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11/30 Big Ten Preview: Conference Play Begins

And you thought playing ACC teams was hard

NCAA Basketball: Battle 4 Atlantis Championship-Wisconsin vs Virginia Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Nine months.

For nine months we’ve been speculating about who’s going to be good in the Big Ten in the 2018-19 season. Since summer I’ve said this is the hardest-to-predict Big Ten season I can remember seeing. And while we know a little bit more than we did a month ago—that Michigan is that good, for instance—there’s still a lot of questions to be answered.

The Challenge was fun, but the end result was a tie, and it muddied the waters more than anything. Rutgers won on the road? Ohio State lost at home? Purdue lost and moved up in KenPom? Could Illinois and Penn State be better than we thought? Could Minnesota be worse?

Starting this week, we get answers.

Conference play is here.

Game of the Night:

-Wisconsin Badgers @ Iowa Hawkeyes

  • Time/TV: 8:00 PM EST, BTN
  • KenPom Spread: Wisconsin (-1)

This is going to be a good game.

Iowa is undefeated and has probably done more than any other team (other than Michigan) to boost the profile of the Big Ten this offseason. Wisconsin has been no slouch either, already notching four wins against major conference opponents. The spread is one point. What more could you want in a mid-December game?

This contest will be a clash of styles and an instance of strength against strength. Iowa’s success is driven by their offense, and the Hawkeyes like to play fast. Wisconsin’s success is driven by their defense, and the Badgers like to play slow. I’m curious to see how the crowd plays a role. When Fran & Co. are winning, Carver-Hawkeye is one of the rowdiest venues in the Midwest. Will the young Iowa Hawkeyes ride the energy of the crowd to play momentum basketball, or will the equally young (minus Ethan Happ, of course) Badgers succeed in taking the air out of the ball and the buzz out of the building?

  • Pick against the spread: This is the most difficult game to pick so far this season. Both teams eked out home wins in the Challenge. When in doubt, go with the team in white. Iowa starts the year 1-0.

The Rest:

-Michigan State Spartans @ Rutgers Scarlet Knights

  • Time/TV: 6:00 PM EST, BTN
  • KenPom Spread: Michigan State (-8)

I’ve been higher on Rutgers than any non-Rutgers fan I know. I’ve harped on the fact that they are a good team minus the fact that they can’t shoot. Well, they’ve started shooting the 3-ball well this season. Though not so much recently against good competition. And their free throw shooting is abysmal. Meanwhile their good defense is being driven by a horrible opposing FT percentage, which is almost completely random and unsustainable.

That said, Rutgers’ starters are still over 45% from long range. Can they have a hot shooting night in what is sure to be a packed RAC against a very good Michigan State team? Yeah, they can. Michigan State is very foul prone. Rutgers is not. If you squint hard enough, you can see a possible Rutgers victory.

  • Pick against the spread: Michigan State. Sorry, Rutgers fans. Cassius Winston and Nick Ward is too deadly a one-two combination for me to predict the upset. Prove me wrong. Penn State did.

-Oklahoma State Cowboys @ Minnesota Golden Gophers

  • Location: US Bank Stadium, not the Barn. Still a Gopher home game, though.
  • Time/TV: 10:00 PM EST, BTN
  • KenPom Spread: Minnesota (-2)

What is this? A dirty non-conference game? In December?! For shame.

We know about Minnesota. They’re not great, but they’re probably pretty good, bad loss at BC notwithstanding. Jordan Murphy is an absolute hoss (best defensive rebounder in D-I basketball). A lot of the time Richard Pitino gets a look on his face that kind of looks like a drowned rat.

What about the Cowboys? Mike Boynton’s squad is turnover prone and bad at rebounding, but they’ve got good guards that can really shoot the ball. They have an awful loss against Charlotte and a loss against 19-point loss to Villanova on the record. They blew the doors off LSU during the second half this past Sunday. And they have several players with delightful names—Lindy Waters and You Anei, the latter of whom is a freshman shot-blocker extraordinaire.

  • Pick against the spread: One of Minnesota’s weaknesses is their bad 2-point percentage, but that doesn’t matter if you can grab every rebound. Gophers cover in an ugly fashion.

-Friday Night Big Ten Basketball on BTN vs. Active Social Life

  • Time/TV: 6:00 PM - 12:00 AM, BTN
  • KenPom Spread: Social Life (-3)

Social Life is a slight favorite here because it’s the season for Christmas parties, but I’m not so sure. Here’s the case for BTN winning this one:

First, it’s cold outside. That gets more people indoors where there could be a TV on. Second, football season is over, so Big Ten fans who need to get a fix on their school’s sports have no option other than basketball. Third, the analytics show that drinking goes just as well with watching Big Ten basketball as it does with having an active social life, particularly if you’re an Illinois fan.

The problem is there’s one statistical category that basketball can’t really touch—sex. The number of people who got laid from going out to a party is a lot higher than the number who got laid staying in and watching basketball (viewers of the Michigan-UNC game excluded).

  • Pick against the spread: Social life. Not enough people are used to Friday night basketball yet. I think BTN could win the rematch later in the season, but for now I’m going to go with the favorite.

Season Record Picking Against KenPom’s Spread: 11-15-1