It is odd to say this, but Big Ten play begins tonight. In case you forgot, it’s December 1st, a time of year where non-conference play should be in full swing. However, the Big Ten has opted to set their non-conference games aside for a few days as each team will play two conference games before returning to non-conference play.
To say this is a quirk in scheduling is probably an understatement, but to me it is an intriguing idea. Rather than playing a full block of conference games, Big Ten teams now get a flavor for how conference play will shake out. The devil’s advocate approach to that would be that Big Ten teams have not fully rounded themselves out yet, as the season is still young. This could lead to some flat and sloppy conference play early in December.
None the less, I like the idea, and I am eager to see who teams perform in early season Big Ten games. Let’s take a look at the two contests ringing in the Big Ten New Year.
Game of the Night
- Time/TV: 7:00 ET/BTN
Purdue has already seen manic highs and lows through their eight games in 2017-’18. They got off to a blazing 4-0 start beating teams they were expected to beat. Then, they dropped two in a row, one to a fine Tennessee team and another to the so-so Western Kentucky Hilltoppers. But the Boilermaker madness does not end there, as they defeated then second ranked Arizona in convincing fashion. Their latest win came against another solid team in 17th ranked Louisville.
Maryland has faced a similar up and down pattern so far this season. A 5-0 start was then met with a tough loss to a solid mid-major in St. Bonaventure. They have since split their last two games to New Mexico and Syracuse.
Therefore, both teams come in sporting 6-2 records. The question of who wins the game comes down to experience. Yes, Maryland’s freshmen and sophomore studs have been impressive in leading the team. However, Purdue has veteran leadership, and that is very hard to come by in a college game full of players leaving early for the NBA.
The Boilermakers have been around the Big Ten block and they are on the more impressive streak of wins, beating two top-25 KenPom teams in a row. That momentum alone powers them on the road.
- Time/TV: 9:00 ET/BTN
Northwestern has really been an unpredictable team on the floor this season. They have taken care of their business in the games they are favored in. However, when faced with Power Five opponents, they have struggled mightily. Their latest loss to Georgia Tech will surely leave a mark, as they dropped that game at the buzzer. The Wildcats’ struggles against notable programs is alarming, as every Big Ten team can be considered a “notable” program. Their one advantage is having this conference opener at home.
The Fighting Illini have been surprisingly efficient so far this season. For them, they have a quality win over DePaul and their one loss came to Wake Forest, a team ranked higher than them in KenPom. Although Wake Forest has suffered some bad losses in their season, that loss should not be held against Illinois. As Big Ten play begins, Illinois has the opportunity to be a surprise team in the conference. The only way they uphold that reputation is by winning, plain and simple.
I do think Illinois has the advantage as they are a deeper team with nine players averaging 16 minutes per game. Of those nine, five of those players are averaging at least 11 points per game, two of them non-starters.