The 2013 Big Ten tournament will tip off with four first-round matchups on Thursday in Chicago, as eight teams, headlined by Michigan, look to advance to the quarterfinals where Indiana and the conference's top teams await Thursday's winners.
While even casual college basketball fans are aware of Trey Burke, Deshaun Thomas and Cody Zeller, it's time we acknowledge some of the Big Ten's other impact players, stars who will play vital roles for their respective teams during Thursday's Big Ten tournament first round.
With first-round action set to begin from the Windy City, let's take a closer look at some impact players fans should be watching on Thursday.
Brandon Paul, Illinois
The Fighting Illini will tip off the 2013 Big Ten tournament on Thursday against Minnesota, a team they split the regular-season series with; each team won on the road.
Surprisingly, Illinois' best player, senior guard Brandon Paul, actually made more of an impact in the Illini's January loss to the Golden Gophers than he did in their February win. Even so, it's safe to say that when the 6'4" Paul is at his best, so are the Fighting Illini.
The Big Ten's fourth-leading scorer this season, Paul is averaging 16.3 points per game on 40.5 percent shooting from the field for Illinois. If there's good news for John Groce's squad coming into Thursday's first-round action, though, it's that Paul has been heating up recently.
Paul has increased his scoring output in every game over the last four games, finishing with 10, 14, 18 and 21 points respectively over Illinois' last four games of the season.
Tim Hardaway Jr., Michigan
While Michigan's sophomore point guard Trey Burke continues to dominate the National Player of the Year discussion, his fellow backcourt mate junior Tim Hardaway Jr. continues to play a huge role in the Wolverines' success.
Although his 14.8-point scoring average is similar to last season's, Hardaway's shooting numbers have improved drastically this year, as he's hitting 45 percent from the field and 38 percent from beyond the arc.
The 6'6" guard is also making his presence felt slightly more often on the glass, where he's averaging close to five rebounds per game in 2012-13. Hardaway isn't going to light up the scoreboard every game and stuff the stat sheet like Burke, but his ability to play alongside Burke and provide John Beilein's crew with a reliable second option offensively is critical to Michigan's chances of topping Penn State on Thursday and making a deep run in Chicago this weekend.
Ronnie Johnson, Purdue
Purdue's Ronnie Johnson may be a freshman, but he hasn't looked the part thus far. The 6'0" guard out of Indianapolis has been a terrific playmaker for the Boilermakers in 2012-13, pacing the team with a tad over four assists per game.
Johnson is one of only five players in the Big Ten averaging four or more assists per game this season and is also scoring 9.6 points and reeling in 3.5 rebounds per game.
Matt Painter will need Johnson to be at his best on Thursday evening against Nebraska, as a win would keep the Boilermakers' season alive for at least another day. At this point, Purdue's only hope is to win four straight in Chicago and earn an automatic bid to the Big Dance this March.
If Johnson can turn out another 10-point, five-assist effort against the Cornhuskers on Thursday, then Purdue will be moving on to play Ohio State on Friday.
2013 Big Ten Tournament Bracket
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