by Chris Johnson (@chrisdjohnsonn)
The Big Ten conference schedule for the upcoming season was released Thursday, and Northwestern’s slate is, well, probably what you’d expect: an 18-game gauntlet featuring dates with some of the nation’s best teams at some of the nation’s marquee venues. But there are some noteworthy elements deserving of at least some measure of your football-centric focus. So without delving too deep into each contest, here are my initial reactions, broken down into arbitrarily defined segments, from NU’s 2012-2013 conference schedule.
01/03/13 vs. Michigan
01/06/13 at Minnesota
01/10/13 at Penn State
01/13/13 vs. Iowa
01/17/13 at Illinois
01/20/13 vs. Indiana
01/23/13 vs. Minnesota
01/26/13 at Nebraska
01/30/13 at Michigan
02/02/13 vs. Purdue
02/09/13 at Iowa
02/14/13 at Ohio State
02/17/13 vs. Illinois
02/20/13 vs. Wisconsin
02/24/13 at Purdue
02/28/13 vs. Ohio State
03/07/13 vs. Penn State
03/10/13 at Michigan State
*Caveat: it’s difficult to know precisely how each team will stand heading into these matchups. The vagaries of the college hoops nonleague season can alter more than a few teams’ compositions. Briefly analyzing each team at this early stage doesn’t take into account what could happen over the next four months. I’m merely touching on preseason perception and the talent/depth on each roster as currently constituted.
Michigan (1/3)---@Minnesota (1/6)
The Wildcats get two likely tournament teams in their first two games, both of which present unique challenges. Michigan could find itself ranked in the nation’s top 10 teams to begin the season, led by a talented backcourt tandem of Tim Hardaway Jr. and Trey Burke, while Minnesota brings back pretty much all of its top scorers from last season along with sixth-year senior and interior force Trevor Mbakwe -- who is now healthy after missing most of last season with a torn ACL. Both games are certainly winnable, but the Michigan matchup will take place four days before the start of winter quarter, meaning the Wolverines get the luxury of a listless (if not silent) student section.
Penn State (1/10)---@Illinois (1/17)
After a brutal opening, NU faces a manageable three-game stretch where two wins, at the very least, should be the baseline expectation. Penn State returns star point guard Tim Frazier, but is nowhere near ready to compete in the upper half of this league. Iowa presents a deeper and altogether more talented roster, with promising shooting guard Devyn Marble, emerging big man Aaron White and incoming freshman Adam Woodbury, but it’s nonetheless a game NU simply must take at home. The final test (Illinois) of this three-game stretch may be the toughest, played under the clamorous conditions of Assembly Hall with new coach John Groce taking the reins after former coach Bruce Weber wore out his welcome in Champaign.
Indiana (1/20)---Minnesota (1/23)
Over a four-day stretch, NU gets two league heavyweights at Welsh-Ryan Arena. First Indiana – the possible preseason No. 1 – brings Cody Zeller and Christian Watford and Victor Oladipo and so on to Evanston in what may stand as NU’s stiffest challenge of the season. Then the Wildcats get Minnesota at home just over two weeks after facing off in Minneapolis.
@Nebraska (1/26)---@Ohio State (2/14)
Four of the next five contests will be played outside the friendly confines, starting with a trip to Lincoln for a matchup with newly-hired coach Tim Miles and a reinvigorated Nebraska. The next stop, Ann Arbor, Mich., will be a particularly daunting road test. Next NU gets a visit from Purdue, who loses leading scorer Robbie Hummel and point guard Lewis Jackson, but welcomes in three top-100 recruits. The Boilermakers mark a good mid-season litmus test, a stopping point to evaluate NU’s Tournament chances with just eight games remaining in the regular season. Consecutive road stops at Iowa and Ohio State follow, two talented outfits with designs on defending homecourt.
Illinois (2/17)---Wisconsin (2/20)
Home dates with Illinois and Wisconsin stand as potential must-win home contests as NU approaches the final portion of its schedule. The Badgers return everyone from last year’s team save Jordan Taylor – which, make no mistake, is a huge loss. NU’s Princeton system challenging Bo Ryan’s historically stodgy slowdown philosophy makes for an interesting clash of styles. Taking out the Illini at home, particularly if NU drops the first matchup in champaign, is imperative for pride reasons as much as resume-building ones.
@Purdue (2/24)---@Michigan State (3/10)
Of the final four games, the March 7 home fixture with Penn State is the only one evoking even the slightest hint of gracious sentiment. An away game at Mackey Arena, with the infamously deafening Paint Crew livening the scene, is never a favorable proposition. The home test with Ohio State could carry huge significance, in the same vein as last year’s late-season heartbreaker in Evanston. And in the finale, a voyage to East Lansing, the Spartans aren’t the types to quickly forget what occurred at Welsh-Ryan last season. Michigan State is a league title contender and that game could hold important Tournament seeding implications.
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All in all, the schedule is challenging, but well-rounded to the point that it’s hard to identify a particularly wretched stretch of games or a soft pocket with several easy contests. When you play in the nation’s toughest league, conference play is a brutal slog, where even the weakest opponents manage formidable challenges based on years of experience and familiarity. NU’s slate is difficult, but that was to be expected. Big Ten hoops is a constant struggle; this is nothing new. C’est La Vie.