By Adam Hoge-
UNITED CENTER (CBS) A quick look at what to watch for Thursday as the Big Ten Tournament gets underway in Chicago:
No. 8 Illinois (21-11, 8-10) vs No. 9 Minnesota (20-11, 8-10)
What’s At Stake: NCAA Tournament seeding. Neither of these teams are initial ballot locks for the NCAA Tournament, but both teams should make the field relatively easily. Minnesota probably needs this one more than Illinois to improve their seeding, as the Illini will beat a lot of teams head-to-head when the committee compares their resume to others. Their wins over Indiana and Gonzaga will likely lead to a higher seed than most expect.
Players To Watch: Brandon Paul and Andre Hollins. Two of the best guards in the conference, both of them have the ability to carry their team today in the Tournament opener.
Quick Pick: Illinois. The Illini have never lost their first Big Ten Tournament game when its played in Chicago. The home court advantage will help them in the opener.
No. 5 Michigan (25-6, 12-6) vs No. 12 Penn State (10-20, 2-16)
What’s At Stake: Seeding for Michigan and continued respect for the Nittany Lions. A casual fan might look at Penn State’s record and shrug, but Patrick Chambers has done a good job with this team and the Lions seem to be getting better every game. Michigan knows that all too well as they lost at Penn State Feb. 27. The Wolverines could end up with as low as a 4-seed with a loss Thursday or as high as a 1-seed if they make a run this weekend.
Players To Watch: You know Trey Burke, my vote for national player of the year. Get to know Jermaine Marshall, though, a Penn State junior who is quietly averaging 15.5 points per game this season.
Quick Pick: Michigan. There’s certainly the potential for Michigan to fall asleep in a matinee game on a day they weren’t supposed to be playing, but the Wolverines learned their lesson against the Lions last month.
No. 7 Purdue (15-16, 8-10) vs No. 10 Nebraska (14-17, 5-13)
What’s At Stake: Both teams have postseason aspirations and could use at least two wins. Purdue has been playing well and is probably NIT worthy, but the NIT has never taken a team with a sub-.500 record. Purdue would need two wins to finish 17-17. Nebraska, meanwhile, is trying to make a play for the CBI and could use a win too.
Players To Watch: Keep an eye on D.J. Byrd on Purdue, who is a deadly three-point shooter playing in his last Big Ten Tournament. For Nebraska, Dylan Talley is an underrated player who can fill it up quickly.
Quick Pick: Purdue. The Boilermakers have looked like a different team in recent weeks and have chance to make a surprise run this weekend.
No. 6 Iowa (20-11, 9-9) vs No. 11 Northwestern (13-18, 4-14)
What’s At Stake: An NCAA Tournament berth for one team and the head coach’s job for the other. At first glance, Iowa’s record looks NCAA Tournament worthy for a Big Ten team, but they’ve done all their damage at home and have three bad losses, something the committee will frown upon. If Iowa is still playing Saturday, however, they’ll have a chance. Meanwhile, Bill Carmody knows he has to make some noise this weekend or his 13-year run at Northwestern could be over.
Players To Watch: Aaron White doesn’t look like much, but he’s a vastly underrated big man for the Hawkeyes. As for Northwestern, I’m sorry, their roster is gutted and their not much to see there.
Quick Pick: Iowa. Northwestern is the only team I can’t see pulling off a win in this tournament. Meanwhile, I wouldn’t be shocked if Iowa is still playing Saturday or even Sunday.
For coverage throughout the Big Ten Tournament, follow Adam on Twitter at @AdamHogeCBS.