3-pointer: Big Ten basketball games to watch this week
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Can you believe it’s already Week 4 of Big Ten hoops? Time flies when you’re having fun.
Here are three games to watch this week as conference play rolls on:
Jan. 18, 7 p.m. ET on BTN: Indiana (12-6, 2-3) at Penn State (11-7, 3-2)
This is not a game that would have been circled scanning the schedule in November, but both teams have surprised in different ways. I expected Indiana’s deep pool of talent to prevent any sort of extended skid, but the Hoosiers have still lost four of their last six contests. Their two wins in that stretch have come over Illinois and Rutgers, which isn’t enough to calm restless fans in Bloomington. Now the Hoosiers have to face a suddenly-hot Penn State team that is capable of matching their athleticism. It’s not an enviable position to be in.
Anyone who paid attention to Big Ten recruiting the last couple of years knew Penn State would be improved, but a historically-challenged program like the Nittany Lions had to go out and prove on the court that they were not the Penn State of old to truly change their perception in many outsiders’ eyes. And they have. We’re seeing the fruits of Pat Chambers’ labor play out, as the Nittany Lions snagged two solid wins over Michigan State and then-No. 24 Minnesota in a week’s span. Veteran Shep Garner is their leader, and he’s surrounded by underclassmen who can flat-out play. Watch out for Lamar Stevens, Tony Carr and Mike Watkins, Hoosier fans. If Penn State makes a true leap here soon, those guys will be leading the way.
It’s almost a no-win situation that Indiana is walking into. Most Big Ten fans still consider Penn State as those same old bottom-feeders, and won’t change their minds until they see the new and improved Nittany Lions in action. That’s natural. From many Hoosier fans’ point of view, an Indiana win Wednesday would be the Indiana taking care of business, but a loss (that is not all that unlikely) would send them into panic mode. Penn State is young and still prone to letdowns, but beating Indiana is well within the realm of possibility.
Jan. 19, 7 p.m. ET on ESPN: No. 25 Maryland (16-2, 4-1) at Iowa (11-8, 3-3)
Can you believe No. 25 Maryland is one late-game collapse away from being 5-0 in the Big Ten and 17-1 overall? All those close wins in non-conference play seem to have hardened this Terps team rather than serve as cause for concern. So why is this matchup with an Iowa team fresh off a 30-point loss at Northwestern one of the games to watch this week? Simply because the Hawkeyes are a completely different team at home.
I don’t know if Iowa’s crop of underclassmen are that much more comfortable on a familiar floor, if their fans provide that much of a boost or if it’s a combination of factors, but the Hawkeyes have been fun to watch at home this season. Young teams are often inconsistent, but it’s hard to explain taking down a very good Purdue team then getting your doors blown off by Northwestern three days later. Still, expect Peter Jok’s Hawks to make it tough on Melo Trimble’s Terps on Thursday. All three Iowa home games in conference play have been close and dramatic. I’ll be keeping an eye on them until they break that trend.
Jan. 21, 4:30 p.m. ET on BTN No. 17 Wisconsin (14-3, 3-1) at Minnesota (15-4, 3-3)
Just when I—and many others—began to buy into Minnesota, the Gophers had a rough week and dropped two straight. Despite their stay in the Top 25 poll being short-lived, Minnesota has the depth and talent to make the NCAA tournament with room to spare. A home win against Wisconsin isn’t essential, but it would be a huge bounce-back after a full week to recover from their close loss at Penn State.
It’s hard to dispute that the Badgers are a Top 3 Big Ten team, but every game will be crucial going forward for their conference title hopes. I think their (and Purdue’s, as well) overall body of work is being dragged down a bit by the perception that the Big Ten is down this year, even though the league is as deep as ever. Wisconsin throttled Ohio State in their only game last week and only moved up one poll spot because of it.
They don’t necessarily have anything to prove at this juncture, but they’re probably a bit underrated. At No. 17 I’d still put the Badgers up against nearly any team in the nation and feel good about it. Every win going forward will get more folks nationally on board with that notion.