Big Ten: No. 9 Maryland vs No. 20 Illinois with high stakes
What to watch in Big Ten basketball:
GAME OF THE WEEK
No. 9 Maryland at No. 20 Illinois. First place will be at stake along with perhaps a Big Ten Tournament tiebreaker when the Fighting Illini (16-6, 8-3 Big Ten) host the Terrapins (18-4, 8-3) on Friday in the only conference game that night. Get your popcorn. Illinois will be motivated and fired-up fans will be ready for payback after Maryland rallied from a 15-point deficit to win the first meeting two months ago at home. Anthony Cowan Jr. hit a tying 3-pointer in the final 20 seconds and a go-ahead free throw for the Terrapins. No one outside of Illinois’ program saw its surprising season coming. A month ago, coach Brad Underwood’s team led by center Kofi Cocburn was not even ranked. Maryland has climbed back into the top 10 after being ranked No. 7 in the preseason. The Terrapins rose to No. 3 in early December before dropping. They moved into a first-place tie with Illinois after they beat Rutgers on Tuesday night for their fifth straight win. The Illini have been idle since their seven-game winning streak was snapped Sunday at Iowa.
A pair of in-state rivalries should spice things up this weekend. No. 16 Michigan State, coming off a loss at home to No. 22 Penn State, plays at Michigan in the first of four conference games on Saturday. The Spartans need a win to avoid falling two games behind the winner of the Maryland-Illinois game. The Wolverines have lost five of seven, making it more important for them to boost their NCAA Tournament resume with a quality win. Purdue plays at Indiana in the first of two scheduled games between the rivals. Indiana coach Archie Miller desperately wants to end a season-high, three-game losing streak. If Miller doesn’t lead the Hoosiers to the NCAA Tournament this season, he will be the first coach in school history to go more than three years without being in college basketball’s showcase event since the early 1960s.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Penn State’s Lamar Stevens is making a push to be considered for Big Ten player of the year. The senior forward has helped the Nittany Lions match the seven conference wins they had last year, putting them in position to contend for the championship. Stevens is averaging 16.9 points, ranking fourth in the Big Ten. He is also among conference leaders in rebounds, field goal percentage, free throw percentage, blocks and steals. In Penn State’s first win at Michigan State in 11 years, Stevens had 24 points, seven rebounds, three assists, two steals and blocked a shot.
INSIDE THE NUMBERS
The Big Ten began the week with 12 teams, five more than any other conference, among the top 51 in the NCAA NET rankings. … The Spartans have lost two straight for the first time this season. … Penn State has seven Big Ten wins through 11 games for the first time since the 1995-96 season. … Minnesota’s 70-52 win over Wisconsin was its largest margin of victory over the rival Badgers since a 109-78 win nearly 26 years ago.
ON THE WOMEN’S SIDE:
Entering play Thursday night, No. 13 Maryland, No. 20 Iowa and No. 21 Northwestern were in a three-way tie atop the standings. No. 18 Indiana was only a game behind. The Terrapins close the week with challenging games, traveling to play the Hoosiers on the road and hosting Rutgers. … Michigan’s Naz Hillmon is the Big Ten player of the week after averaging 28.5 points, nine rebounds and 3.5 assists per game while making two-thirds of her shots.