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Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
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Thursday / May 24.
  • Previewing the Big Ten Quarterfinals: Miles Bridges, Nebraska’s Bubble Outlook, Ohio State-Penn State Part III, & Rutgers Magic

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    By MIKE McCURRY

    NEW YORK — Friday is to be referred to as moving day at the Big Ten Tournament.

    Will No. 2 Michigan State handle Wisconsin for the second time in six days? Will the league’s lone true bubble team come thru in a must-win scenario? Even without Mike Watkins, can Penn State beat Ohio State for a third time? And, last but not least, can Rutgers sustain the mojo and put a real scare into Purdue?

    Before Michigan gets whistled for another foul, let’s set the scene for the quarterfinals.

    No. 1 Michigan State vs. No. 9 Wisconsin, 12 PM ET

    Last Sunday, Brad Davison’s 30-spot was not enough in Wisconsin’s 68-63 loss to Michigan State. By virtue of Wisco’s 59-54 second-round win over Maryland on Thursday, however, the Badgers get another shot at Sparty.

    Wisconsin has been a completely different team over the last two weeks. They’ve won four of five in that span, including against Purdue, while holding the opposition to 0.98 points per possession.

    Of course, on the other bench resides a Michigan State squad that has reeled off 12 straight victories and is as hot as any team in the country.

    For Wisconsin to even keep this one entertaining, the Badgers need Ethan Happ to have a field day against the nation’s top defensive frontline and also keep the Spartans off the offensive glass.

    It would also serve Greg Gard’s men well to avoid being the team responsible for helping Miles Bridges break out of his mini-slump. The unanimous All-Big Ten First Team selection is averaging 13.4 points in seven contests since the beginning of February (17.9 PPG previously) on 41 percent shooting (48 percent previously), including games of just 5, 7, 8, and 10 points.

    No. 4 Nebraska vs. No. 5 Michigan, approx. 2:25 PM ET

    The biggest beneficiary of Michigan’s 77-71 overtime win over Iowa on Thursday was…well, Nebraska.

    The Cornhuskers are on the outside looking in as far as the NCAA Tournament is concerned—despite their 22-9 overall and 13-5 Big Ten records, they have just one Quadrant-1 win: a 72-52 spanking of Michigan back on January 18 in Lincoln.

    Entering Friday, Nebraska is a consensus First Four Out team. They would likely need to advance to Sunday’s Big Ten Tournament championship game to get on the good side of the bubble. With First-Team All-Conference guard James Palmer (17.4 PPG, 3.0 APG) leading the charge, that’s not entirely outside the realm of possibility.

    As for Michigan, they pulled one out on Thursday despite Moe Wagner and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman battling foul trouble all afternoon—both fouled out after logging a collective 38 minutes—and a collective 3-of-19 display from behind the three-point line.

    So how did the Wolverines get the job done? Defense. This is the most defensively sound team John Beilein has ever assembled. Michigan ranks inside the Top-10 in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric.

    The defending Big Ten Tournament champions also got large contributions from Duncan Robinson—the conference’s Sixth Man of the Year sank three huge triples late—and the mercurial Charles Matthews (16 points, 6 rebounds), who is the Wolverines’ X-factor in March.

    No. 2 Ohio State vs. No. 7 Penn State, 6:30 PM ET

    It’s a bummer that Penn State is without the services of the 6-foot-9 Watkins (12.1 PPG, 8.9 RPG, 2.3 BPG on 69 percent shooting), an elite rim protector and dominant-at-times inside force, but what Pat Chambers does have at his disposal is Tony Carr.

    Carr, an All-Big Ten First Team selection and the league’s scoring champion (19.9 PPG), put the Nittany Lions on his back down the stretch of Thursday’s 65-57 win versus Northwestern, providing dagger after dagger from beyond the arc. He finished with 25 points and six three-pointers to go along with 6 rebounds and 4 assists.

    The 6-5 sophomore guard has averaged a ridiculously efficient 29.0 points in Penn State’s two victories over Ohio State this season.

    The Buckeyes, paced by the Big Ten’s Player of the Year in Keita Bates-Diop and Coach of the Year in Chris Holtmann, are 0-2 against Penn State and 15-1 versus all other in-league foes this season.

    It’s hard to envision Ohio State whiffing for a third time, but keep in mind that the Nittany Lions are desperate.

    Penn State passes the eye test to receive an at-large bid, however their resume is barren outside of  sweeping Ohio State. With an 81 RPI and a trio of Quadrant-3-or-worse setbacks, Carr may need to go all Kemba Walker on us and cut down the nets at Madison Square Garden if the program wishes to go dancing for the first time in the Pat Chambers era.   

    No. 3 Purdue vs. No. 14 Rutgers, approx. 8:55 PM ET 

    Some in the industry have prematurely labeled Rutgers as a Cinderella—they’ve beaten freefalling (and that’s putting it nicely) Minnesota and a middling Indiana squad—but that shouldn’t take away from what head coach Steve Pikiell and lead guard Corey Sanders (51 total points) have accomplished thru the first two days at the Mecca.

    Rutgers has won multiple conference tournament games for the first time in 20 seasons. Just let that sink in. The unofficial host of the Big Ten Tournament, the Scarlet Knights are so far protecting their home turf and making league commissioner Jim Delany look wiser by the day for their inclusion.

    Momentum is a dangerous ingredient this time of year, and Rutgers is doubling the dose. In Thursday’s 76-69 win, they fell behind 24-8, meaning they outscored the Hoosiers by 23 points in the final 27 minutes, all while displaying raw, genuine emotion and feeding off the home crowd.

    It’s almost like Sanders, Eugene Omoruyi, Deshawn Freeman, and even Pikiell himself are taking out their frustrations stemming from those four last-place finishes at this event, during this week.

    Can the run turn magical on Friday against No. 8 and senior-laden Purdue?

    The Boilermakers have been playing an uneven brand of basketball over the last month or so, with a tight 78-76 win at Piscataway on February 3 included in that stretch.

    All-Big Ten First Team member Carsen Edwards has continued to ball out, per usual (24.8 PPG in last six games). But Vince Edwards (no relation) has been slowed by a sprained left ankle, PJ Thompson is a total non-factor of late (scoreless in 3 of his past 6 games), and the duo of Dakota Mathias and Isaac Haas just recently broke out of their mini-slumps.

    Will Purdue be well-rested or rusty? Will Rutgers have tired legs, or are the Scarlet Knights just now finding their sea legs?

    For Rutgers, Friday represents the biggest game for the program in quite some time.

    Photo: Michigan Athletics

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