Goodness! I can't believe we're already into Big Ten conference play. No longer will we have to compare Indiana and Michigan based on their home games against Binghamton and Mount Saint Mary's. Starting on New Year's Eve, the schools of the north actually began playing basketball games against each other, and the results are already exciting.
For those that were enjoying holiday festivities like I was, you missed Minnesota proving it is for real by defeating Michigan State at home and Iowa coming surprisingly close to knocking the formerly-number-one Hoosiers down another peg. Last night, Ohio State predictably steamrolled Nebraska, while Purdue bounced back from a dreadful non-conference run to upset Illinois.
Tonight, the fun stuff continues with undefeated Michigan taking on Northwestern and my Nittany Lions visiting Wisconsin.
Michigan at Northwestern
7:00 ET, ESPN2
This game looks like a mismatch on paper, but it looks a little closer if you remember that the Wildcats took Michigan to overtime twice last season (albeit losing both times). Then it looks like a mismatch again when you realize that Northwestern will be playing without its top two returning players. Drew Crawford suffered a torn labrum (shoulder) in the non-conference season and has since had season-ending surgery. Reggie Hearn, who took over the scoring load when Crawford went down, hasn't played since injuring his ankle against Stanford on December 21. He will also miss tonight's game.
That means that Northwestern's young players must step up in order to give the team a chance against the second-ranked Wolverines. Sophomore point guard David Sobolewski was NU's only double-digit scorer in the team's most recent game against Brown. Sobolewski scored 14 points and handed out eight assists in the win, while five other Wildcats finished with either eight or nine points.
One of those "others" was redshirt freshman guard Tre Demps, who has begun to pick up his game lately. He's scored in double digits in three of NU's last four games and has shot 9-for-12 from three-point range over that span. Everyone knows you can't have an upset without good three-point shooting, so look to see if Demps gets hot early in this game.
Speaking of getting hot early, that's basically the story of Michigan's season. Led by sophomore sensation Trey Burke, the Wolverines have buried their opponents with efficient scoring. They're second in the nation in effective field goal percentage (57.7%) and third in turnover percentage (15.1%). Michigan doesn't get to the free throw line too often, but who needs to when the entire squad is hitting nearly 40 percent of its treys? The long range barrage is led by Canadian freshman Nik Stauskas, who is shooting an absurd 39-for-69 from beyond the arc (56.5%).
Other freshman pitching in for UM are Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary. Robinson is a forward who can score both inside and outside, while McGary is more of a banger who will see his playing time increase when he learns to commit less fouls.
The Wolverines look like they will be without Tim Hardaway Jr. tonight. Michigan's second-leading scorer is nursing an ankle injury, and if he doesn't play he'll be replaced in the lineup by freshman Caris LeVert.
Penn State at Wisconsin
8:30 ET, BTN
Wisconsin struggled a bit through the non-conference slate, losing games to quality squads Florida, Creighton, Virginia, and Marquette. Still, the Badgers managed to get victories over Cal and Arkansas, and there's plenty of time to put together a solid resume in the conference season. That will be helped by the fact that the Badgers are still doing what they always do under Bo Ryan. They still lack athleticism, but they still make up for it by rebounding, not turning the ball over, and hitting open field goals.
Star player Jared Berggren is pretty much an embodiment of what Ryan wants his team to do. He's a big man who rarely turns the ball over, is a terrific shooter for his size, and can rebound with the best of them. The losses of Jordan Taylor to graduation and Josh Gasser to injury certainly hurt Wisconsin, but freshman Sam Dekker should be able to offset some of that. The youngster is already fourth on the team in scoring with 9.8 points per game, and he should see more consistent minutes as the season wears on.
Penn State has been painful to watch ever since Tim Frazier went down for the season with a torn Achilles tendon. Still, the transfer from Southern Mississippi, D.J. Newbill, and his backcourt mate Jermaine Marshall have proven athletic enough to create their own shots. The two of them have kept PSU from being a complete disaster, but there is still plenty to dislike about this team. For one, it is an awful shooting team. The shots created by Newbill and Marshall don't go in very often unless they are right at the rim.
Penn State is also lacking in the interior, although freshman Brandon Taylor has helped quite a bit thanks to his surprisingly decent shooting ability. One thing that PSU does do very well is offensive rebounds. When you combine the team's 23.1 percent rate of grabbing its own misses and the sheer amount of shots that the Lions miss, you get a ton of offensive rebounds. If only PSU had a talented big man who could turn those rebounds into points.
As Penn State stands now, it has little chance of getting its first ever win in the Kohl Center tonight, but head coach Pat Chambers has his squad headed in the right direction.