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12/21 Big Ten Preview: Northwestern Needs A Big Win

And the Sooner, the better.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Friday night, four Big Ten teams will try to go into the Holidays with positive momentum. Nobody needs it more than Northwestern, who went 0-2 in the December Big Ten with two nail-biters.

Game of the Night

-Oklahoma Sooners at Northwestern Wildcats

  • Time/TV: 9:00 PM EST, BTN
  • KenPom Spread: Northwestern (-1)

Nobody really knows what to make of Northwestern. They have a bad loss to Fresno State, but almost knocked off Michigan. The Cats have played a very soft non-conference schedule so far, and this will be their only chance to get a Tier 1 win outside of conference play.

The Sooners and the Wildcats both hang their hats more on defense than on offense, but their defensive styles are very dissimilar. Oklahoma is in the Virginia-Wisconsin mold, playing excellent two-point defense and without fouling, while not forcing a lot of turnovers. Northwestern on the other hand fouls a lot, forces a decent number of turnovers, and loves forcing teams to shoot bad threes.

On offense, Oklahoma is going to look to push the tempo. They’ve scored 80 points each of their past four games, and those games came against Notre Dame, Wichita State, USC, and Creighton. No cupcakes there. Northwestern, meanwhile, are inclined to take their time. The Cats are the ninth-best team in the country in terms of assists. Interestingly, though, not a lot of those assists come from starting point guard Anthony Gaines; sharing the ball is a group effort.

Pick Against The Spread: Lon Kruger’s squad is deeper, is more experienced, and has played a tougher schedule. Boomer Sooner.

The Rest

-Penn State Nittany Lions at Alabama Crimson Tide

  • Time/TV: 9:00 PM EST, SEC (Ugh!) Network
  • KenPom Spread: Alabama (-1)

Don’t watch this game. Seriously, Northwestern/Oklahoma is on at the same time, and it’s on BTN rather than SEC Network. We hate the SEC.

If you do watch this game, I’d like you to watch for something. I’ve long held a heterodox theory when it comes to basketball, and based on the numbers, this game seems like it has a chance to be a perfect example. Here it is—

Sometimes, particularly in a grind-it-out game with long possessions (Penn State defensive possessions are among the slowest in the country), it’s better to foul a team. Not at the end of the game for clock reasons. In the middle. Yes, the average two-shot trip to the foul line leads to about 1.4 points, more than the average non-free-throw possession. But sometimes, between turnovers and fouls and missed shots, a team will go 5-6 minutes without a made field goal. They forget how to run their offense to score baskets rather than get fouled. They get stagnant on offense. And then they lose.

Well, Alabama is 11th-best in the country at getting to the line. Penn State is 17th-best at stealing the ball. It’s entirely possible we’ll see something like that Friday night in Tuscaloosa. What’s more, Alabama is a team that makes a pretty good living off of offensive rebounds, and they have yet to face a good team that crashes the boards as hard as the Nittany Lions. Scoring field goals in the half court could be a tall task for the Tide.

  • Pick Against The Spread: I’m not going to make an elaborate case like that and not take Penn State. We are!

-Oakland Golden Grizzlies at Michigan State Spartans

  • Time/TV: 7:00 PM EST, BTN
  • KenPom Spread: Michigan State (-25)

Historically, Greg Kampe’s Grizzlies have been a solid program, but not this year. This year, the Grizzlies are a one-player show, and that one player is a freshman. What’s more, he’s their point guard. Over the past five games, Braden Norris has played 95% of available minutes at the 1. Even more amazingly, he’s been really good. He’s got an offensive rating in the 140s, and his True Shooting Percentage is the second-best in the entire country. Kid can ball.

Kid can’t defend, though. Oakland is one of the worst five defensive teams in the country. There is literally nothing on defense that they do even remotely well. They gave up 92 points to Northern Illinois in a 62-possession game. Sparty is going to hang a hundred on these guys.

Pick Against The Spread: I ain’t scared of that big line. I won on Monday night taking Northwestern at -27. Give me Izzo and Co.

-North Carolina A&T Aggies at Minnesota Golden Gophers

  • Time/TV: 8:00 PM EST, BTN Plus
  • KenPom Spread: Minnesota (-20)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. A Big Ten team’s opponent on Friday night has a really great underclassman point guard, but can’t defend for crap. In every way, this game is a lesser version of the Michigan State/Oakland game, right down to the fact that it’s on BTN Plus rather than big boy BTN.

In this case, the PG in question is A&T’s Kameron Langley, who is a sophomore (not a freshman) and has played 80% of available PG minutes (rather than 95%). Langley is also No. 2 in the country in an offensive category, though, in this case assist rate. Guy can’t shoot, though; he’s 2-7 from deep on the year.

Pick Against The Spread: Maryland beat these guys by 23. Virginia Tech by 22. Wake Forest by 22. Hofstra by 20. Marshall by 24. It doesn’t take a statistics degree (which I have) to see that good-to-decent opponents beat the Aggies by 20+. Gophers.

Season Record Against KenPom’s Spread: 15-17-1