on No. 9 seed Illinois at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis (full bracket here). Before the action gets underway, I'm breaking down the first four games with an overview, key matchup and, of course, my prediction. Who do you like in the first four games? Vote inside.

Also, I'll be joining's Big Ten Geeks bloggers in a live blog for each of the four days of the tourney. Come talk with us during the games on the live tourney blog here or the live blog page on BTN's Facebook. Also inside this post: full interactive bracket, TV info and links to more BTN videos.

Game 1: No. 8 Iowa (8-10) vs. No. 9 Illinois (6-12) Time & TV: 11:30 a.m. ET on BTN/BTN2Go

Overview: Two programs seemingly going in opposite directions. The Fighting Illini opened Big Ten action 4-1 but proceeded to go 2-11 from there on out. Now, the future of Bruce Weber is in peril. Conversely, the Hawkeyes won five of their last nine after a 3-6 start, riding the hot hand of Matt Gatens in February to turnaround the season.

Key matchup: Keep your eye on the matchup in the backcourt between the Hawkeyes? Matt Gatens and the Fighting Illini?s Brandon Paul. Each player is the straw that stirs their team?s respective drink. Gatens was one of the hottest players coming down the stretch. The senior averages 15.7 points and scored in double-figures in all but two Big Ten games this season. Gatens is the No. 3 three-point shooter in the Big Ten, averaging 2.2 per game en route to draining 42.9 percent of his long-range attempts. No one will forget his back-to-back 30- and 33-point efforts in wins over Indiana and Wisconsin in February. Paul averages 15 points and closed the season with a flurry, scoring 17, 15 and 22 points in the last three games. He also has good defensive skills. But Paul can struggle with consistency as a shooter and can be turnover prone. The junior needs to be dialed in.

This season?s meeting: Feb. 26: Illinois 65, Iowa 54 at Champaign. Meyers Leonard played one of his best games of the season, scoring 22 points with 14 rebounds to help the Illini end a six-game losing skid. Brandon Paul had 17 points, and D.J. Richardson 12. Matt Gatens scored 22 for Iowa, hitting five-of-six three-pointers. But Paul held Gatens in check in the second half, limiting him to five points in a loss that likely killed any slim hopes the Hawkeyes had to earn an at-large bid.

My pick: The only hope for either team to reach the NCAA tourney is to win the Big Ten tourney. This is the first step on that improbable journey. Look for the Hawkeyes to keep their dream alive, as the program looks to make a magical run like it did in 2001 en route to winning the Big Ten tourney as a No. 6 seed-the lowest seed ever to win the event. Of course, by winning this game, Iowa?s prize would be a date with No. 1 seeded Michigan State on Friday. Nonetheless, it?s all about gaining experience for an Iowa that has a bright future under Fran McCaffrey.

Game 2: No. 5 Indiana (11-7) vs. No. 12 Penn State (4-14) Time & TV: 2 p.m. ET on BTN/BTN2Go

Overview: The Hoosiers are the hottest team in the Big Ten, winning seven of their eight games with an emphatic season-ending triumph over Purdue in Bloomington. The season has been highlighted with some huge wins, as Indiana toppled the No. 1 team (Kentucky); the No. 2 team (Ohio State); the No. 5 team (Michigan State). That?s a first for the program in the regular season. Penn State? It has lost four in a row, and six of its last eight contests. And the Nittany Lions will be without two of their best players in Billy Oliver and Cammeron Woodyard, who are out with injuries.

Key matchup: Victor Oladipo vs. Tim Frazier. The Nittany Lions? only chance is for Frazier to have a monster game. And he?s capable of that, ranking second in the Big Ten in scoring with an 18.6 average and possessing an all-around game as a defender and passer that is unmatched in the conference. But the junior will have to deal with the uber-athletic Oladipo, who is an angular 6-5 defender with quickness. The sophomore does a little bit of everything on the other end, as he can drive, dish, shoot and rebound.

This season?s meetings: Indiana 88, Penn State 82 at State College (Jan. 8). Jordan Hulls went off for 28 points as the Hoosiers nailed 16-of-24 three-pointers. Hulls hit seven-of-nine from long range, while Matt Roth nailed five-of-six en route to 22 points. Tim Frazier scored 21 but hit just seven-of-23 shots. Indiana 73, Penn State 54 at Bloomington (Jan. 22). Cody Zeller paced IU with 18 points, and Jordan Hulls notched all 14 of his points in the second half as the Hoosiers snapped a three-game losing streak. Tim Frazier again scored 21 points but also again shot poorly (7-of-18) for a Nit squad that sank just 34 percent of its shots on the day Joe Paterno died.

My pick: C?mon. It?s Indiana–by a lot. The Hoosiers are on a roll. And the Big Ten tournament is the next brick in the wall of Tom Crean?s rebuilding project. A date with No. 4 seeded Wisconsin is next for a deep Hoosier team that can shoot but lacks great athletic ability and defensive skill on the perimeter.

Game 3: No. 7 Northwestern (8-10) vs. No. 10 Minnesota (6-12) Time & TV: 5:30 p.m. ET on ESPN2/ESPN3

Overview: The nation continues to watch with wonder to see if Northwestern?s foot finally will fit into the NCAA slipper. The Wildcats? resume is equal parts good and bad, placing Bill Carmody?s team squarely on the slippery bubble as it arrives in Indianapolis with a 3-2 mark in its last five games. This much seems certain: Northwestern must win this game. If it loses, its NCAA hopes figure to be dashed. Beat the Gophers, and the Wildcats? postseason vita may be complete-or, it still may need one more victory. Stay tuned for one of the best storylines of the event in Nap Town.

Key matchup: John Shurna and Rodney Williams figure to lock up on many occasions. It will be fun to watch the ultra-athletic Williams do his best to lock down the slithery Shurna who seemingly always finds a way to get a shot off. Williams is a high-flyer on the offensive end whose leaping ability and length make the junior a good defender. Shurna is dubbed the ?Baby Faced Bomber? for his seemingly limitless range that helped him pace the Big Ten in scoring with a 19.8 average as a senior.

This season?s meetings: Minnesota 75, Northwestern 52 at Minneapolis (Jan. 22). The Wildcats shot just 32.7 percent and missed their first 15 shots, as the Gophers were fueled by a strong defensive effort from Rodney Williams. He has four steals and three blocks to go with his 11 points. For the Wildcats, Drew Crawford scored just five points; John Shurna had 21 but his just eight-of-21 shots.Northwestern 64, Minnesota 53 at Evanston (Feb. 18). The Wildcats avenged their earlier loss on a historic night for John Shurna, who scored 18 points to pass Billy McKinney to become the school?s all-time leading scorer. Freshman phenom Dave Sobolewski also starred, scoring a game-high 22 points from the point.

My pick: Gotta like the mojo of the Wildcats, as they sense finally reeling in that great white whale that is the NCAA tourney that has eluded the program forever. This is a Minnesota squad that has struggled down the stretch, going 2-7 in its last nine games for what?s largely a star-less team which lacks leadership. No. 2 Michigan is waiting in the next round on Friday in what may be Northwestern?s de facto NCAA play-in game. And it?s a Wolverine team that beat the Wildcats two times in overtime this season.

Game 4: No. 7 Purdue (10-8) vs. No. 11 Nebraska (4-14) Time & TV: 8 p.m. ET on ESPN2/ESPN3

Overview: The Boilermakers have been one of the Big Ten?s best teams the second half of the conference schedule, winning five of its last seven games. Robbie Hummel, D.J. Byrd and Lewis Jackson have sparked Purdue?s fast finish. How hot has Hummel been? In the last seven games, he is averaging 22.6 points and 9.6 rebounds and earned first-team All-Big Ten honors for a third time in his career. The Cornhuskers finished the season on a 1-8 skid, as Doc Sadler?s future may be in doubt in the program?s first Big Ten tourney appearance.

Key matchup: The point guard tussle between Lewis Jackson and Bo Spencer should be entertaining. In the teams? only meeting this season, Spencer scored 19 points with five assists and a turnover, and ?LewJack? had 13 with five assists and no turnovers. Each squad generally goes as these seniors go, as Jackson and Spencer are the driving engines that can create offense themselves or for teammates.

This season?s meeting: Purdue 83, Nebraska 65, at West Lafayette (Feb. 22). Robbie Hummel dominated the teams? only meeting this season, tallying a season-high 29 points in a romp. Hummel made 10-of-18 shots in what was the first meeting between the schools since 1979. D.J. Byrd returned from a one-game suspension to notch 15 points, as the Boilermakers made 44.8 percent (13-of-29) of their three-pointers to continue what was a hot February.

My pick: The Boilers already have a spot in the Big Dance wrapped up, but they want to keep their mojo going. Purdue is a jump-shooting team that again will bury the Cornhuskers if its stroke is in rhythm behind gunners like D.J. Byrd, Ryne Smith and Robbie Hummel. Even if the Boilermakers aren?t shooting well, they should be able to get to the rim and out score an offensively challenged Nebraska club. Next up would be a game vs. No. 3 Ohio State on Friday for Purdue.

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