Starting Five: Big Ten takes center stage for the college basketball weekend

The madness is nearly at hand. As the college basketball season winds down, teams look to take advantage of their final opportunities to boost their NCAA tournament profiles, either to gain more favorable seeds or just to make the field.

Without further ado, we leap into Saturday’s Starting Five on February’s quadrennial overtime date.

No. 24 Michigan State at No. 9 Maryland

Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN

Thanks to Wednesday night’s nearly miraculous escape from Minnesota, the Terrapins stayed two games clear of the field in the Big Ten standings. The Spartans, somewhat inconsistent but still as talented as any team in the country, hope to pull within a game and grab a high-value road win in the process. Michigan State also hopes to avenge a home loss from two weeks ago, in which Maryland scored the last 14 points to erase a seven-point deficit. Anthony Cowan Jr. was the catalyst for that rally, but he has also been getting more perimeter scoring help of late in addition to the usual contributions from Jalen Smith in the paint. Similarly, the Spartans need more complementary production from guys other than Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman, such as Aaron Henry’s solid performance in Tuesday night’s win against Iowa.

Maryland forward Jalen Smith (25) drives against Michigan State forward Xavier Tillman (23) during the second half at the Breslin Center. (Photo: Mike Carter, USA TODAY Sports)

No. 14 Penn State at No. 17 Iowa

Saturday, noon ET, BTN

Speaking of Iowa, the Hawkeyes tip off the big day in the Big Ten also hoping to gain a season split. Penn State won a thriller against the Hawkeyes in January but haven’t been as sharp over the last couple of weeks. The Nittany Lions’ narrow escape Wednesday against Rutgers ended a brief two-game skid, and they now make the long trip to Iowa City, where the Hawkeyes haven’t lost since Nov. 11. PSU’s front-court tandem of Lamar Stevens and Mike Watkins must work together to handle Iowa’s Luka Garza, who is glad to be home after getting banged around a bit in East Lansing.

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No. 15 Auburn at No. 9 Kentucky

Saturday, 3:45 p.m. ET, CBS

Kentucky will still be atop the SEC standings regardless of the outcome here, but a win would cement the regular-season crown for the Wildcats. The Tigers look to pull within a game heading into the final week. Immanuel Quickley, the Wildcats’ streaky shooting guard, has been hot of late. But the Kentucky offense tends to work better when the ball finds Nick Richards at the rim. The return of Isaac Okoro from a hamstring injury for Auburn’s recent home win against Ole Miss helped the Tigers stop a recent trend of falling behind early, a scenario that must be avoided in the hostile environs of Rupp Arena.

No. 13 Seton Hall at Marquette

Saturday, 2:30 p.m. ET, Fox

This Big East tilt features a head-to-head meeting of arguably the two top candidates for league player of the year honors. It’s also the last home date for the Golden Eagles, who could use another positive result to remain in safe bracket territory. The Pirates will face both their primary challengers, Villanova and Creighton, next week and need this road win to stay a game clear. Marquette’s Markus Howard is the nation’s leading scorer (27.2 ppg) and poured in 30 in his last outing against Georgetown. But he didn’t get much help in his earlier encounter with the Pirates. Myles Powell (21.3 ppg) generally gets more support, and that must continue during Seton Hall’s tough closing stretch.

No. 7 Duke at Virginia

Saturday, 6 p.m. ET, ESPN

Watch out. Here come the defending champs. It took a while for the new-look Cavaliers to start clicking, but they’ve now won five in a row and eight of their last nine. The Blue Devils, meanwhile, are coming off a damaging loss at Wake Forest that likely ended their bid for a No. 1 seed. Three of UVa’s last four wins have been by three points or fewer, so there remains little margin for error with this group. But the Cavs can still defend, and Duke’s struggles in half-court sets, particularly away from the friendly confines of Cameron Indoor Stadium, could again come into play.

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