#8 Northwestern vs. #9 Minnesota, 2:30 PM – Pick ‘em
While some Gopher fans have already begun to throw dirt on the season, and frustrated Northwestern fans keep tabs on their brothers in the “never been to the tournament” club, the teams still have basketball to play. These two clubs split the season series, with the Gophers notching one of their only two post-Al-Nolen-injury victories by 11 points at the Barn, and Northwestern dispatching them by the same margin in Evanston just five days ago. Both teams closed the season struggling, going a combined 6-16 over their final eleven games, with the Wildcats posting 4 wins to the Gopher’s 2.
In their previous meetings, an odd pattern developed – despite boasting the conference’s best rebounder in Trevor Mbakwe and seven-foot front line-mates Ralph Sampson and Colton Iverson, Minnesota failed to out-rebound the Wildcats – one of the ten worst offensive rebounding clubs in the nation managed 18 offensive rebounds over the two games. As a matter of fact, the Wildcats failed to reach 40% in both their matchups with the Gophers – the primary difference was more effective three-point shooting (32% in the second game from 18% in the first), particularly from Juice Thompson, in the rematch.
The other statistical battle to watch here is the turnover battle – the Wildcats rarely turn the ball over, and are routinely on the plus side of the turnover battle, while the opposite can be said of the Gophers – more so since Blake Hoffarber has taken over at the point. It will be key for the Wildcats to force turnovers – they are one of the worst teams in the nation in eFG% allowed, so preventing shots will be vital.
Minnesota has the best player on the floor in Mbakwe, and the Wildcarts are particularly ill-equipped to guard him, but the Gophers frequently struggle to get him adequate touches in the paint. Minnesota’s length, on the other hand, is large redered moot by Northwestern’s game – they have no interior offense for Mbakwe and Sampson to throttle.
Vegas hasn’t named a favorite in this game – which makes the Wildcats the appealing pick. A quick perusal of the matchup shows that the betting public has consistently over-valued Minnesota’s hot start, and is largely ignorant of their personell woes – they’re 1-9 against the spread in their past ten games. At 3-7, Northwestern isn’t any great shakes, but their relatively stronger close to the year makes them the pick in this game.
#7 Michigan State (-7) vs. #10 Iowa Following the first game.
Like the first game, this matchup features two team that split the season series, with each club winning on their home floor – in this case, each win was a blowout. Michigan State’s loss to Iowa marked the nadir of their season. In the game, the Hawkeyes shot a blistering 58% from the floor, held their own on the glass, and enjoyed a turnover margin of six in their favor, as Matt Gatens had 19, Bryce Cartwright handed out 10 assists, and the Hawkeyes flustered Draymond Green into 5 turnovers all by himself. In the rematch, the shooting percentages flipped – Iowa struggled, and the Spartan hit 54% of their shots, led by Keith Appling’s 7/8 performance. The Spartans also focused on pounding the ball into the paint – going 15/26 in the paint.
The team that Iowa beat was, frankly, lost at the time. Still reeling from the loss of Korie Lucious, their was a play-making void in East Lansing. Kalin Lucas had his worst shooting performance of the night, Draymond Green failed to step-up, and the Spartans tried to play with freshman reserve Keith Appling as their point guard. While the Spartans are still a far cry from what they had hoped, the ship has somewhat been righted. In his last 11 games, Kalin Lucas is averaging 21.5 ppg on 45% shooting, as the offense has leaned more and more on his shoulders. With Draymond Green nursing an injured ankle, Durrell Summers disinterested, and a parade of ineffective (offensively, at least) big-men, Lucas will need to carry it again – if Iowa can contain Lucas, they have a shot. On the other hand, the Hawkeyes will need All-Freshman First-Teamer Melsahn Besabe to occupy the Spartan big men, and Bryce Cartwright (is he awesome? Does he stink? You decide.) to curb his somewhat prodigious turnover habit.
Both teams won their respective games on the backs of hot shooting (both shot at least 54%) – something neither of these clubs hang their hats on. Given that, I’d expect the margin of victory to creep out of the realm of “blow out” and closer to a contended game. Both teams are pretty even against the spread over their past ten games, with Michigan State’s lofty pre-season reputation hampering their overall season numbers significantly more than those of the Hawkeyes. It’s a tough call, but I like the Spartans to cover the spread – take the favorites lay the points.
#6 Penn State (-3.5) vs. #11 Indiana – 7:30 PM
These teams have only met once this season – a nine-point Penn State road win in the first conference game of the season. Penn State won the game at the line as the Hoosiers, as they would do all season, committed an absurd number of fouls (21), and allowed the Nittany Lions 26 foul shots, where Penn State out-scored them by 14 points. And this is the issue. While a fairly good offensive team, Indiana is the single most foul-prone team in the country. Penn State, for their part, boasts the 26th most efficient offense in the nation thanks to stars Talor Battle and the efficient Jeff Brooks, and, unfortunately for Indiana, is in the top 20% of free-throw percentage in the nation.
The Nittany Lions do, however, struggle on the defensive end of the floor, forcing virtually no turnovers, and getting torched from beyond the three-point line – something sophomores Jordan Hulls and Christian Watford will need to take advantage of.
The Nittany Lions have the two best players on the floor, a better cast of role players, and are just more experienced – it wouldn’t shock me to see Battle and Brooks rack up 20 free-throws between them. Indiana, for their part, play an enormous rotation of players – it won’t happen, but it’s probably time to cut non-factors like Jeremiah Rivers (Inside the Hall named Rivers their most disappointing player after last season – he regressed this year), Matt Roth, and Tom Pritchard from the rotation and see what a promising group of freshmen led by Will Sheehy and Victor Olapido can give them.
This line, frankly, makes no sense, even given the Nittany Lions miserable record in the Big Ten Tournament. Penn State doubled this spread when the team met in Bloomington, and have demonstrated themselves to be the vastly superior team over the course of the year. The Nittany Lions seem to be somewhat under-rated (6-4 close against the spread), while the Hoosier have only covered 9 times this year. Take the Nittany Lions, comfortably.