Today is a big deal for the states of Wisconsin and Illinois. A college basketball game will get the party started Sunday morning when either Wisconsin or Northwestern fires an opening salvo that might wind up a historical footnote to the Bears-Packers NFC Championship Game this afternoon.
Bo Ryan's boys can give all the Green Bay fans invading Chicago something to smack off about if the Badgers (14-4, 4-2 Big Ten) can subdue the high-octane Wildcats (13-5, 3-4) on the road. Northwestern is averaging over 78 points per contest and allowing 67 per game on defense. While a +11 differential might sound good, that ties Northwestern with Minnesota for worst scoring defense in the Big Ten. The Wildcats also have not beaten a solid Big Ten team yet. Northwestern's three wins came against the clear dregs of the league: Michigan, Indiana and Iowa.
Fresh off a career-high 28-point performance, junior Jordan Taylor looks to keep his incredible run going. Taylor easily paces the Big Ten with 22 ppg during league play, scoring in double figures in five of six games. While he has needed to increase his scoring (now 17.6 ppg overall), his shooting percentage (44.5%), decision making (4:1 assist-to-turnover ratio) and rebounding (4.6 rpg) have remained top-notch. We are witnessing one of the truly special seasons by a Badger.
For Northwestern, senior John Shurna is humming along yet again this year with a 19.5 scoring average. Though he has started to cool off against tougher competition, Shurna is still connecting on 54.8% of his 3-pointers, which dwarfs his percentage during last year's breakout campaign. However, his rebounding is down, which is a major area of concern for the team as a whole. The team gives up a league-worst 37.4 rebounds per game to Big Ten opponents.
Think of Northwestern senior Michael Thompson as Jordan Taylor-lite. He is tough, a sneaky-good scorer and solid set up man. Again, he doesn't rebound as well as Taylor, but like all the Wildcats, he shoots a great percentage. He is surrounded by talented youngsters Drew Crawford and JerShon Cobb in the starting backcourt.
For all the hype about Northwestern and its Princeton-style offense, Wisconsin has fared pretty well in this series recently. The Badgers won a pair of competitive games last season. They lost by three in Evanston two years ago, but you would have to go back to 2005-06 for the most recent loss before that.
Nevertheless, Sunday kicks off a delicate two-game stretch to navigate. Both Northwestern and Penn State have talent and the right amount of "crazy wild card" in them to scare visiting opponents. And the Badgers haven't exactly looked like world beaters yet.
If a dialed-in Jon Leuer comes to play, Wisconsin should be in good hands. But lately, Leuer has not been as aggressive as a future NBA draft pick should be. And when he does decide to get aggressive, he is taking some tough shots. Leuer's shooting dips to 41.6% when you consider only conference games. The senior forward needs to harness the same mentality that got him good looks in the first half against Indiana and avoid the passiveness that plagued him for the first 15 minutes of the second half on Thursday, when he got pushed off his position on the blocks by smaller players.
There is not a notable post presence for the Wildcats. Coming off its 43-point drubbing of SIU-Edwardsville, Northwestern is about to enter the "prove it" portion of its schedule. This game marks the start of four straight against ranked foes as the Wildcats eye their first-ever NCAA Tournament bid.