The best conference tournament of the season, and perhaps the most anticipated Big Ten tournament tips off bright and early on Thursday morning when the Gophers take on Illinois at 11 am. How competitive will the tournament be? Consider that the Gophers and the Illini, the eight and nine seeds respectively, are each playing for a chance to beat number one seed Indiana for the second time.  Anything can happen, and probably will. Here is what you need to know.

#8 Illinois Fighting Illini vs. #9 Minnesota Golden Gophers

During the regular seasonThe teams played each other twice, and the road team won each game.

What’s on the line: Both teams should be in the tournament, regardless of what happens. There is no way the winner gets left out, so a subdued Selection Sunday is on the line.

Who to watch: Rodney Williams scored 8 points and had five rebounds in Minnesota’s January win at Illinois, but missed the rematch with a shoulder injury. As Karma would have it, Joe Bertand may miss the game for the Illini due to a shoulder injury. The health and effectiveness of each Bertrand and Williams will decide the game.

What to watch: The Illini live and die by the three. At Williams Arena they shot 43% from distance. At Assembly Hall they shot 12.5% The Gophers aren’t as dependent on the three-pointers, but it does open up inside scorers. The Gophers managed to make nine three-pointers in the regular season finale. If they can shoot like that against the Illini, they have a good chance to win.

What to expect: Williams seems to finally be over his lingering shoulder injury. He should be key to a Gopher victory, which means they probably lose.

#5 Michigan Wolverines vs. #12 Penn State Nittany Lions

During the regular season: In what will be a recurring theme, the teams split their regular season games with the home team winning both. Both games were decided by single digits.

What’s on the line: If the Nittany Lions don’t win this game, and the Big Ten tournament, their season will be over. For Michigan, they’re out for more than just revenge. They’re out to prove that their fifth place finish, thanks to a barely missed tip in that cost them a share of the regular season conference, doesn’t accurately reflect their season. If they  manage to win the Big Ten tournament, they could sneak into a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Who to watch: Trey Burke might be the national player of the year, but his six turnovers in Michigan’s loss cost his team the game. It balanced out his 29 point effort in his team’s win, when he was absolutely unstoppable. For Penn State, if Jermaine Marshall gets hot from the outside, Penn State looks nothing like a two conference win team.

What to watch: It all comes down to Penn State’s shooting. They need to find a way to put the ball in the basket.

What to expect: Michigan wins is in a game much closer than most would expect. It won’t be because Michigan is suddenly awful or that Penn State is better than expected. Some teams just play each other close.

#7 Purdue Boilermakers vs. #10 Nebraska Cornhuskers

During the regular season: Despite a dreadful non-conference season, Purdue managed win eight Big Ten games by winning every winnable game, including their lone match-up with Nebraska.

What’s on the line: This is the traditional make or break bubble game, but neither the Boilermakers or Cornhuskers will be dancing unless they win the Big Ten tournament. Purdue’s non-conference season was too bad and Nebraska’s conference season was worse. Two wins should be enough for Purdue to make the NIT.

Who to watch: Terone Johnson is hitting his stride in his junior season averaging 13.5 points per game thanks to an improving jump shot. If Nebraska is going to pull an upset, it is because Ray Gallegos made more than a few of eight three-point attempts per game.

What to watch: Purdue is an excellent defensive team, except for their pesky inability to force turnovers. Nebraska is the second best ball handling team in the conference. If Purdue can finally force a turnover or two, this could get ugly.

What to expect:  Purdue won early in the Big Ten season, and have improved since. They should beat Nebraska comfortably.

 #6 Iowa Hawkeyes vs. #11 Northwestern Wildcats

During the regular season: Iowa won both games, and neither were close.

What’s on the line: Everything is on the line for the Hawkeyes. Thanks to one of the worst non-conference schedules in the country, the Hawkeyes are in dire straits despite a 9-9 Big Ten record. They need to beat Northwestern, not because that will secure them a tournament bid, but because it will give them a chance for another quality win that they desperately need. It is not without irony that the Hawkeyes play Northwestern, who always seems to have their tournament hopes dashed in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. Northwestern doesn’t have much to play for, but Bill Carmody is coaching for his job. This might be his last game at Northwestern.

Who to watch: Reggie Hearn is by far Northwestern’s best player, and he’ll have to play the game of his life to end Northwestern’s eight game losing streak. Roy Devyn Marble was extremely effective for the Hawkeyes in both games against the Wildcats earlier this season. He isn’t the most consistent, and it would be a very bad time to have an off game.

What to watch: Iowa wants to play an uptempo game by Big Ten standards,  and Northwestern likes to play slow by snail standards. Iowa successfully controlled the tempo in both games this season, and will try to run the Wildcats off the court again.

What to expect: The Hawkeyes will live to fight another day.

We’ll be back tomorrow night for a look at what should be a fantastic Friday in Chicago.