The middle of the Big Ten is going to be well worth watching. There might not be a middle of a conference that appears to be as wide open as this one does, and Sunday gave us a look at two teams that could be there. One was expected before the season, the other, not so much.
The top of the Big Ten appears to be what we expected. Michigan State and Maryland have done nothing in the first month and a half to dispel any notion that they should lead the pack, with Purdue joining them in the projected top three. Michigan State and Maryland both look like national title contenders, while Purdue was a team with potential and is harnessing a lot of it now. The Boilermakers may be a bit of a surprise to some, but not much; they were expected to be pretty good this season. It’s after those three that things appear to get very interesting.
Lots of teams could be in the mix for spots four through seven to complete the top half of the standings. Indiana and Michigan were both expected to be there, and have looked the part thus far. Wisconsin was, but it appears the massive personnel losses from last season could be too much to replace for new head coach Greg Gard, as the Badgers have not looked very good. Still, bet against them at your peril. Iowa and Penn State have put up good records against weaker schedules, while Illinois is 8-5 but has three top 50 losses by five points or less.
Then there are Ohio State and Northwestern. Yes, you read the last one right – Northwestern.
Ohio State was certainly expected to be a solid top-half team before the season. The names and faces may change, but as long as Thad Matta has been at the helm the Buckeyes have been pretty good. But like Wisconsin, this edition of the Buckeyes hasn’t quite met the same standard thus far, at least until recently. A four-game losing streak, three of them at home, had the Buckeyes at 2-4 in early December. They didn’t lose to a bad team in the mix, but three of them – we’ll give them a pass against Virginia – are games a solid NCAA Tournament team wins, or at least two of them.
But since a 75-55 drubbing at UConn a couple of weeks ago, Ohio State has been much better. They won their fourth straight on Sunday to close out non-conference play, a 73-57 decision against South Carolina State. They had 19 assists on 26 made field goals, and ball movement had been a concern for this team when they were losing. There’s enough talent on this team to be more than competitive in the Big Ten, from Marc Loving to Keita Bates-Diop (who led the Buckeyes with 24 points and 10 rebounds on Sunday) to Jae’Sean Tate and JaQuan Lyle. Freshman Daniel Giddens has a very high ceiling as well.
Northwestern, on the other hand, didn’t look so good in the first half of their 74-59 win over Loyola (Md.) on Sunday. They 1-10 Greyhounds scored the game’s first nine points en route to a 20-6 lead around the third media timeout. The second half was all Wildcats, as they outscored the Greyhounds 52-26 to take over the game. Once they tied it, then took the lead, you got the sense it was a big psychological blow to Loyola, as so often happens when the underdog leads for so much of the game.
Bryant McIntosh, the promising sophomore point guard for Northwestern, had a career game with 33 points on 11-15 shooting, along with handing out eight assists. He is blossoming into a star as we speak, averaging 16.2 points and 6.8 assists per game, while also shooting 50.7 percent from the field, a figure that includes 47.2 percent from deep. Every one of those numbers is up significantly from last season, when he was thrust into the role but didn’t look out of place. You had a feeling Chris Collins had his point guard for the next four years early on, and he hasn’t disappointed.
Add in Tre Demps, who is having a terrific senior season thus far, active forward Sanjay Lumpkin and sharp-shooting freshman Aaron Falzon, and the Wildcats just might survive the loss of Vic Law, who might have the highest ceiling of anyone on the team, to a torn labrum in his left shoulder early in the season. They were also without big man Alex Olah due to a foot injury on Sunday night, and will be without him for the Big Ten opener on Wednesday. The injury was described by Collins as a “stress reaction” after an MRI on Saturday, but the hope is that it’s not serious enough to keep out for an extended period.
Right now, the Buckeyes appear to have some momentum and the Wildcats look the part of the confident sleeper. There are different reasons to see either team as one that can fight for a good spot in the top half of the Big Ten and ultimately wind up in the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats, thought by many to be perhaps a year away, probably have a little more work to do as far as the latter goes despite a better record, but they will have chances. Their upward trend implies they might take advantage of a couple of them. If that happens, and if Ohio State looks more like they have the last couple of weeks than the prior couple of weeks, the Big Ten will have a lot of very interesting games with teams battling for the first division.
With regard to the aforementioned injury to Northwestern big man Alex Olah, the Wildcats took the redshirt off freshman Dererk Pardon. He had six points and four rebounds in 23 minutes in his debut on Sunday.
Following up on some sad news we mentioned on Sunday, we have more on arrangements for the late George Rodecker. They can be found at this link.
It’s not the lightest slate, but also not loaded with must-see matchups.
- California hosts Davidson in what might be the highest profile game of the day.
- Penn heads to Villanova in a Big 5 matchup.
- Wichita State hosts New Mexico State in an interesting matchup of favorites in their respective conferences.
- Duke hosts an Elon team that is 9-3 and positioning itself to be a pleasant surprise in CAA play.
- The best game of the day might be Valparaiso traveling to Nashville to take on Belmont, as it will be a battle of two consistent mid-major winners.
- A nice mid-major matchup has Stony Brook going across the Hudson to take on NJIT.
Drexel travels to take on Iona in a game that normally figures to be a nice mid-major matchup, and this one still could be. Perhaps the winner will get a jump-start as both teams have had a rough go of it.