The Big Ten is back at it tonight with a number of teams playing in early season tournaments while Michigan State and Illinois host a pair of cupcakes. Tonight is basically a mini Big Ten-ACC Challenge as both Indiana and Northwestern will take on opponents from the rival conference, with Indiana facing off against Wake Forest in Maui and Northwestern set to challenge North Carolina in Missouri as part of the CBE Hall of Fame Classic. Elsewhere Illinois will look to rebound against lowly Chicago State, Michigan State hosts in-state opponent Eastern Michigan and Rutgers looks to have their hands full out west against Creighton.
Game of the Day: Northwestern vs. North Carolina (9:30 PM ET | ESPN2)
The game of the day tonight isn't probably going to go well for the Wildcats, but the reality is most of the games tonight have a good chance of not being very competitive. On one hand North Carolina losing to a good mid-major program (Northern Iowa) shows that they are beatable, but Northwestern was lucky enough to get by Fairfield and Columbia their last two games, so yeah.
Northwestern took a huge hit with the loss of Vic Law, likely eliminating the odds of them being a potential Big Ten sleeper, but they still have sophomore guard Bryant McIntosh. McIntosh had an impressive freshman campaign and has gotten off to a quick start this year, coming off of a 32 point performance in his last game. McIntosh and Tre Demps have been key to Northwestern's offense, though the team could benefit from getting a little more from their seven foot center Alex Olah. Outside of the teams main trio of players the Wildcats haven't had much else to work with besides some scoring from Aaron Falzon and a nice seven rebounds per game from Sanjay Lumpkin. The lack of depth and overall athleticism is going to create a massive headache for Chris Collins as his program takes on a North Carolina team that is one of the best in the nation.
While the Tar Heels are still without Marcus Paige, Justin Jackson is coming off of a 25 point performance and could cause problems for the Wildcats. The early season loss to Northern Iowa was an unexpected setback and in all likelihood the Tar Heels will likely come out fired up in an attempt to save face, with Northwestern being put in the crosshairs. This game could get very ugly, but it is also a big name opponent for a Northwestern program that scheduled a marginal (at best) non-conference slate.
Indiana vs. Wake Forest (5:00 PM ET | ESPN2)
One of the Hoosiers biggest issues last season was their dreadful defense. Well in all honesty, you don't need to play much defense if you hit on at least 50% of your field goals every night. If anything the more notable issue that could rear it's ugly head one of these days is turnovers, with Indiana already committing 54 in only three games (versus suspect competition), but they're also playing Wake Forest this evening. Wake Forest so far this year has beaten UMBC and Bucknell by a combined 13 points and lost to Richmond by 9, so it should be a considerable challenge for the Demon Deacons. Indiana fields one of the most talented Big Ten programs and their backcourt has been an absolute treasure so far with James Blackmon Jr. and Yogi Ferrell running wild, while Thomas Bryant and Troy Williams have been making noise inside. Even Nick Zeisloft, Max Biefeldt and Robert Johnson have been making solid contributions so far this season.
Like mentioned, turnovers will be an issue if that's not cleaned up. And in all honesty the team has been seven deep, with very little additions from the rest of the roster. While these could lead to losses in the future, that will be an issue to work on when facing more talented opposition. When it comes to going up against Wake Forest and St.Johns/Vanderbilt tomorrow, Indiana is front loaded enough that it shouldn't be a problem. If they end up facing Kansas on Wednesday? Well it'll be interesting to see how Indiana handles that, but that's a few days away (if it happens).
Eastern Michigan at Michigan State (7:00 PM ET | BTN)
Michigan State is not Michigan and I doubt Eastern Michigan will be capable of knocking off a high flying Spartans like they did to Michigan last year. After knocking off the #4 team in the nation at a neutral site (Kansas), Michigan State doubled up Arkansas Pine-Bluff and have been rolling through opponents early this season. With Denzel Valentine almost averaging a triple double (16.3 PPG, 10.7 APG, 9.0 RPG), Bryn Forbes shooting 50% from three and contributions from a laundry list of talented players, the Spartans have honestly fielded the best team in the Big Ten so far this season (sorry Purdue, your five game start is pretty close but Kansas is Kansas). Of course Michigan State did drop a bad game or two last year, but so far Michigan State has looked like the frontrunner for the conference (instead of Maryland) and they simply have too much talent and depth to fall to Eastern Michigan tonight.
Chicago State at Illinois (8:00 PM ET | ESPN3)
The heat is on John Groce and company after an absolutely dreadful 1-3 start to the season. The offseason was a mess this spring/summer for the Illini and things didn't get off to a great start when they lost to North Florida by 12 points (to be fair, it is hard to win when your opponent shoots 17 of 33 from three). Needing to come from behind to sneak one out against North Dakota State didn't do much to improve morale, but a narrow one point loss on the road to Providence looked to be signs of a potential turnaround. Then they lost to Chattanooga.
Chicago State is bad, really bad. Out of 351 teams, KenPom rates them at 344th. I think the only entertaining thing I can mention about the program is that I'll always remember them for being a member of the Western Athletic Conference (WAC), even though they're located in the state of Illinois. Even if North Florida and Chattanooga blossom into potential mid-major tournament teams, the Illini have two bad losses and another one will be a serious blow to a team likely to struggle in the Big Ten. So far Malcolm Hill and Mike Thorne Jr. have looked good, but the program will need more contributions from everyone else, including some consistency from freshmen Jalen Coleman-Lands (who goose egged in the their last loss). With UAB and Notre Dame up next, this is a must win. Putting together a little winning streak here would go a long way to turning things back around, but if Illinois ends up going 1-2 the next two...that could be all she wrote for the 2015-16 season.
Rutgers vs. Creighton (11:59 PM ET | Youtube Live Stream)
Rutgers is participating in the 2015 Men Who Speak Up (about advanced prostate cancer) out west in Vegas, set to take on Big East opponent Creighton around midnight as a part of the "Heavyweight Bracket." The game will be the first of two, with Rutgers also playing Wednesday against either Clemson or UMass in either a championship or consolation game. Rutgers did manage to win the two opening games, though a 12 point win at home against Howard and a 3 point win over Central Arkansas probably did little to create much confidence. Rutgers is considered a shoe-in for the bottom of the Big Ten and if they want to make any progress in 2015-16 they'll need to win games like these, facing off against a Big East opponent that hasn't been very good as of late. If the Scarlet Knights want to land an upset, they'll likely need big nights from Mike Williams and Deshawn Freeman, who scored 48 points combined last time out.