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Big Ten Thursday Preview: Wildcats Head West

The Wildcats travel cross country to take on Stanford.

David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

The Big Ten finally lost their first game of the season when Penn State dropped a tight one against Bucknell. Now the Big Ten will face another stiff test as Northwestern travels west to face a Stanford team that beat Bucknell in the opener before losing to BYU (even though they scored 103 points). A little bit closer to home is Iowa, looking to play considerably better tonight versus Maryland Eastern Shore. The Hawkeyes struggled considerably in their last outing after a dominating win over UNC-Wilmington.

Maryland Eastern Shore (1-1) at Iowa (-30.5) (2-0) 7:00 PM EST BTN

Iowa exploded onto the scene this year with an impressive dismantling of a bad UNC-Wilmington team. Iowa straight up whipped 'em in route to one of the opening day's most impressive performances. However, the Hawkeyes wrapped up the weekend falling back down to earth with a poor performance all around against Nebraska-Omaha. The team ended up coming from behind to win by 8 points, mainly thanks to a monstrous advantage from the free throw line. A win's a win, but it was hardly a vote of confidence for a team that believes they're ready for the big time.

Now Iowa will take on Maryland Eastern Shore, who are coming off of a win against Salisbury and a double digit loss to Columbia in the opener. For what it's worth, the Fighting Hawks win on Tuesday was good enough to put them within one win of matching 2012-13's win total. While Iowa faced a bad UNC-Wilmington team in the opener, Maryland Eastern Shore makes Wilmington look like a heavy hitter. The 2 wins wasn't a sudden decline, either, as head coach Frankie Allen has won 36 games in his first five seasons here, or about 7 games per year. Even more shocking, last season was a contract year for Allen. And the school decided to extend his contract for another season.

The team last year did suffer from a slew of injuries and will see the healthy return of starters KyRee Jones, Francis Ezeiru and Pina Guillaume, as well as adding a seven man recruiting class to try to shore up the holes. And trust me, there's plenty of holes on a team only second to Grambling State when it came to being the nations worst team last season.

The Hawkeyes are one of the teams in the Big Ten looking to jump up towards the top of the conference and one of the biggest potential setbacks with that is the teams poor outside shooting. Two games into the season and the Hawkeyes haven't really shown much improvement here, so expect the team to continue working on establishing a perimeter attack. The Hawkeyes have plenty of depth and have numerous scoring options available, but the lack of an outside scoring threat will slow them down against stronger opponents.

Of course Maryland Eastern Shore should be the weakest team on the schedule and any struggle here would either show that the team didn't take the game seriously or signal some brewing turmoil within the program. That shouldn't (and won't) happen here as Iowa plays much more on par with their opening performance and dominates an overwhelmed Fighting Hawks squad.

Northwestern (1-0) at Stanford (-10) (1-1) 11:00 PM EST ESPNU

The Wildcats have never been to the NCAA Tournament but they finally turned the program around from a punching bag in the Big Ten cellar into a team that actually put up a fight. While Bill Carmody made considerable progress here, his inability to finally get to the dance forced the athletic department to finally look elsewhere. Enter Chris Collins, long-time Duke assistant and son of NBA coach Dough Collins. Collins is young, has coached winning teams pretty much every season (oh hey Duke) and has plenty of charisma and energy that he can add to a program that started to sputter. And while the Chicago area widely neglects collegiate sports, it's still an extremely fertile recruiting ground for Collins.

So what am I saying? Collins has plenty of pieces to play with and more than enough going for him that this team could be a NCAA Tournament team in the near future. Emphasis on future, as the team is still largely Carmody's baby and suffers from a slew of problems that plagued his teams for years. Luckily for Collins, the final nail in Carmody's coffin (Crawford's season ending injury, dismantling Northwestern's season last year) is a major benefit as Crawford by far is the best player on the team and really the only consistent, proven playmaker on the roster.

JerShon Cobb also returns, looking to bounce back from injury issues and compliment Crawford as the teams second scoring weapon. Collins will also hope for some major progress from big Alex Olah, who will be counted on to solidify the roster down low. Northwestern has long struggled with size and rebounding and if Olah can compete and make some improvements to his game, his success could help Northwestern considerably. There's a slew of other guards and wings on the roster, but a lot of the team is built around a perimeter style offense (in the vein of the Princeton style offense) and making three pointers. The problem with the Wildcats teams of the past is they weren't always consistent from outside, living and dying by the 3. Now Collins will work to shift to an entirely different offense while still filling all of the roles with guys not used to his system. This of course should help the team down the road, especially if Collins improves recruiting, but will lead to an inconsistent Wildcat team right now, struggling with it's current identity.

And that leaves Northwestern with tonight's matchup, a game all the way on the west coast against Stanford. The Cardinal are coming off of a few NIT appearances and have flirted with being a bubble team for the NCAA Tournament, ultimately failing because of their inability to win enough close games. Now Stanford will field a team that is healthy, returning almost all major weapons and adds considerable experience. On paper it seems like Stanford is ready to make the jump, though that seems like a story they've heard the last several seasons. Sound familiar?

Dwight Powell will be a major weapon for the Cardinal down low and should give Olah his first test of the season. For a Wildcat team that's struggled down low for years, this could be another long night. The team's experienced options at the wing and backcourt should give Northwestern's less athletic lineup some trouble as well, with Stanford being the more talented and balanced team of the two. If the Wildcats want to pull off the win tonight, it's going to have to come from either an impressive Drew Crawford performance or a very strong night from beyond the arc. The Wildcats simply don't have enough talent or depth to run with Stanford without a little luck and the early season road trip could spell trouble for Northwestern in what will likely be their first loss of the season.