Happy New Year!
No, not the ushering in of 2014. Before the clock strikes midnight Wednesday morning, there's a different, brand-new year beginning: Big Ten basketball season.
The non-conference season is in the books, and this week brings the first week of conference games and the first real week of Big Ten hoops.
Over the next three days, all 12 teams will get their conference slates underway. So without further ado, let's ring in the new year and take a look ahead to the conference's opening week and each team's opening game.
Tuesday, Dec. 31
No. 3 Ohio State at Purdue. The Buckeyes look unstoppable right now, though their strength of schedule isn't as strong as some of the nation's other top teams. Still, Thad Matta's crew looks very, very good, combining great defense with balanced offense. Aaron Craft leads the Big Ten in steals and ranks near the top in assists, too. But the Boilermakers had quite a nice non-conference schedule, highlighted by their last game, a road win over West Virginia. Matt Painter’s team is very young — seven of Purdue’s nine playing-time leaders are either freshmen or sophomores — but it’s also 10-3.
Indiana at Illinois. Though neither the Illini nor Hoosiers are ranked, this might be the most intriguing game of all the openers. Why? It’s one of those classic “something’s-gotta-give” matchups. Illinois is playing terrific defense, ranking second in the conference with just 60.6 points allowed per game. Meanwhile, Indiana ranks third in scoring, pouring in 82.2 points per game. Be on the lookout for two of the Big Ten’s brightest stars, both newcomers: Illinois’ Rayvonte Rice is averaging 18.2 points per game, second-best in the Big Ten, and Indiana’s Noah Vonleh is hauling in a conference-leading 9.5 rebounds a game.
No. 5 Michigan State at Penn State. The Nittany Lions need to figure out how to win, and a conference-opening date with the fifth-ranked Spartans is hardly the best opportunity to do so. Penn State has the statistics: D.J. Newbill leads the Big Ten in scoring (18.9 points per game), Tim Frazier ranks fourth (18.2) and Ross Travis ranks third in the conference in rebounding. Yet, the Lions have four losses. Michigan State, meanwhile, is cruising, winning three straight blowouts (including a road win over a good Texas team) following that scare against Oakland. Expect some more fireworks from the Spartans, the favorites to win the conference title.
Nebraska at No. 22 Iowa. It’s been a team effort for the Hawkeyes, who lead the Big Ten in scoring, throwing in 88.7 points per game. But the highest-ranking individual Iowa scorer is Roy Devyn Marble, 12th in the league with 15.3 points per game. Four Hawkeyes are averaging double figures in scoring, including Wisconsin transfer Jared Uthoff, who is also the team’s leading rebounder at 6.7 boards per game. The Huskers haven’t looked nearly as bad as the team picked to finish last in the conference before the season began. If not for a pull-away in the second half by an 11-win Cincinnati team, the Huskers would have just three losses heading into conference play.
Thursday, Jan. 2
Michigan at Minnesota. Another one of the better matchups out of the gate. Richard Pitino has his team playing very well. Austin and Andre Hollins are averaging nearly 30 points a game, and the Gophers are riding a six-game winning streak. Meanwhile, the Wolverines seem to be getting one piece of bad news after another. Already with four losses, Michigan learned it’d be without Mitch McGary for quite some time after the preseason All-America forward decided to have back surgery at the end of last week. While those losses came against strong teams such as Arizona and Duke, you get the feeling Michigan could be on upset alert.
No. 4 Wisconsin at Northwestern. Bo Ryan’s team hasn’t played much of late. The Badgers' conference opener in Evanston will be just their second game since Dec. 14. But, if there’s going to be rust, there’s no better Big Ten team to shake it off against than Chris Collins’ Wildcats, who have stumbled through the first portion of their season. Things ended an unpleasant 7-6, and though competition at times was strong — losses to Missouri, UCLA and Stanford are on the list — the Cats played poorly against local foes Illinois State and DePaul (both losses) and nearly lost at home to Brown last weekend.