Get all your news in one place.
100’s of premium titles.
One app.
Start reading
Chicago Sun-Times
Chicago Sun-Times
Steve Greenberg

Flurry of league games — starting with No. 1 Purdue at Northwestern — just what Big Ten needs

Northwestern’s Boo Buie goes up for a shot in a Super Bowl Sunday win against Purdue. (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Is Northwestern the new Big Ten “it” school?

Football’s David Braun was named the conference’s coach of the year Tuesday. Men’s basketball’s Chris Collins is the reigning coach of the year after the Wildcats’ second-ever run to the NCAA Tournament last season. It’s the first time a Big Ten school has held both honors simultaneously since Penn State did so with football coach Joe Paterno (2008) and basketball coach Ed DeChellis (tied, 2008-09 season) what seems like ages ago.

So, are the Wildcats “it”? Fine, of course they aren’t. Unless they manage to sneak their way onto the field for Saturday’s Big Ten football championship game in Indianapolis, they’re just a nice story. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; the Big Ten will take all the nice stories it can get.

The league hasn’t won a national championship in football since Ohio State in 2014 — the first season with a four-team playoff — and hasn’t cut down the nets in basketball since Michigan State did the honors in 2000. This basketball season, it has Purdue ranked No. 1 but no other teams making any real noise.

Purdue (6-0) has knocked off top competition in Gonzaga, Tennessee and Marquette, already a stellar résumé to hand the NCAA selection committee in March. But Michigan State, a top-five team going into the season, has lost to Duke, Arizona and — whoa — James Madison. Illinois, the only other Big Ten team in the preseason Top 25, lost to the only formidable foe (Marquette) it has faced. Wisconsin couldn’t hang with Tennessee or Providence, Indiana got manhandled by UConn, Maryland looks shoddy, Michigan looks terrible — on and on.

Outside of the Boilermakers — a bit suspect themselves after last year’s unthinkable NCAA first-round loss as a No. 1 seed — the Big Ten has had an almost nightmarish performance in non-conference play. Might as well start playing one another, then.

Beginning Friday — when Purdue visits Northwestern for the first time since the Wildcats’ 64-58 mega-upset on Super Bowl Sunday — there will be 12 Big Ten games, involving all 14 conference teams, over a 10-day period. After that, there won’t be another Big Ten game until after the new year.

Last time the Boilermakers and Wildcats did business, it was a spectacular two hours. As football fans fetched more ice and beer, wrapped pigs in blankets, surfed prop bets and totally failed to realize they should’ve been watching a basketball game exploding to life in Evanston, madness unfolded at Welsh-Ryan Arena. The great 7-4 center Zach Edey was toppled. NU beat a No. 1 team for the first time in 19 tries. It wasn’t official, but Collins’ ’Cats effectively wrapped up a spot in the Big Dance.

The court-storming was one for the 2022-23 college basketball season time capsule.

“I think we saw last year — everybody saw — how fun this could be,” Collins said.

A year ago, with a similar flurry of league games on the early-December schedule, we got a glimpse of what was coming. Northwestern, for example, opened its season with a shocking win at Michigan State. It seemed like an outlier at the time, but the Wildcats would become the road warriors of the Big Ten.

Illinois went 0-2 early last December, part of an 0-3 league start for what never stopped being a maddeningly inconsistent, underachieving team. The Illini’s league opener is Saturday at Rutgers. 

Heading into the season, Purdue, Michigan State and Illinois were ranked and Wisconsin, Maryland, Indiana were in “others receiving votes” territory. Now it’s just Purdue and the No. 24 Illini, with Ohio State, Michigan State and Nebraska also receiving votes. There isn’t a whole lot the league can hang its hat on.

And Northwestern? It’s like last season never even happened. No votes, no recognition, no respect for the Wildcats (5-1), who have beaten Dayton — not bad — but lost on a neutral floor to Mississippi State.

Another shot at big, bad Purdue could change the picture again.

“A lot of people kind of look at our school and our program and think that we’ve had only one or two good seasons, but we’re trying to solidify things,” said junior Brooks Barnhizer, second on the team in points (15.3) and first in rebounds (8.2) per game. “Everybody on this team is really trying to make people realize that Northwestern is, like, a good basketball program year in and year out now.”

AP Top 25

1. Purdue, 2. Arizona, 3. Marquette, 4. UConn, 5. Kansas, 6. Houston, 7. Duke, 8. Miami, 9. Baylor, 10. Tennessee, 11. Gonzaga, 12. Kentucky, 13. Florida Atlantic, 14. Texas A&M, 15. Creighton, 16. Texas, 17. North Carolina, 18. Villanova, 19. BYU, 20. Colorado State, 21. Mississippi State, 22. James Madison, 23. Alabama, 24. Illinois, 25. Oklahoma.

(Click here to see the poll in more complete list form.)

My ballot

1. Purdue, 2. Marquette, 3. Kansas, 4. Arizona, 5. UConn, 6. Houston, 7. Duke, 8. Baylor, 9. Miami, 10. Tennessee, 11. Kentucky, 12. Gonzaga, 13. Villanova, 14. Florida Atlantic, 15. Texas A&M, 16. BYU, 17. North Carolina, 18. Texas, 19. Mississippi State, 20. Alabama, 21. Auburn, 22. Memphis, 23. Illinois, 24. Colorado State, 25. Oklahoma.

(Click here and then on “all voters” to see each voter’s individual ballot.)

Sign up to read this article
Read news from 100’s of titles, curated specifically for you.
Already a member? Sign in here
Related Stories
Top stories on inkl right now
Our Picks
Fourteen days free
Download the app
One app. One membership.
100+ trusted global sources.