Illinois vs Iowa 4:30 PM
Neither of these teams are great. That’s why they’re playing on the first day of the Big Ten tournament. Illinois ended the season on a decent stretch, winning against Nebraska and Rutgers in their last 4 games of the season. The one low point came against MSU, losing by 20 on the road. The Illini played very well against a talented Purdue team and ended up covering the spread of 9 points. Iowa has not played as well lately, but they closed out the season strong against Northwestern, securing a W before the Big Ten tournament started. Neither team is great on the road this season and this will be a road game for both teams.
Illinois did something similar to this last season and the season before that, they played well when it was too late for it to matter. The 2016 tournament ended up a little bit better for the Illini than it did in 2017, but they will look to have some success again this year. Brad Underwood is a motivator of men, simply put. He’s the only coach I’ve ever seen that has more faith in his team than the fans, players, or university has. He screamed at them in the huddle during timeout of the Nebraska game saying, “You have the world by the balls, you have everything you could ever want laid out right in front of you, get out there and take it dammit!” Knowing his voice and the emotion in his face surely had to fire up Illinois and I’m sure they’ve had more speeches like that the rest of the season. Leron Black has been playing some of the best basketball of his Illini career down the stretch and I couldn’t be happier for him. He had a rough outing against Rutgers, but scored 20 or more in the 4 games previous. Michael Finke coming back after suffering a concussion definitely helped the Illini as he contributed 19 points as well as 6 rebounds in 27 minutes. Finke and Black will have to be a big part of the Illini offense if they want to succeed in this tournament. Teams know that Trent Frazier and Kipper Nichols will get their fair share of points, so the emphasis in guarding the Illini will be put on those two. If the Illini let their big men go to work, like they have been down the stretch, Illinois will play well against Iowa and move on in the Big Ten tourney.
Iowa has struggled lately, and has been struggling throughout Big ten play. They did beat the Illini earlier in the season, but this is a different Illinois team. The only thing that Iowa does very well is share the ball. They rank 4th in the country in assists per game and four of their players score over 10 points per game. They don’t have one superstar player and at points during the season that has hurt them. Every team needs a go to guy and the Hawkeyes have struggled finding that this season. Iowa is a team that has been unable to find their identity all season and it has showed on the court. Jordan Bohannon is the only player on the team to average more than 30 minutes per game. He also recently missed a free throw on purpose in order for the record holder, Chris Street, could keep his Iowa record of consecutive free throws made. Bohannon is one of the best players on Iowa and helped them end the season on a good note, pouring in 25 points in their win over Northwestern. Luka Garza also contributed 18 points to the win. Bohannon was a huge part of Iowa’s victory over Illinois earlier in the season and hopes to be the go to guy again in this one. Iowa owned the rebounding battle in the first meeting, winning 45-27. That game went into OT after a second half resurgence by Iowa, but again this is a different Illinois team that will be more prepared. Iowa will have to find some scorers and consistent offense to have success against Illinois this time around.
Keys to the Game
Illinois: Win the rebounding game. Illinois was beat by 18 rebounds the last time these two teams played. Finke and Black were not a huge factor in the game, but both have been playing well at the end of the season and have been able to eat up loose balls for rebounds. They will be an integral part of the Illinois game plan for offense, and should look to get as many rebounds as possible to limit the second chance opportunities of Iowa. Finke and Black should combine for 45 points and 20 rebounds to give the Illini a W.
Iowa: I’ve kind of already touched on this, but Iowa needs one guy to step up. Whether that is going to be Bohannon, Garza, or Cook remains to be seen and I’m not sure any of those guys know who it’s going to be. It was Bohannon and has been him for most of the season, but there are also games where he just disappears. It’s been a weird, streaky season for Iowa and they need to bust out of their slump to keep their season alive. If Bohannon can score more than 20 and keep up his assist output of 5 per game, which leads the team, Iowa has a better chance at beating the Illini.
The line on this game has moved from Illinois -1 to Illinois +1 just overnight. This is a little alarming because it means people much smarter than me are putting money on Iowa. I think Illinois will walk away the victors. They have been playing good, team basketball as of late and Iowa hasn’t impressed me at all this season. Illinois has played better against teams that are better than them and has been able to put away inferior teams down the stretch. Both teams struggle away from home, but the Illini will get the edge from me with Michael Finke being 100% ready to go in this one. Illinois 78 Iowa 73.
Rutgers vs Minnesota 6:55 PM
Rutgers ended the season on a rough note, dropping one at home to Illinois. They are a very talented, very young team that still has some learning and growing up to do. Corey Sanders is one of the most talented guards in the country and it’s upsetting that his supporting cast hasn’t helped him much this season. Minnesota has had a turbulent season. They started out ranked in the top 25 and then just fell apart. They played Alabama early in the season and for the last ten minutes of the game, Alabama had to play 3 on 5; they only lost the game by 5 points. Losing Reggie Lynch to expulsion hasn’t helped the Golden Gophers either. Again neither of these teams are very good and that’s why they’re playing on the first day of the Big Ten tournament.
Keys to the Game
Rutgers: Focus on good offensive possessions. The Scarlet Knights have a top 20 scoring defense, so obviously their issue has not been on the defensive end this season, they average giving up 64.5 points per game, which is also what they average for their offense. Scoring and allowing the same amount of points per game is not a good formula for winning. Similar to Iowa, Rutgers has struggled establishing a go to guy this season. Corey Sanders can be that, but when he is off, there is no one else to step up. Deshawn Freeman has tried to be that guy, but he often contributes less than 10 points per game and has been wildly inconsistent this season. Inconsistent has been the theme for Rutgers and they rank outside the top 300 in offensive points per game as well as assists. They need to find a way to improve in both of these categories in a short amount of time before they play the Golden Gophers in Madison Square Garden Saturday night.
Minnesota: Feed Nate Mason. Mason has shown he can play well over the course of the last 5 games, including a 33 point performance against Iowa on senior night. Not having Amir Coffey and Reggie Lynch has hurt Minnesota, but Nate Mason has stepped up in their wake. He has improved on his three point shooting this season and will likely be one of the main sources of offense for the Gophers in this matchup. The Iowa guards have trouble defending fast, playmaking guards and Mason fits that mold. Mason has been a little inconsistent in sharing the ball with his teammates this season, seeing his total dip to 128 from 169 last season, but that’s not entirely his fault. His teammates haven’t been the most consistent shooters and the two guys they ran their offense around have been expelled from the school (Reggie Lynch) or injured (Amir Coffey). Mason will need a stat line of 25/5/6 if the Golden Gophers want to put away Rutgers like they should.
Minnesota should be able to win this one. Rutgers looked extremely defeated, literally and emotionally, after their loss to Illinois to end the regular season. Minnesota was at least able to end the season with a win over Iowa before losing by 20 to Purdue. I think that Nate Mason will be able to do his thing and lift the Minnesota offense over Rutgers. This game will likely be a close one, as it is tournament time and right on the cusp of March and every college basketball fan knows that anything can happen in postseason play, but everything points to Minnesota winning this one. Minnesota 72 Rutgers 69.