The Wisconsin Badgers boast an unblemished 13-0 record and the No. 4 ranking in America. That's not a bad way to start the New Year, and more importantly, Big Ten play.
The Badgers kick off conference action Thursday evening against a 7-6 Northwestern team that struggled mightily against the best competition on its non-conference schedule.
When these two teams met last year, Wisconsin routed the Wildcats by 28 points in Evanston, and by all indications, a similar whooping could be in store Thursday.
It'll be important for the Badgers to get off to a solid start in their first Big Ten game, especially considering the rust many players showed coming out of Christmas break last Saturday against Prairie View A&M.
Wisconsin shot just 33.3 percent (9-of-27) from its bread-and-butter three-point range against the Panthers, and converting from deep won't be a cakewalk against Northwestern. The Wildcats actually sport a solid three-point shooting percentage defense so far this season, limiting opponents to just 30.1 percent from long-range on the season.
Before we break things down too much further, let's jump right into our three keys to a Wisconsin victory over Northwestern as the Badgers look to start things off right in 2014.
Let Dave Sobolewski shoot
The Wildcats' point guard is having an atrocious season offensively, and he has been trending from bad to horrible over the past month of the season. Since scoring 25 points in a win over UIC Nov. 20, Sobolewski is shooting 17.6 percent (12-of-68) from the field over Northwestern's last nine games.
Wisconsin is so solid defensively that Bo Ryan probably won't change the Badgers' system one iota against a struggling Wildcats squad, but if he so chooses, Ryan could sag off Sobolewski in order to shift additional defensive help toward talented wing scorers Drew Crawford and JerShon Cobb to limit their production.
If Crawford and Cobb aren't able to score, then Wisconsin rolls to an easy blowout win to open Big Ten competition.
Feed Frank Kaminsky early and often
Kaminsky has arguably been the biggest surprise in college basketball this season, and he's been nothing short of brilliant so far. I continue to think that this Wisconsin team will go as far as "The Tank" takes them because he is the Badgers' most indispensible player.
It has been a few weeks since Kaminsky and the Badgers faced some legitimate competition, so I'd like to see Wisconsin try to establish its big man early so that he stays in rhythm during the early portion of Big Ten play. We saw the Badgers really fall in love with the three-ball during stretches of conference play last year, and I'd like stay way from the "live by the three, die by the three" mantra until it's absolutely necessary,
Establishing Kaminsky against Northwestern will also bode well for the Badgers as we look ahead to their weekend matchup with Iowa. The Hawkeyes have a ton of length, especially on their front line, and Kaminsky will be challenged. Let's see him have a big night against the Wildcats and hope that he carries that over to Sunday's contest against an Iowa team that gave Wisconsin fits a season ago.
Get off the bus
No, but seriously... if the Badgers just show up tonight, they're going to win handily. I expect Wisconsin to be clicking like a well-oiled machine this evening, as the Badgers always seem to start the conference season with a renewed sense of purpose.
The only thing that gives me the slightest pause is knowing the Badgers will have to find their own source of motivation as they won't be getting assistance from the home crowd. Things might start a little slow, but I expect them to find a rhythm mid-way through the first half and waltz to an easy win.
Prediction: Wisconsin 74, Northwestern 57