Big Ten preview: Illinois, Northwestern meet Friday; see 1-14 rankings

SHARE Big Ten preview: Illinois, Northwestern meet Friday; see 1-14 rankings
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Northwestern’s Vic Law throws one down last season during Illinois’ upset victory in Evanston. (AP/David Banks)

Show of hands: Who spent the middle part of the week following the ACC/Big Ten Challenge?

If you did, you know what a rough go it was for Illinois (an 80-73 loser at Wake Forest), Northwestern (a 52-51 loser at Georgia Tech) and the rest of the Big Ten. Despite Michigan State’s 81-63 rout of Notre Dame on Thursday, the ACC won the challenge 11-3. Just a vile and preposterous beatdown.

One begins to suspect the Big Ten might not be the best conference this season — OK, so it is not even close — but no matter. The league is dusting itself off and diving right back into the deep end, with Friday the first of five straight days of Big Ten-Big Ten challenges. Indeed, the conference schedule has arrived a month earlier than usual.

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And helping to kick it all off: Illinois at Northwestern (8 p.m. Friday, BTN) at the Allstate Arena, the Wildcats’ temporary home. Both teams will play again Sunday, the Illini at home against Maryland and the Wildcats at Purdue.

Northwestern, fresh off its first-ever NCAA tournament appearance, already is a disappointing 4-3. Illinois, 6-1 but yet to claim a victory of note, is acclimating to life with first-year coach Brad Underwood.

Which rival will get an instant leg up in Big Ten play? And how is the league shaping up overall? We address the latter question here, with a predicted order of finish:

1. Michigan State

Record: 6-1.

B1G opener: vs. Nebraska, 3:30 p.m. Sunday, FS1.

What we’ve seen: The 88-81 loss to Duke in Chicago frustrated coach Tom Izzo, but the defense has been much better since. Witness: the 63-45 victory over North Carolina in Portland, Oregon. Miles Bridges is the league’s most versatile scorer. Joshua Langford continues to be a high-percentage shooter and freshman big Jaren Jackson Jr. is the real deal.

What we’ll see: Izzo, as great as he is, is searching for his first regular-season league title in six years. It should come this season.

2. Purdue

Record: 6-2.

B1G opener: at Maryland, 6 p.m. Friday, BTN.

What we’ve seen: The Boilermakers were all over the board in the Bahamas, falling to Tennessee in overtime and trailing throughout a loss to Western Kentucky — but then blowing the doors off Arizona by 25. The victory at home over Louisville on Tuesday was encouraging.

What we’ll see: Tons of three-point attempts from Carsen Edwards, Dakota Mathias and P.J. Thompson, the delightful midrange game of Vincent Edwards and the continued maturation of mountainous center Isaac Haas. This is a formidable challenger to the Spartans.

3. Minnesota

Record: 7-1.

B1G opener: vs. Rutgers, 5 p.m. Sunday, BTN.

What we’ve seen: Mostly outstanding basketball, even in an 86-81

loss Wednesday at home against Miami. The Gophers are getting 22 points and 12.3 rebounds per game from junior forward Jordan Murphy and a regular double-double threat from senior center Reggie Lynch.

What we’ll see: This might be the Big Ten’s best team from inside the three-point line. It prizes possession, with a low turnover rate and a share-first mentality that flows from guards Nate Mason and Dupree McBrayer. This is the league’s third — and final — NCAA tourney no-doubter this season.

4. Michigan

Record: 6-2.

B1G opener: vs. Indiana, 11:30 a.m. Saturday, Ch. 2.

What we’ve seen: Wednesday’s lopsided loss at North Carolina wasn’t overly concerning. Guard Charles Matthews, a 6-6 Kentucky transfer who starred at St. Rita, is leading the scoring at 16.7 points per game. Veterans Mo Wagner, Duncan Robinson and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman are playing well.

What we’ll see: It is Michigan — open shots are everything, and rebounding is an ongoing problem. Wagner needs help on the boards or else this ranking is too high.

5. Wisconsin

Record: 3-4.

B1G opener: vs. Ohio State, 4 p.m. Saturday, Fox-32.

What we’ve seen: Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes are gone, and does it ever show. Ethan Happ is doing work inside, but no one else has been reliable. Freshman guard Brad Davison is too tough and competitive not to be on the floor.

What we’ll see: Fifth, really? Admittedly, it is awfully high given UW’s performance to date. This ranking is based on the Badgers’ unbelievable streak of 16 top-four finishes in the league. (Though, come to think of it, fifth isn’t in the top four.)

6. Northwestern

Record: 4-3.

B1G opener: vs. Illinois, 8 p.m. Friday, BTN.

What we’ve seen: Tuesday’s buzzer-beater loss at Georgia Tech was brutal. Not much of a nonconference resume here. And what was with that 85-49 debacle against Texas Tech?

What we’ll see: Same guys, mostly — Bryant McIntosh, Scottie Lindsey, Vic Law, Dererk Pardon. They’re going to have to get it in gear quickly to have any chance to get back to the NCAA tourney. Yes, we’re talking about that already.

7. Maryland

Record: 6-2.

B1G opener: vs. Purdue, 6 p.m. Friday, BTN.

What we’ve seen: The Butler win was nice. The St. Bonaventure loss was not. The 72-70 defeat at Syracuse certainly was forgivable, but what’s to make of this team? The Terps have a lot of offensive skill, but they’ve been sloppy.

What we’ll see: Some gorgeous deep shooting from Kevin Huerter, gutty offense from fellow guard Anthony Cowan, an injection of major toughness from Angolan freshman Bruno Fernando — but still. This team screams NIT.

8. Indiana

Record: 4-3.

B1G opener: at Michigan, 11:30 a.m. Saturday, Ch. 2.

What we’ve seen: It is hard to wipe away the horror of new coach Archie Miller’s debut, a 90-69 loss at home to Indiana State. Yet the Hoosiers showed serious fight in Wednesday’s loss to No. 1 Duke, which was nip-and-tuck throughout.

What we’ll see: There’s decent length on this team, but it’ll search for rebounding and interior defense all season. Robert Johnson and company are shooting above 50 percent, typical Indiana and a good sign.

9. Illinois

Record: 6-1.

B1G opener: at Northwestern, 8 p.m. Friday, BTN.

What we’ve seen: The Illini gobbled up wins against weak opponents, and then revealed some weaknesses in Tuesday’s 80-73 defeat at Wake Forest. New coach Brad Underwood has his team moving the ball — or trying, anyway — but the ballhandling and overall offensive timing have to be better.

What we’ll see: The interior play will be a glaring weakness. Freshman Mark Smith brings high-level scoring talent, but how much can the returnees be counted on to consistently fill it up?

10. Iowa

Record: 4-3.

B1G opener: vs. Penn State, 4 p.m. Saturday, BTN.

What we’ve seen: Bad losses, especially the one to Louisiana-Lafayette in the Cayman Islands. Sophomores Tyler Cook, Jordan Bohannon and Isiah Moss (from Simeon) show real promise, though.

What we’ll see: The Hawkeyes’ top-seven scorers are sophomores and freshmen, a sign of better things to come in Iowa City. It is on coach Fran McCaffery to keep the arrow pointed up.

11. Penn State

Record: 6-2.

B1G opener: at Iowa, 4 p.m. Saturday, BTN.

What we’ve seen: Pat Chambers’ team has been pretty good thus far, but the only win worth noting was against ACC bottom feeder Pittsburgh.

What we’ll see: Let’s see how long sophomore guard Tony Carr can ride this 20-points-per-game thing. Is he the league’s most underrated player already?

12. Ohio State

Record: 5-3.

B1G opener: at Wisconsin, 4 p.m. Saturday, Fox-32.

What we’ve seen: A 27-point loss to Gonzaga in Portland, Oregon, and a 14-point loss to Clemson at home pretty well told the tale — this is not a well-rounded team first-year coach Chris Holtmann has on his hands.

What we’ll see: The talent should coalesce enough to stave off a total collapse. Jae’Sean Tate and Keita Bates-Diop are among the better upperclassmen duos in the league.

13. Nebraska

Record: 6-2.

B1G opener: at Michigan State, 3:30 p.m. Sunday, FS1.

What we’ve seen: The Huskers, a terrible offensive team last season, have woken up somewhat. Guards Glynn Watson Jr. and James Palmer Jr. can score and create.

What we’ll see: A team that is colossally overmatched inside by any legit opponent.

14. Rutgers

Record: 6-1.

B1G opener: at Minnesota, Sunday, 5 p.m., BTN.

What we’ve seen: The Scarlet Knights have beaten no one of significance. Unless you consider Coppin State and East Carolina significant.

What we’ll see: They’re still building from the bottom here. Corey Sanders is a fun guard to watch. If only he could shoot the three with any consistency.

Follow me on Twitter @SLGreenberg.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com

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