The first game of the Big Ten tournament is the most interesting one of the opening round. Minnesota and Illinois will play each other in a battle of two tournament teams that are falling back towards the bubble.
Minnesota and Illinois are actually very similar. Both schools surprised the nation with their fast starts to the season (Illinois started 12-0 and Minnesota 15-1), before going in to a free fall (Illinois is 9-11 since their start and Minnesota is 5-10). They are both portraits of inconsistency, looking like elite teams on night, before looking lost and indifferent another night.
Illinois started the season with great energy and passion behind new coach John Groce. However, their lack of rebounding ability and over-dependence on the 3-point shot has soured their season.
Brandon Paul was superb in the Maui Invitational and through the early part of the season, but has been inconsistent since. He has checked out of games at times and when that happens, an already outside-oriented offense loses any attack that they had to start with.
However, when the threes fall, Illinois can beat anybody. It has beaten Gonzaga, Indiana, Ohio State and Butler. Those are as impressive of wins as any school in the country has, and a major factor in why it is likely to be an NCAA Tournament selection despite its 8-10 conference record.
While Illinois has a new coach, Minnesota may have one on his way out in Tubby Smith. Smith’s Gophers have showed a lack of interest, effort and focus in many of their bad losses this year. Many have been calling for his head, as the Gopher’s season has spiraled out of control.
Although it has one of the best front-court duos in the Big Ten with Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams, Minnesota still struggles offensively. Its team features a very slow paced offense, often with no true go-to scorer, averaging the second fewest field goal attempts in the Big Ten.
The team lead the Big Ten in turnovers, averaging over 13 per game, while also being the second worst free throw shooting team in the conference. When you turn the ball over, lack an offensive identity and don’t make free throws, it is very hard to win in the Big Ten. Minnesota has learned that the hard way.
Both Minnesota and Illinois have had a rough time in the Big Ten after their big starts. Luckily for each school, they have beaten good school and have good RPI’s and Strength of Schedules. Those factors are what is keeping both schools in the NCAA Tournament as of now.
Still, the loser of this game could be pushing it. Minnesota specifically could be in danger of being snubbed on Selection Sunday, if it ends its season losing 16 out of 21 games.
At the same time, I could realistically see either one of these schools making it deep in to the Big Ten tourney and pulling off some upsets. Illinois and Minnesota both have unmistakable talent on their teams — Paul and Mbakwe are two of the best players in the conference when they are playing well — but their inconsistency has killed them in the second half of the season.
The loser of this game could be in a tough position, but I think whoever wins this game will be a scary, under the radar match-up for the rest of the weekend. Remember, the winner plays Indiana on Friday, a school that both Minnesota and Illinois beat at home.
And just to fit the inconsistency in this match-up, both schools have beaten the other on the road this season to split the season series. It should be a very entertaining game when Illinois and Minnesota open up the much-anticipated 2013 Big Ten Tournament.
Minnesota and Illinois play at noon EST on Thursday on BTN and the winner plays Indiana Friday at the same time on ESPN.