One of the Games Of The Year in the Big 10 takes place tonight. But its not the game you think.

Oh, sure, tonight’s Michigan State at Wisconsin game feels like a heavyweight fight. But, for our purposes here of tracking the state of the Bubble, there arent going to be many more games as important in the conference as the game in Evanston tonight between Michigan and Northwestern.

How in the world is a Northwestern  home game against an 11-10 team one of the season’s critical juncture points? It’s the confluence of the Wildcats urgency to earn their historic tournament bid, a soft bubble, a cratering Big 10 Bubble and the fact that Michigan represents one of their tougher challenges the rest of the way. At 3-6 in the Big 10, the Cats need to win twice as many games as they lose the rest of the way to probably be under legit consideration. That might seem like a tall order. But KenPom actually projects just such a finish, with Northwestern getting to the clubhouse at 9-9 in league play, 21-10 overall. Hard to see them left out of the field with those numbers. By giving the Wildcats a 62-percent chance at winning tonight, KenPom makes Michigan their fourth toughest hurdle over their final ten overall games.

This a major swing game for them. They will be favored by Vegas in a lot of those games down the stretch as well, so a big run to get their league record resume worthy is not out of the question. That run becomes harder, if not impossible, without a win tonight. Some feel the Cats need to go 4-0 in their next four to get back into contention. If Northwestern wins, they stop a two game slide, can start gobbling up wins en route to a 20-win campaign and work their way up the Bubble ladder. They have quite a ways to go. With 48 precincts reporting to the Bracket Matrix, and all but a small handful having updated since the weekend, only 5 mock bracketologists put Northwestern in their fields. That not only puts them out of the Final 8 cut from the Matrix but with less votes than Arizona and UTEP. If they lose tonight, you can do the math. They wont be anywhere close to anyone’s bracket. They only have one game left–at Wisconsin–that they could win and radically change a lot of people’s mind on just what postseason bracket Northwestern deserves. Every game from here on out is a must win for Northwestern’s hopes, but there are a few they could afford to lose. This is not one of them. This would be a bad loss.

 But not many bad loss candidates come in with the Experts in the Desert calling it a coin flip. Despite the disparate records, placement on the bubble and the home court edge, oddsmakers have made Northwestern just a 2-point favorite tonight. That’s a testament to the fact that plenty of folks within in the betting public give Michigan as much of a chance at winning this game than the hometown Cats.

Where does the perception come from? One word: Defense. Michigan has some. Northwestern doesnt. The Wolverines have evolved into one of the best stop units out there. They’re 35th in the nation in points allowed and 10th in three-point percentage defense. They also remain one of the top teams in the country at turnover margin. For all the Wolverines’ flaws, they do a few things well, notably pushing you into taking treys from beyond your comfort zone and forcing sloppy play. On a points per possession allowed standpoint, Michigan is right up in league play with conference stalwarts MSU and Wisconsin. Their points per possession margin from offense to defense also puts them in the top half of the conference. If only their win/loss record did the same, then maybe Michigan would have some stack on the table tonight as well.  As for Northwestern, they couldnt guard a crosswalk. The Wildcats have the most porous defense in the league. They might not allow a ton of points, per se, but they are the worst in the league at points allowed per possession. Michigan would be wise to push up the tempo at times. I think their defense can handle the extra possessions. I dont think Northwestern’s can. If Michigan can limit its own turnovers against a 1-3-1 zone defense that they are obviously more than familiar with, then they will control this contest.

The teams find themselves in opposite positions from a year ago. in 2009, Michigan snapped a NCAA drought, but would not have done so had they not been the only team  in the Big 10 to sweep Northwestern last season. A year later, its Northwestern that needs the wins to put an end to their own March Madness drought. But, they probably will fall a win or two short if they dont beat Michigan tonight for a season sweep of the Wolverines.

If the game is anything like the last two contests, then buckle in. Michigan won a crazy OT game in Evanston last year that proved to be a big swing game for both sides. Last month in Ann Arbor, Michigan held a big early lead. But Drew Crawford, a freshmen, blew up for 25 points, including 11 in a row in the first half to get the Cats back into the game, and 15 in the second half to push the Cats to victory. Michigan took a late lead, but Northwestern scored the game’s final 7 points and Michigan’s final two possessions ended in shaky turnovers.

Expect another close game tonight as the Wolverines attempt to avenge a painful defeat from earlier in the season. Close games have been killers for Michigan. In games decided in overtime or by less than 6 points, the Wolverines are just 2-6 overall and 0-4 in Big 10 play this season. That’s the difference between the NCAA Tournament and the NIT right there. While Michigan tries to reverse its season long bout of bad luck, they do have some historic numbers on their side tonight. The Wolverines are 10-3 ATS vs Northwestern, 8-1 at Welsh-Ryan Arena and the road team has covered four of five in this series. Something has got to give.

ELSEWHERE IN BIG 10 BUBBLE LAND

MINNESOTA

After being whipped in Columbus, Minnesota finds themselves still on the outside looking into the consensus Matrix field within the final group of last 8 out. But, they are the eighth team out and have risked losing even that spot by losing four of their five games. They are in just eight total mock fields, the same amount of support that Seton Hall is getting. The game against Ohio State was ugly. The Gophers defense has been exposed during Big 10 play, even more so with the speed of Al Nolen on the perimeter out of the lineup the rest of the way. They have a somewhat manageable slate down the stretch, but if they cant sweep home games against Michigan, Purdue and Wisconsin this month, then the Gophers are going to have to find a way to win a few Big 10 road games. While they did beat league punching bag Iowa on the road, they have lost their four other conference roadies by an average margin of over 12 points. . Some have already accepted reality and dared South Florida to come up north to the Barn for the NIT. But, hope comes in the form of KenPom projecting  a final 19-11 overall, 10-8 Big 10 record. It will be interesting to see if that comes to fruition and, if so, where it puts the Gophers on the Bubble. They would probably need to win a game in the BTT just to ensure a bid.

ILLINOIS

Illinois is 14-7, 6-3 in the Big 10, yet they sit out of the Bracket Matrix, pretty much rowing in the same boat as  Minnesota. Both are in just eight mocks, but the Illini are a step ahead of the Gophers, holding down the seventh from last spot out of the field. They’re ahead of Minnesota because they are seeded higher in the votes they have received. Most mocks that have the Illini put them on the 11-line. The Gophers support comes mostly from folks making them a 12-seed. Ironically, the only bracketologist placing both clubs in the field has those numbers basically reversed with the Gophers in as 10-seed and the Illini in as a 12.

The Illini dodged what might have been a fatal dagger when they escaped with a buzzer beating win over Indiana. Only 8 points separated the Illini and Hoosiers this season, but with the Illini notching close wins each time, they are in position to climb the Bubble ladder and get into the field when it matters most–early March. Pretty much every Illini win the rest of the way will be of the resume variety. They have six games in their final nine against ranked foes. If they can win three of the four home games (MSU, OSU, Minnesota and Wisconsin) against that high end competition and take care of business in other games, that’s a 19-11 record, 11-7 in the Big 10. No way they miss the field, unless they bomb out with a one-and-done in the BTT. I’d call Saturday night’s home game against Sparty with College Game Day in the house the most important game in the league this week, but I dont want to devalue the oomph of my post today. A win in that one could see the Illini jump all the way to cusp of the consensus field a week from today.

For the time being, they are relegated to the NIT Board, where they are currently projected to play North Carolina in a 3 vs 6 game. What!?!?! You won’t see too many NCAA tournament matchups as good on paper during the whole first weekend of play than you would should the Illini and Heels match in an NIT opener. Minnesota remains a tournament team according to these specific projections. Northwestern is the only other Big 10 team included in the NIT bracket right now. Fellow Hoop Addicts, check out those NIT projections. Is it a sign that you follow too much college basketball when you can peruse a NIT mock bracket and get excited about some of the possible game? You know, I dont think so. I dont care what you think.

MICHIGAN STATE AT WISCONSIN

The game the caps the Big 10 doubleheader tonight doesnt really have any bubble implications. But, its obviously huge at the top end of the standings. MSU is 9-0 and three full games ahead of the quartet of followers at 6-3. The Badgers are one of those in pursuit. For everyone’s sake, the Badgers need a win or else this Big 10 title chase is over. After the game in Madison tonight, the Spartans travel to Illinois and host Purdue in their next two games. A week from now, this race could be a whole lot closer and dramatic than it is now. The Spartans would have dropped two games already, but last second shots by Kailon Lucas got them road wins at Minnesota and at Michigan. Tonight’s chore is tougher, but if they pull it off, you can pretty much call the Big 10 race for the Green and White.

The Badgers meanwhile have no chance of really playing their best game. As long as John Leuer is out with a wrist injury, the Badgers arent playing with their full arsenal. He’s expected back by March, but his absence has hampered Wisconsin. The offense has really struggled to score the goal without him. Do you know where Leuer’s absence isnt hurting the Badgers? Try their won/loss record. Despite the loss of their top scorer and rebounder, the Badgers continue to defy logic as a program and win without star players. Travan Hughes has stepped up his game to a Big 10 MVP-type of level. Had he not, the Badgers would certainly be a good two games worse in the league standings right now. That’s not to say others havent stepped in Leuer’s absence. Hardly. It just hasnt been balanced or consistent. A new guy each night seems to step up to shoulder the load. One night its Ryan Evans sinking big jumpers against Michigan. The next game Jordan Taylor breaks a 0-for-17 run and lights up Penn State. Keaton Nankovil drains a six pack of treys during a career night and the Badgers nearly steal a win over Purdue at Mackey Arena. They might need one of those guys, not to mention a return to form from Jason Bohannen who shooting touch has waned this winter, to get by Sparty tonight.

It’s Tom Izzo vs Bo Ryan. So the team with the most tackles wins tonight, right? We do know it will be an interesting clash of styles. The Badgers are the slowest paced team in the Big 10 with just 58.7 posessions a game. The Spartans, meanwhile, are on the fastest with just under 65 possession per game. Both styles work for their respective programs as these teams are 1-2 in efficiency margin in Big 10 play. This will be like the last two MSU road games: Anybody’s game in the final minute. We’ll see if Kailon Lucas has any more heroics in his bag for the Spartans.

MICHIGAN—CAN WE PLEASE AT LEAST GET ON THE NIT BUBBLE? KTHNX

It was jarring, but not unexpected to not see Michigan even on that NIT board. That 11-10 record just hurts everything.  When you think about it, however, their resume isnt all that much different than Louisville’s right now.  The big difference is that Louisville has a 2.5 game better overall record thanks to victories in the twice as many cupcake games they had on their on the schedule compared to the Wolverines. Otherwise, Michigan is a terrible 2-6 in marquee out of conference games. Louisville is 1-4 in their marquee OOC games. Louisville’s 5-4 mark in the Big East does ring louder than Michigan’s 4-5 Big 10 mark. But the Cards only got that mark last night with a home win over UConn. Thats also their best win in Big East play. Michigan, of course, has accomplished the same feat as the Cards did last night with a home court win over the Huskies. Except their win has their ship back pointed in the NCAA direction. Michigan needs to string some wins together just to feel comfortable with a NIT invite.

Maybe road games at Utah and Kansas should have been home games against Kent State and Ball State?  I dont think that’s the answer. Besides, just playing the slate they did still gave them a fighting chance for a bid with a good Big 10 season. Had they not let slip away games they had dead to right against Wisconsin and Michigan State in recent outings, Michigan would have been in more updated mocks than the other league Bubble teams. Even with just one of those, the math changes enough where an at large bid doesnt seem a pipe dream. And thats too bad because I think the club goes 6-3 down the stretch without really having to play above their heads. That’s two games better than KenPom projects for Michigan. I think he’s wrong on the two games Michigan plays this week. His numbers call for losses to tonight and Saturday at Crisler against Wisconsin. I think Michigan wins both. I believe in this defense that much. I believe in the non box score friendly game of Zack Novak that much. I believe in DeShaun Sims Big 10 Player Of The Year Candiacy that much.

Picks? Picks!

We ended January with an 18-10-2 ATS mark in January. For the season, the JCB is up 6.5 units on college basketball games. Our instinct tells us the reel it in a bit during February. It’s so tough to stay on a winning roll in basketball. I’d like to ensure that I have some house money to play with the March, the real month to hit it big in the college game, rolls around. But, the selections have doing well. Until I feel myself cooling off, I’ll try to see if I cant make at least one pick a night from the daily big board. The Big 10 has been good to me during this run. I’m on both games tonight.

Michigan +2 over Northwestern, 1 Unit…….good offense meets good defense. I’ll take the team with the defense. Northwestern has been brutal defensively. I think its hard to rely on them winning games with that unit. Besides, Michigan is on a six-game ATS winning run. Never bet against a streak. Michigan is 9-2 ATS in their last 12 games, dating back to December. They might not make it back to the tournament, but they sure have been lining the pocketbooks of their boosters. I’m more than willing to take another spin on the ride.

Wisconsin +2 over MSU, 1 Unit…….I’ll take the Badgers to win on their home floor against anybody in the country. Book It.