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InsideNU debate: What's Northwestern's most interesting conference basketball game?

This is not the most exciting part of Northwestern’s football schedule. The first two weeks, featuring games against AQ conference opponents, were intriguing, if at least somewhat competitive. Beating Cal on the road was not as easy as the Golden Bears’ textbook transitional status and 3-9 record last year would have implied, and Syracuse, bewildering as it may seem, actually claimed a share of the Big East championship in 2012. Those games weren’t close, down-to-the-wire, thrillers, but they were interesting. That means something.

Western Michigan was not interesting. Northwestern steamrolled the Broncos, barely leaving a trace of doubt over the final 45 minutes, and the opponent coming to Evanston this week, Maine, shouldn’t offer any more of a challenge than WMU did. This is a stretch of games only a microscopic portion of casual fans – and a reduced portion of NU fans – would possibly think about tuning into; boredom is an acceptable reaction.

To liven things up a little bit, we’re looking ahead to basketball season. The Wildcats’ conference schedule was released in late August, and there are a number of games worth getting excited about. We couldn’t really address any of them at length when the slate was released a few weeks ago, when preseason football coverage consumed our lives, so we figured now – in the midst of this banal fortnight of cupcake action – was a good time to do so. Kevin and I each selected the Big Ten game on Northwestern’s schedule we find “most interesting,” which is vague enough to encompass pretty much all manner of description. Anyway, enjoy.


Jan. 2: Northwestern vs. Wisconsin (Welsh-Ryan Arena)

The statistic is repeated impulsively throughout Big Ten basketball circles: In his 12 seasons coaching the Badgers, Bo Ryan has never finished worse than fourth in the Big Ten. Does that sound insane? Because it should. Over the past few years, as the Big Ten has evolved into one of the nation’s best conferences, Ryan has kept his team humming, always pulling off a few shocking upsets, giving even the league’s elite teams everything they can handle. No key personnel departure (Jordan Taylor, 2012) or huge uptick in collective league competitiveness (2012-13) has slowed the Badgers down. Under Ryan, Wisconsin wins. Disputing this is almost like calling into question Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. I think.

This season, with the Badgers bringing back the core – including sophomore breakout candidate Sam Dekker, one of only a handful of top-flight recruits Ryan has brought in over the years – of a team that finished, yup, 4th last season, there is no reason to expect Ryan’s streak to be disrupted. Wisconsin should finish near the top of the league once again.

It will not be an easy road – par for the league’s recent competitive course – and Wisconsin will need to hold serve against some of the league’s mid-to-lower-tier opponents in order to keep up with the likes of Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State. The Badgers will get their first opportunity in their Big Ten opener at Welsh-Ryan, where Chris Collins will hope to put his team on the Big Ten map with a resounding home upset, and Wisconsin will, well, be Wisconsin: brutally slow halfcourt sets, grinding defense, turnover-averse possessions, the pace-manipulating wherewithal to throw purportedly uptempo teams like Northwestern, among others, completely out of their rhythm. That clash of styles – Collins’ desire to run; Ryan’s preference to pump the breaks – is what could make this game fascinating. When Wisconsin dictates the tempo, will Northwestern be able to adjust? Or will the Badgers ugly it up and force the Wildcats’ to play at their relentlessly deliberate pace? I’m interested to see.

The biggest downside to this game is that most Northwestern students won’t be around to watch it – With winter classes not beginning until the morning of January 6, the student section won’t reach anywhere near full capacity.

By this point of the season, with 13 nonconference games in the books, including tilts with UCLA, Missouri and NC State, we should have a pretty good idea whether Northwestern has a chance of hanging around in the NCAA Tournament conversation. If they do, most Big Ten home games will offer potential resume-improving benefits. The league’s top-to-bottom depth is such that no game, not even Penn State or Nebraska, will be anything close to a guarantee. Every fixture will be a proving grounds of various import. Upending a top-tier outfit like Wisconsin would be a huge early conference boost, the type of win around which to base the rest of a burgeoning March portfolio.

There will be other chances for Northwestern to improve its Tournament chances throughout the season – this is the Big Ten, man – but nailing down a signature win early in the conference season could give the Wildcats the momentum and confidence they need to pick up other valuable wins down the line. The selection committee places equal weight on every game, November to March; beating Wisconsin on January 2 means just as much as beating Wisconsin February 28. This is an excellent opportunity for Northwestern to make a statement at the outset of a brutal Big Ten slate. A win could set the stage for bigger and better things.

- Chris Johnson

Feb. 23: Northwestern vs. Indiana (Welsh-Ryan Arena)

I probably would choose the Wisconsin game, too, just because I think 1) the Badgers are beatable, and 2) that game will sort of set the tone for conference season. But for argument's sake, I'll choose a different game. I'm a little hesitant to pick a game so late in conference season, so consider this pick to be one of the two Indiana games — I chose the home game because it's more winnable tahn the one at Assembly Hall.

Northwestern isn't expected to make the NCAA Tournament this year, and while the Wildcats certainly have a chance — this is a talented team — this year is more about building momentum for the program in its first year under Chris Collins. The best way to do that is to get some exciting, perception-changing wins. And this year, Indiana seems like the best target.

NU beating near-top-ranked Michigan State would be great for the program. So would beating Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa, all of which figure to be in or near the top 25. But those teams are either full of veterans and experience or full of top talent. Indiana loses its two best players in Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo, and the Hoosiers also lose Christian Watford and Jordan Hulls. Yogi Ferrell and Will Sheehey are the top returning players, while stud recruit Noah Vonleh and graduate transfer Evan Gordon should both provide a boost. However, that's a significantly worse roster than last year. Really, it's perfect for NU — Indiana will still have respect and is still expected to be an NCAA Tournament team, but it's still very beatable. It doesn't matter that this team isn't the caliber of last year's one-seed team; a win over Indiana is big for changing perceptions.

What's funny is that, on paper, a win over Iowa or Wisconsin would probably be better than a win over Indiana this season. National basketball experts and people who follow the game closely know that, but those aren't the people that need convincing that Collins can usher in a new era — they already know the momentum he's brought, particularly in recruiting. It's the casual fans — particularly the Northwestern students — that need convincing in order to pack Welsh-Ryan Arena. It may not make sense based on this year's teams, but Collins is going to get a lot more people to Welsh-Ryan by beating Indiana rather than Iowa or Wisconsin. If NU can steal one of two against the Hoosiers, it would be quite the momentum boost for the program.

- Kevin Trahan