As we enter the middle of December, only a few more non-conference matchups await the Big Ten before conference play begins in earnest come the new year.
For a league struggling to find its identity in 2017-’18, these non-conference games will be the last opportunity for teams to pad postseason resumes before they start cannibalizing each other during Big Ten play.
And this is especially true for the two teams playing games on Wednesday evening.
For Wisconsin, its long standing tradition of qualifying for the NCAA Tournament is on life support, meaning the Badgers matchup against Western Kentucky is as close to a do-or-die game that you’ll find this early in the season.
In the nights other contest, the Illini find themselves off to a better start than most would have predicted. If Illinois wants to continue to exceed expectations, they’d be well-served to finish the year strong, starting tonight when the square off with Longwood in Champaign.
Big Ten Game of the Day
Western Kentucky Hilltoppers at Wisconsin Badgers
- Time/TV: 8:00PM ET - FS1
- KenPom Spread: Wisconsin (-9)
With finals week sweeping across the Midwest, we’re scrapping the bottom of the barrel here to find a Big Ten Game of the Day. That said, the matchup between the Hilltoppers and Badgers should at least be competitive, which you’d be hard pressed to say about the conferences other Wednesday contest (more on that later).
By now, you should be well aware that Wisconsin’s 19 year streak of making the NCAA Tournament is hanging on by the thinest of hairs. The Badgers have struggled to gain any type of traction, having dropped four of its last five outings, with just a one-point win at Penn State getting Wisconsin a notch in the win column.
Adding injury to insult, freshmen guard Kobe King was lost for the season due to a knee, joining sophomore D’Mitrik Trice as members of Wisconsin’s backcourt scheduled to miss time.
But there is a small glimmer of hope for second year coach Greg Gard. According to KenPom, Wisconsin has played the 5th toughest schedule in the nation, meaning you could make an argument that the Badgers haven’t dropped any games it wasn’t suppose to.
Starting with this outing against WKU, Wisconsin won’t need to travel away from the Kohl Center until a trip to New Brunswick on Jan. 5 and won’t face a team ranked inside the KenPom Top 100 until Jan. 2 when it goes against Indiana.
All this to say that if Wisconsin has any inclinations of climbing back into postseason contention, now might be a good time to put its foot on the gas.
On paper, the Hilltoppers are slightly above average across the board checking in at 114 and 128 in offensive and defensive efficiency, respectively. WKU puts the hoop in the cylinder by committee with six players currently averaging double figure point outputs. Of those six players, four are upperclassmen so this is a veteran team with plenty of experience.
And with wins over Purdue and SMU already under Western Kentucky’s belt, along with a close 66-58 loss to Villanova, they shouldn’t be fazed by the bright lights of the Big Ten stage.
With a 6-3 start to the season, Rick Stansbury has done a nice job of recovering from the will-they, won’t-they saga he had with 5-star recruit turned decommit Mitchell Robinson to begin the year.
It’s odd to say that a mid-December game between two Big Ten and Conference USA teams will have major postseason implications, but I think that’s the case for both the Hilltoppers and Badgers.
And with that said, I think this one stays pretty close the entire way through.
Pick Against the Spread: Western Kentucky
Longwood Lancers at Illinois Fighting Illini
- Time/TV: 8:00PM ET - BTN
- KenPom Spread: Illinois (-25.5)
Down in Champaign, the Illini welcome perennial college basketball punching bag Longwood to the State Farm Center.
Since joining Division I as a basketball independent in 2004-’05, the Lancers have posted just one season with a winning record, and are fresh off a 2016-’17 season that saw the team go 6-24.
This year, Longwood checks in at 343 in the KenPom rankings. And don’t let the teams 3-6 record fool you, as none of the Lancers wins have come against fellow Division I opponents.
The spread on this game is huge, but as Northwestern proved Monday evening sometimes you can’t make the line high enough.
Pick Against the Spread: Illinois
Season Record vs KenPom’s Spread: 9-8-1