This is always a fun event, though consistently an overplayed one in the national narrative in terms of what it actually tells us about the strength of the two conferences. Still, far be it from me to rain on any parade, especially one where you see quality teams playing each other and actually doing so in on-campus environments instead of neutral floors or in warm weather Feast Week tournaments. The actual true heavyweight non conference road game has become a rare event, so kudos to ESPN and the two conferences for setting this thing up years ago and allowing for that to happen.
I’ve been banging on for about a week or so that the Big Ten is off to a rough start collectively and I think that’s true. MSU has played the best thus far, though Maryland and Purdue have also done well against somewhat less impressive schedules. I think Northwestern has looked good as well, off to a 5-1 start with a competitive loss to UNC the only blemish on their record to date. Beyond that, though, it has not been pretty. Michigan got a little dignity back with a blowout over Charlotte and a decent win over a decent (no better than that, though) Texas team after two straight sound defeats, but I think anyone claiming they’ve got a good read on where the Wolverines are and will be two months from now is dreaming. IU was completely exposed in Maui…all the same rebounding and defensive issues they had last season were on display again. Iowa’s actually played decently but took losses against Dayton and Notre Dame in their tournament, so they’re still looking for a good win (Wichita State down a couple of starters really doesn’t count). Wisconsin is in trouble…had the doors blown off in Norman yesterday for their 3rd loss and there are no signs a turnaround is imminent. Illinois finally has all their players back but they’ve already dug a nice sized hole for themselves with multipleearly season losses already accumulated. OSU is an offensive disaster right now, particularly at point. Nebraska, Minnesota, PSU and Rutgers were expected to be bad and have surprised no one in the early going.
So, I’d say the Big Ten could use a good three days in this event. Get some Power 5 +3 wins, some resume builders for teams which may well need it come March, and things would feel a bit better by the middle of this week. I’ll go through game by game thoughts (other than our’s), starting with tonight’s games.
Wake Forest at Rutgers – Danny Manning’s Wake team surprised Indiana in Maui and they also beat UCLA out there (sandwiching a blowout loss to a good Vandy team). Rutgers has not been good so far, off to a 3-3 start and double digit losses in their last two games to Creighton and Clemson. Both teams have good size and have freshman point guards with lots of potential (Bryant Crawford for Wake and Corey Sanders for Rutgers). Even though RU is at home, it’s hard for me to pick them over any Power 5 opponent at this stage.
PICK – Wake Forest
Clemson at Minnesota – Clemson is 4-1, having just pounded Rutgers last week. Their one loss was by double digits to UMass. Junior forward Jaron Blossomgame is in fact blossoming into a star, scoring better than 18ppg in the young season. Clemson has been a good defensive team under Brad Brownell but have been limited at the other end. Minnesota is in a transitional year under Ricky Pitino, having lost some key guys who helped make them a competitive team over the past two seasons in Big Ten play. They’re 4-2 but have lost to the only name teams they’ve faced (Temple and Texas Tech, neither of whom is threatening the Top 25 right now). The Gophers do have athletes and some talent but it’s a disjointed bunch at the moment and I think it’s going to take some time for the parts to jell. Still, at home, I’m guessing the Gophers have enough Williams Magic in their corner to pull out a win over a Clemson team which isn’t exactly great.
PICK – Minnesota
Michigan at NC State – Michigan’s had a bumpy start to their season. There are things to like…Levert is healthy and one of the better one on one players in America, Irvin started to look more fluid in the Atlantis tournament as it progressed, and Moritz Wagner has some offensive game and at least plays hard, even though he’s a defensive liability right now. Yet, I still feel as if this group hasn’t figured out how to maximize what they have on offense and they HAVE to do that if they’re going to be anything more than a mid level Big Ten team, because they will not check or board well enough to lean on those areas to win games. NC State lost a ton from last year’s team which made a March run. They’re 4-2 with losses to William & Mary and Arizona State but a big win over a ranked LSU team. Cat Barber is one of the better guards in America and he versus Levert will be a fun matchup. This one could go either way…I think Michigan has more talent but the Wolfpack are at home and they have the kind of athletes and motors that can give Michigan problems. I’m picking M but I don’t feel great about it…total tossup in my mind.
PICK – Michigan
Northwestern at Virginia Tech – Northwestern is playing well thus far. 5-1, competitive at times in their one loss to UNC, and slowly but surely looking like a program starting to believe in itself. Buzz Williams still has a lot of work to do in Blacksburg. Their one major conference opponent was Iowa State and the Clones blew their doors off in that game. This is a big opportunity for NU. They don’t play any heavyweights in the non conference, so a road win over a Power 5 team is about the best chance they get to enhance their resume. VaTech has some size and junior forward Zach LeDay is playing at a high level individually, but I think the Cats have enough to get a big away victory.
PICK – Northwestern
Virginia at Ohio State – The Cavs lost to George Washington earlier this November but have bounced back with 4 straight blowout wins (the closest was a 17 pointer over George Mason) and I suspect we’ll look back at the GW game as a hiccup and not much more. UVa is an experienced group which plays with a lot of physical toughness and can be murderously hard to score on, even with the “freedom of movement” emphasis we’re seeing. OSU has lost 3 in a row and they look lost at the moment, especially on offense. I believe they’ve had more turnovers than assists in all five of their games thus far…that says it all. The Bucks are not without talent. Their current freshman class was highly regarded nationally and they’ve got some sophomores who can also play. They’re just lacking experience and an orchestrator…JaQuan Lyle has ability but he is a terrible fit as a point guard at this stage in his development, as his judgment isn’t where OSU needs it to be. Hard to pick against a UVa team that typically does what it should, even on the road.
PICK – Virginia
Purdue at Pittsburgh – The Boilers are off to a great start but this is the first real test they’ve had, give or take Florida. Everyone knew PU would have great interior play and that has happened, but their guards, especially point guard PJ Thompson, have exceeded expectations thus far. Pitt is 4-0 but also haven’t really played anyone yet. Jamie Dixon is looking to get his program back on track after a rare down year in 14-15. Michael Young has been really impressive as a post player who also can create for teammates (4.8 apg so far) and James Robinson is a solid senior floor leader. These are two programs which have physicality and toughness embedded in their DNA, so I’d expect a bit of a war (as much as the officials will allow, that is). I think Pitt is probably better than they were a year ago and trying to win in that gym is a very tall order, but I think as long as the Boilers are getting good guard play and shooting the way they have been from range, they’re a tough team to beat.
PICK – Purdue
Miami (FL) at Nebraska – Miami grabbed everyone’s attention with three straight double digit wins, blowing out Misssissippi State, Utah and then grabbing a 10 point win over Butler to win the Puerto Rico Tip Off. Then they came home and were beaten at the buzzer by a good Northeastern team. That loss doesn’t change the fact that the Canes look primed for a strong season. Their backcourt is sensation, with Angel Rodriguez and Sheldon McClellan leading the way, and they have a legit rim protector in Tonye Jekiri…he’s an NBA player, IMO. This is a big, athletic and experienced group not all that different than the team Jim Larranaga took to national prominence in 12-13, which won the ACC. Nebraska is 5-2 and got a big win over Tennesse the other night. The losses have come to Villanova and Cincinnati, so no shame in falling to two ranked teams. The Huskers have some weapons…Shavon Shield’s has been a solid player for 4 years now and Kansas transfer Andrew White has been as good as advertised, leading NU in scoring. Still, even at home, I don’t see Nebraska having enough to beat a strong Miami club.
PICK – Miami
Maryland at UNC – UNC has announced that Marcus Paige will make his season debut in this game. Not sure how many minutes he’ll play but that’s a big lift for the Heels, as they now have all their pieces in place. This is a big, big game, maybe the best matchup of the entire event. Maryland is ranked #2 in the nation and they’re unbeaten despite not massively impressing anyone yet. Watching them, I feel as if they’re still in the midst of fitting all their elements together and haven’t finished the job yet. UNC looks a little more cohesive, even though they took a loss to Northern Iowa on the road. If this game were in College Park, I’d probably pick the Terps but given that it’s in Chapel Hill, I have to take the Heels in what should be a fascinating game of teams with all the elements…great size, big time point guards, some shooters on the wings, etc.
PICK – UNC
Louisville at Michigan State – MSU will be the choice to win.
Wisconsin at Syracuse – The Orange surprised many by winning the loaded Atlantis field and are unbeaten so far. This was a mediocre team last season and few saw massive improvement coming this season but Jim Boeheim has done this before…he’s often had his biggest successes when expectations were muted. Former Duke Blue Devil Michael Gbinije has rounded into a big time offensive player for the Cuse. Trevor Cooney has been solid and freshmen Malachi Richardson and Tyler Lydon have given this team a big offensive boost as well. Wisconsin has been an absolute mess. They have 3 losses already and given how they performed in Norman yesterday in a 17 point loss, I’m having a hard time envisioning all their offensive woes getting sorted out in time for a trip to upstate New York. I think Syracuse wins and probably in fairly decisive fashion. The Badgers just don’t have the kind of floor spacing and shooting they need to be successful right now.
PICK – Syracuse
Penn State at Boston College – PSU is 3-2. Brandon Taylor and Shep Garner are leading the way thus far, but this team will be better off when freshman Josh Reaves starts to build more confidence and take a leading role with this club. They need star power and if that’s going to come, it’ll be via their younger players. We’ve seen BC, obviously. The Eagles had a big win over Harvard just prior to the Wooden Legacy but then lost all three games they played in the event by double digits, including a 17 point loss to previously winless Santa Clara. This is a tough one…PSU has not surprised anyone positively thus far, but BC is just so young and even at home, wins are going to be hard to come by. I’m picking PSU in a squeaker because of more experience but this is another toss up for sure.
PICK – Penn State
IU at Duke – Both teams have had their shaky moments but IU’s start has to be far more troubling than Duke’s. The Hoosiers showed little to no improvement over last year on the defensive end in Maui, and you can make an argument that they haven’t looked as good offensively either. Duke doesn’t have close to the personnel they had a season ago, but moving Grayson Allen off the ball was an important adjustment by Coach K and should make this team better going forward. Given how IU is checking right now, it’s impossible for me to conceive of their finding a way to win at Cameron, even against a good but probably not great Duke bunch.
PICK – Duke
Notre Dame at Illinois – The Irish lost 2 of 3 in Orlando, including a heartbreaker yesterday against Alabama. This is not the same caliber team as it was a year ago…they lost too much firepower with Grant and Connaughton departing. Still, they have some guards who can score in Jackson and Vasturia and Beachem and Auguste have emerged as solid interior options. With the Irish, as always, the concern is the defensive end…can they check well enough to beat good teams? I’m not sure Illinois is an example of that, but the Illini at least have Nunn and Tate back in their guard lineup, something they desperately needed. The Illini are really shaky at the point but this is not a team without talent…Nunn, Hill and Thorne are all good players. This probably represents Illinois’ best chance for a resume win. Though there is ample reason to pick against their getting it, my gut is telling me they find a way to beat a suspect Irish team.
PICK – Illinois
Florida State at Iowa – FSU is 4-1 with the loss coming to Hofstra. The Noles have not one but two freshmen averaging 20 ppg or better so far, with McDonald’s AA Dwayne Bacon leading the way. Sophomore Xavier Rathan-Mayes, last year’s star freshman, is the third double digit scoring guard and he’s also averaging almost 7 assists per game. This is a weird team…heavy on guards and yet with TWO guys 7’3″ or taller (though only one is playing right now). The Noles have talent. However, Iowa has experience. The Hawks have been good even though they took two losses in Orlando…losing close games to Dayton and Notre Dame isn’t the kind of stuff which loses you a Tournament bid. I’ve been surprised that they’re not getting more from some of their newcomers but the vets are playing solid ball thus far, especially Uthoff and Gesell, who’s off to a fine start. FSU has more high end talent, no doubt about that, but Iowa at home and with so much more experience…I’m taking the Hawks in a tight one.
PICK – Iowa
So, that’s a grand total of Big Ten 8 ACC 6. I’m not ready to bet the house on this…many of these games look like tossups to me and the Big Ten’s play thus far doesn’t exactly inspire a great deal of confidence. I’m picking three Big Ten teams to win on the road and none of them feel like gimmes in the slightest. Still, I think the schedule is decent for the conference this year, which helps. I just went through it at a glance and if the home/road venues were switched, I’d have the ACC up 8-6.