It’s not crazy to say that this week’s results will affect the Big Ten’s reputation more than any other. Right now our beloved conference is the consensus second-best in the land, behind the Big 12. Win the Challenge convincingly, and we’re in the conversation for the best league, and our teams will get the benefit of the doubt with the Selection Committee. Lose it convincingly, and we might fall back to fourth behind the Big East and the ACC.
There are six games tonight, all of which should be competitive. The Champions Classic is pretty good, and Feast Week is a quirky cornucopia, but tonight is probably the best slate of games we’ve seen all season.
Let’s dive in
Game of the Night:
-Michigan Wolverines at Louisville Cardinals
- Time/TV: 7:30 PM EST, ESPN
- KenPom Spread: Louisville -8
Raise your hand if you were one of those people who thought Michigan would take a step back this season. I’ll raise mine. I thought Juwan Howard had a chance to be good, but I didn’t see 7-0 with wins over Creighton, Iowa State, UNC, and Gonzaga. There’s a case to be made that the Wolverines have the best resume in all of college basketball right now.
I don’t think when the schedule was drawn up that anyone necessarily expected that this game would be the premiere feature, but given that Louisville is also undefeated and currently the No. 1 team in America (though without anything that resembles a signature win), this is the one that everyone is going to be tuned into.
The question here is if Michigan can find a way to slow down Jordan Nwora, who at this point has to be the frontrunner for player of the year. The guy is 6’7”, has a wingspan the size of a Boeing 787, and is hitting 50% of his threes on high volume. Isaiah Livers is likely to draw the assignment. Let’s hope he’s up to it.
- Pick against the spread: Michigan
-Iowa Hawkeyes at Syracuse Orange
- Time/TV: 7:00 PM EST, ESPN2
- KenPom Spread: Syracuse -3
Is Iowa confusing or is college basketball confusing? Fran & Co. lost to DePaul but beat Texas Tech. Those are seemingly contradictory results, though DePaul is still somehow undefeated, and Texas Tech turned right back around and lost to Creighton. We’ve seen a month’s worth of basketball, but it’s still early, and we don’t necessarily have the best lens for interpreting results just yet.
The Orange, meanwhile, are coming off an absolute boat-race loss to Penn State. Is Penn State any good? Well, that’s another one of those questions that’s still difficult to answer.
This game will tell us so much about so many teams with question marks.
- Pick against the spread: Iowa
-Northwestern Wildcats at Boston College Eagles
- Time/TV: 7:00 PM EST, ESPNU
- KenPom Spread: Boston College -1
This is the token Cripple Fight of the Challenge. Nobody is going to watch this game, but it counts in the results just as much as Louisville/Michigan. Both teams boast a much better defense than offense, which is not a recipe for an appealing basketball game. Take the under on this one, fans.
- Pick against the spread: Boston College. It pains me to pick against the Big Ten, but I have zero faith in Northwestern on their first true road game of the year.
-Florida State Seminoles at Indiana Hoosiers
- Time/TV: 9:00 PM EST, ESPN2
- KenPom Spread: Indiana -1
Speaking of teams that haven’t gone on the road... the Hoosiers haven’t even played a neutral-site game this season. They haven’t always been pretty, but they are one of the remaining unbeaten teams across the country, and that status is surely going to be put to the test tonight.
This game is even more of a benchmark for the Hoosiers than expected. The Seminoles are fresh off a win against another team from the great state of Indiana, besting the Boilermakers in overtime. Those of you who watched that game likely wanted to gouge your eyes out, as Leonard Hamilton’s team shot 1-of-17 from behind the arc.
This one is probably going to be ugly, too. FSU is really good at forcing turnovers, and Indiana has been turnover-prone. Actually, for a program that’s in its third year of Archie Miller, this Hoosier team still looks a lot like one with Tom Crean’s DNA:
- Lots of wings
- Lack of true elite big man
The Hoosiers are even playing with pace like some of those old Crean teams, coming into this averaging more possessions per game than the Seminoles.
- Pick against the spread: Florida State
-Rutgers Scarlet Knights at Pittsburgh Panthers
- Time/TV: 9:00 PM EST, ESPNU
- KenPom Spread: Pittsburgh -3
This is another big benchmarking game. Pitt just whooped Northwestern by 13. Meanwhile, Rutgers still isn’t sure what they have. If you want to convince yourself they’re going to finish closer to seventh in the Big Ten than fourteenth, the 6-1 record is evidence in your favor. If you want to convince yourself Rutgers is still a basement-dweller, the St. Bonaventure loss is evidence for that.
We know Northwestern is one of the two worst teams in the Big Ten. Rutgers losing by double-digits would be a major blow to those Scarlet Knights fans who are dreaming of—well, I think most of them would settle for the NIT, but at this point in the season why not dream big?—the NCAA Tournament.
Here’s something I haven’t said more than maybe twice over the past three seasons: the Scarlet Knights will have a significant advantage from behind the 3-point line. Rutgers is still well below the D-I average at 30%, but Pitt is an atrocious 25%. Pitt will try to pound it inside, which will be interesting because Rutgers is one of the nation’s top shot-blocking teams.
This should low-key be a good game.
- Pick against the spread: Rutgers
-Duke Blue Devils at Michigan State Spartans
- Time/TV: 9:30 PM EST, ESPN
- KenPom Spread: Michigan State -5
What was once the headliner has been relegated to the under card. Still, this should be a hell of an under card, featuring the AP No. 10 vs. No. 11.
Neither of these teams has come together as quickly as their fans had hoped. Duke got the dub on opening night against Kansas, but they looked awful doing it. There are naturally some blowout wins against lesser competition, but their best-in-the-nation non-conference home win streak was snapped by Stephen F. Austin. This Blue Devil squad is an elite rebounding team, but they don’t shoot particularly well.
Meanwhile Michigan State looked better in the Champs Classic, but they lost to Kentucky, which doesn’t look like as quality a loss as we thought it would be. Then there was the Virginia Tech game, which highlighted an issue that Spartans fans have to hope won’t become a theme—if Cassius Winston doesn’t show up, the Spartans are pretty average.
That said, the Spartans are still the favorites to win the Big Ten, clocking in at No. 2 in KenPom despite the fact that Ohio State, Maryland, and Michigan are all undefeated. I think people are overlooking Izzo and the boys just a little bit, and of all the games tonight, I fully expect this one to have the biggest home court advantage.
- Pick against the spread: Michigan State