Chicago Colleges: Michigan Wolverines

Schlabach: Five games I want to to see

March, 13, 2014
Mar 13

The new College Football Playoff is supposed to encourage schools to schedule better nonconference games, as teams try to beef up their schedule strength to earn one of the playoff’s coveted four spots at season’s end.

On Thursday, Texas A&M and UCLA announced that they’ll play each other during the 2016 and 2017 seasons.

Other schools have announced future marquee nonconference opponents, including Texas A&M vs. USC, Notre Dame vs. Texas, Alabama vs. Michigan State and LSU vs. Oklahoma.

Here are five other nonconference games I’d like to see in the future:

[+] EnlargeNick Saban, Urban Meyer
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesUrban Meyer and Nick Saban have faced off for SEC titles, but their current teams, Ohio State and Alabama, have played only three times in history.
1. Alabama vs. Ohio State: Alabama’s Nick Saban and OSU’s Urban Meyer dominated the SEC when Meyer was coaching at Florida, combining to win five BCS national championships from 2006 to 2012.

When Meyer was still coaching at Florida, the Crimson Tide and Gators played in two of the most anticipated SEC championship games. The No. 2 Gators beat the No. 1 Tide 31-20 in 2008, and then the Tide turned the tables on No. 1 UF with a 32-13 win in 2009.

Alabama and Ohio State have played only three times in history, with the Tide winning each time, most recently in a 24-17 victory in the 1995 Citrus Bowl.

2. Texas vs. Texas A&M: Perhaps the biggest casualty in conference realignment, Texas and Texas A&M haven’t played each other since the Aggies bolted the Big 12 for the SEC after the 2011 season. Sadly, there are no plans for the in-state rivals to play again in future regular seasons.

The Aggies and Longhorns played each other 118 times from 1894 to 2011, with their annual meeting traditionally being played on Thanksgiving Day. UT won nearly twice as many games as the Aggies (76-37-5), including nine of the last 12 meetings.

With former Louisville coach Charlie Strong taking over at Texas, and Kevin Sumlin building the Aggies into an SEC powerhouse, the game would also pit two of the sport’s best African-American coaches against each other.

3. Oregon vs. Baylor: Two of the game’s most explosive offenses -- and two of its best-dressed teams -- would undoubtedly light up the scoreboard if they ever played. In fact, the contest would probably look more like a track meet.

Under coach Art Briles, the Bears have become the Ducks of the Southwest, with their hurry-up, spread offense and myriad flashy uniforms closely resembling what Chip Kelly and then Mark Helfrich built at Oregon. The Bears and Ducks follow the same blueprint on offense: play fast and score fast.

We hoped to see this matchup in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl last season, but alas, it didn’t happen. Oregon and Baylor have never met on the gridiron.

4. Michigan vs. USC: Two of the sport’s traditional heavyweights have faced each other eight times in the Rose Bowl Game Presented by Vizio, but only twice during the regular season -- in 1957 and 1958.

The Trojans won the last three meetings in the Rose Bowl, 32-18 in 2007, 28-14 in 2004 and 17-10 in 1990. USC has won six of the past seven meetings overall and holds a 6-4 advantage all-time.

We might have seen this matchup during the regular season if a Big Ten/Pac-12 scheduling partnership hadn’t fallen apart in 2012.

5. Georgia vs. Florida State: UGA coach Mark Richt was a longtime assistant under legendary FSU coach Bobby Bowden before taking over the Bulldogs, and he recently poached defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt off the Seminoles’ staff.

The Bulldogs and Seminoles go head-to-head for a lot of recruits every year, and Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher upgraded his roster by effectively recruiting South Georgia and Atlanta.

The Bulldogs and Seminoles have played 11 times and only once since 1984 -- UGA defeated FSU 26-13 in the 2003 Sugar Bowl. Georgia leads the all-time series, 6-4-1.

Nonconference schedule analysis: Big Ten

September, 10, 2013
This week, is breaking down the nonconference schedules of each team in nine of the nation's top leagues. Next up: the Big Ten.


Toughest: at UNLV (Nov. 26), vs. Oregon (Dec. 14 in Portland, Ore.), vs. Missouri (Dec. 21 in St. Louis)
Next toughest: at Georgia Tech (Dec. 3)
The rest: Alabama State (Nov. 8), Jacksonville State (Nov. 10), Valparaiso (Nov. 13), Bradley (Nov. 17), Chicago State (Nov. 22), IPFW (Nov. 29), vs. Auburn (Dec. 8 in Atlanta), Dartmonth (Dec. 10), UIC (Dec. 28 in Chicago)

Toughness scale: 6 -- It's hard to really give the Illini a solid schedule grade, because it's hard to know just how good Illinois' best opponents really are. For example: It is never easy to win in the Thomas & Mack Center, but still-unproven center Khem Birch is the most certain thing about the Rebels' personnel in 2013-14; it looks like Dave Rice's team will be a quality road opponent, but impossible to make a guarantee to this effect. The same goes for Oregon and Missouri, both of whom should be solid at the very least, either of which could completely disappoint if their respective transfers don't pan out. A six feels fair to me, but it's an educated guess.


Toughest: 2K Sports Classic (Nov. 21-22), at Syracuse (Dec. 3), vs. Notre Dame (Dec. 14 in Indianapolis)
Next toughest: N/A?
The rest: Chicago State (Nov. 8), LIU Brooklyn (Nov. 12), Samford (Nov. 15), Stony Brook (Nov. 17), Evansville (Nov. 26), North Florida (Dec. 7), Oakland (Dec. 10), Nicholls State (Dec. 20), Kennesaw State (Dec. 22)

Toughness scale: 5 -- Two years since the collapse of its long-standing annual date with Kentucky, the Hoosiers have yet to find a home-and-home or even a neutral-court partnership to replace the strength they lost when the rivalry went awry. As such, Indiana's marquee nonconference games have been reduced to their participation in events: The 2K Sports Classic, where they'll play Washington and then either Boston College or Connecticut; the Crossroads Classic, where they'll play Notre Dame in front of a predominantly crimson crowd in downtown Indianapolis; and the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The good news, at least as it pertains to schedule strength, is that this season's ACC/Big Ten draw sends IU to Syracuse, where they'll face a rabid Orange crowd and another very good Jim Boeheim team just months removed from their season-ending loss to the Cuse in March.


Toughest: Battle 4 Atlantis (Nov. 28-30), Notre Dame (Dec. 3)
Next toughest: at Iowa State (Dec. 13)
The rest: UNC-Wilmington (Nov. 8), Nebraska-Omaha (Nov. 10), Maryland Eastern Shore (Nov. 14), Abilene Christian (Nov. 17), Penn (Nov. 22), vs. Drake (Dec. 7 in Des Moines, Iowa), Farleigh Dickinson (Dec. 9), Arkansas-Pine Bluff (Dec. 22)

Toughness scale: 6 -- Last season, the ahead-of-schedule Hawkeyes played some of the best defense in the Big Ten, finished top 20 in the Pomeroy adjusted efficiency rankings and made a deep run in the NIT. They were easily one of the best 60 teams in the country, but their nonconference schedule was so weak it precluded Fran McCaffery's squad from serious tournament consideration even as it played tight games with the best teams in the Big Ten every night. That shouldn't be as much of a problem this season, when Iowa will benefit from participation in the Battle 4 Atlantis (they'll face Xavier in the first round, and either Tennessee or UTEP in the second, maybe Kansas in the final?) and a much better opponent (Notre Dame) in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. They also get Iowa State -- which lost much of last season's excellent offensive group, but retained rising sophomore Georges Niang and that insane Hilton Coliseum home court -- in a quality true road fixture. This slate still isn't a murderers' row, but it shouldn't hold the Big Ten's most fashionable title sleeper back, either.


Toughest: Puerto Rico Tip-Off (Nov. 21-24), at Duke (Dec. 3), Arizona (Dec. 14)
Next toughest: at Iowa State (Nov. 17), vs. Stanford (Dec. 21 in Brooklyn)
The rest: UMass-Lowell (Nov. 8), South Carolina State (Nov. 12), Coppin State (Nov. 29), Houston Baptist (Dec. 7), Holy Cross (Dec. 28)

Toughness scale: 9 -- The 2012-13 national runners-up, and 2013-14 Big Ten co-favorites, will play a nonconference schedule befitting their newly elevated aspirations. The Puerto Rico Tip-Off, with VCU and Georgetown lurking, ranks among the best tournament events of November. The trip to Duke for the ACC/Big Ten needs little in the way of explanation. (Man, that is going to be a fun game.) The trip to Iowa State is no laughing matter, for reasons outlined in Iowa's blurb; the trip to Brooklyn to face defensive-minded Stanford will be a challenge, too. But the X factor in this schedule comes Dec. 14 when Sean Miller's loaded Arizona group arrives in Ann Arbor for a good old-fashioned campus nonconference tilt. Those kinds of games are rare in our modern, neutral court-dominated landscape, and neither program needed to schedule this one. But I'm happy to speak for most college basketball fans when I say how glad I am that they did.


Toughest: vs. Kentucky (Nov. 12 in Chicago), North Carolina (Dec. 4), vs. Georgetown (Feb. 1 in New York City)
Next toughest: Coaches vs. Cancer Classic (Nov. 22-23), at Texas (Dec. 21)
The rest: McNeese State (Nov. 8), Columbia (Nov. 15), Portland (Nov. 18), Mount St. Mary's (Nov. 29), Oakland (Dec. 14), North Florida (Dec. 17), New Orleans (Dec. 28)

Toughness scale: 8 -- Most of Michigan State's schedule strength is derived from that monster Champions Classic matchup with potential preseason No. 1 Kentucky, John Calipari's most laughably-loaded group of talented freshmen ever -- which, two years removed from the 2012's 38-2 national title run, is saying something. The Dec. 4 home date against North Carolina won't be easy, but if the Tar Heels are without leading scorer and noted rental car enthusiast P.J. Hairston, the Spartans will be obvious favorites in the Breslin Center. Best-case scenario in the Coaches vs. Cancer (a win over Virginia Tech and a matchup with Oklahoma) still isn't much. The real pivot point comes in late December at Texas. For much of the past decade, that has been a brutal road test having less to do with Texas' crowds (sleepy) than with its teams (defensively brutal). If Barnes' team rebounds from last season's struggles and gets back to its usual spot in the top third of the Big 12, Tom Izzo's schedule looks a good sight harder. If not, it really comes down to that Kentucky game -- and what a game it will be. (Update: My first dig into the Spartans' schedule missed their Feb. 1 Super Bowl Sunday game against Georgetown in Madison Square Garden. The Hoyas are a bit of an unknown quantity without Otto Porter, but that's almost guaranteed to be a tough win to come away with, so I bumped them from seven to eight.)


Toughest: Maui Invitational (Nov. 25-27),
Next toughest: at Richmond (Nov. 16), Florida State (Dec. 3)
The rest: Lehigh (Nov. 8), Montana (Nov. 12), Coastal Carolina (Nov. 19), Wofford (Nov. 21), New Orleans (Dec. 7), South Dakota State (Dec. 10), Nebraska-Omaha (Dec. 20), Texas A&M Corpus Christi (Dec. 28)

Toughness scale: 4 -- The Gophers have at least one true standout game on their schedule: Their first-round Maui Invitational matchup with Syracuse, the best the 2013 Maui field has to offer. Which is not to say their trip to Richmond will be easy; indeed, after an injury-plagued 2012-13 season, Chris Mooney's program looks ready to pop back into tourney-bid contention this season. But that's basically it, besides a decent second Maui game with either Arkansas or Cal. Without would-be freshmen Andrew Wiggins (who chose Kansas instead) and Xavier Rathan-Meyes (who chose FSU, but wasn't cleared academically by the NCAA), the Seminoles could be in for another sub-.500 campaign, and from there it's all home cupcakes befitting a transitioning group -- which, under first-year coach Richard Pitino, is exactly what the Gophers are.


Toughest: at Creighton (Dec. 8), at Cincinnati (Dec. 28)
Next toughest: Charleston Classic (Nov. 21-22)
The rest: Florida Gulf Coast (Nov. 8), Western Illinois (Nov. 12), South Carolina State (Nov. 17), Northern Illinois (Nov. 30), Miami (Dec. 4), Arkansas State (Dec. 14), The Citadel (Dec. 21)

Toughness scale: 5 -- The signs of second-year coach Tim Miles' tepid forward progress are evident not only in the impending opening of Nebraska's new $300 million arena, or in his signing of impressive New Zealand native Tai Webster (who will immediately be the Cornhuskers' best player when he takes the court against Dunk City in early November), but also in Nebraska's schedule. The Charleston Classic could yield a matchup with New Mexico (not to mention first-round opponent UMass), the Dec. 28 trip to Cincinnati is a perfectly respectable road trip, and Dec. 8's visit to Creighton -- the one program whose success can be said to have played a role in Nebraska's newfound commitment to hoops -- has a chance to put the Cornhuskers on the radar before Big Ten play commences. Miles & Co. are still a year or two away, but there are green shoots all over the place here, and the slightly improved schedule is just one more piece of evidence.


Toughest: Las Vegas Invitational (Nov. 28-29), at NC State (Dec. 4)
Next toughest: at Stanford (Nov. 14)
The rest: Eastern Illinois (Nov. 9), Illinois State (Nov. 17), UIC (Nov. 20), IUPUI (Nov. 22), Gardner-Webb (Nov. 25), Western Michigan (Dec. 7), Mississippi Valley State (Dec. 16), Brown (Dec. 22), DePaul (Dec. 27)

Toughness scale: 6 -- First-year coach Chris Collins is the first person to admit that his rebuilding project will be a multiyear affair. The immediate future will be just as challenging: Collins has to get a group of players recruited to play former coach Bill Carmody's very specific (some would say gimmicky) style to update their entire philosophy toward a modern and more conventional approach. But Collins does have some players at his disposal in Year 1 -- fifth-year medical redshirt Drew Crawford, post-suspension junior JerShon Cobb, promising sophomore center Alex Olah -- set to play a nonconference schedule that helpfully avoids the softness that plagued the Wildcats' nascent tournament hopes in recent seasons. Two true road noncon games at Stanford and NC State complement a solid pair of back-to-back fixtures (Missouri, UCLA) in the Las Vegas Invitational. The point of all this? Northwestern has the schedule to compete for a tournament bid in Year 1. Whether it will have the results to get there -- and make Collins a lionized, conquering hero in 12 months’ time -- will be fascinating to see.


Toughest: at Marquette (Nov. 16), vs. Notre Dame (Dec. 21 in New York City)
Next toughest: Maryland (Dec. 4)
The rest: Morgan State (Nov. 9), Ohio (Nov. 12), American (Nov. 20), Wyoming (Nov. 25), North Florida (Nov. 29), Central Connecticut State (Dec. 7), Bryant (Dec. 11), North Dakota State (Dec. 14), Delaware (Dec. 18), Louisiana-Monroe (Dec. 27)

Toughness scale: 4 -- Save a trip to Duke, the Buckeyes' early schedule in 2012 was so gentle as to make their quality difficult to gauge. It took until February, when Shannon Scott, Aaron Craft, Lenzelle Smith Jr. and Sam Thompson congealed into a monster on the defensive perimeter, for the Buckeyes took on the look of a national title contender. (And they would have gotten to the Final Four, too, if it wasn't for those meddling kids Wichita State Shockers.) This season's slate is a bit more difficult, but not too much; its main attraction is that early road trip to Marquette, where Buzz Williams has forged an annual Sweet 16 attendee. Even if Dez Wells and the Maryland Terrapins prove better than expected, it's hard to see how they can put enough points on the Buckeyes in Columbus to keep pace. Four seems about right.


Toughest: at Pittsburgh (Dec. 3)
Next toughest: La Salle (Nov. 19), Barclays Center Classic (Nov. 29-30 in Brooklyn, N.Y.)
The rest: Wagner (Nov. 9), Bucknell (Nov. 13), Longwood (Nov. 24), Monmouth (Nov. 26), Marshall (Dec. 7), Princeton (Dec. 14), Mount St. Mary's (Dec. 22)

Toughness scale: 4 -- Like Nebraska, Penn State's schedule is improved over recent seasons, and with D.J. Newbill returning and 2011-12's do-everything star Tim Frazier back from a season-ending Achilles tear, the Nittany Lions should improve along with it. It might be unfair to La Salle to keep them off that top line; the Explorers could still be a very dangerous team even without senior guard Ramon Galloway. The Barclays Center Classic offers a game against St. John's and a matchup with either Georgia Tech or Ole Miss, and putting a trip to Pittsburgh on the schedule doesn't only help coach Pat Chambers build his program's brand in a local recruiting zone, it also gives the Nittany Lions a real-deal road game against one of the nation's most consistent (and consistently RPI-friendly) programs.


Toughest: Old Spice Classic (Nov. 28-Dec. 1)
Next toughest: Boston College (Dec. 4), vs. Butler (Dec. 14 in Indianapolis), at West Virginia (Dec. 22)
The rest: Northern Kentucky (Nov. 8), Central Connecticut State (Nov. 13), Rider (Nov. 17), Eastern Illinois (Nov. 20), Siena (Nov. 24), Eastern Michigan (Dec. 7), Maryland Eastern Shore (Dec. 17)

Toughness scale: 5 -- The Boilermakers have one of those schedules that doesn't necessarily look great from this vantage point, but stands a reasonable chance of looking tougher and tougher as the season rolls on. How so? For starters, there's at least one really good game here -- the first-round Old Spice matchup with Oklahoma State and star point guard Marcus Smart. But a trip to West Virginia is never easy, and it's hard to imagine Bob Huggins' team repeating last season's monumental struggles. Boston College is a fringe ACC sleeper. And if Butler is better than most expect -- the Boilermakers could play the Bulldogs twice, if the two teams meet at the Old Spice in Orlando -- Matt Painter's team could benefit from a slate that proves better than the sum of its parts.


Toughest: Florida (Nov. 12), at Virginia (Dec. 4), Marquette (Dec. 7)
Next toughest: Cancun Challenge (Nov. 26-27), vs. St. John's (Nov. 8 in Sioux Falls, S.D.)
The rest: at Green Bay (Nov. 16), North Dakota (Nov. 19), Bowling Green (Nov. 21), Oral Roberts (Nov. 23), Milwaukee (Dec. 11), Eastern Kentucky (Dec. 14), Prairie View A&M (Dec. 28)

Toughness scale: 9 -- The Badgers' schedule is tough enough in the abstract. It's even tougher when you consider how quickly Bo Ryan will throw his team into the fire. The geographically baffling season opener against St. John's in Sioux Falls is one thing, but that game is followed by a visit from Florida just four days later. In late November, the Badgers will be the likely favorite in the two-game Cancun Challenge, but will have to get by both Saint Louis and (probably) West Virginia to come away with two wins. Then it's off to Charlottesville for a revenge game against Virginia, just three days before Marquette comes to the Kohl Center for another edition of Wisconsin's best basketball rivalry. Merely listing these games out doesn't quite do the schedule justice. You need to see the chronology to get the full, brutal picture.

Correction: An earlier version of this post substituted Temple coach Fran Dunphy for Iowa coach Fran McCaffery. It also neglected to list Michigan State's Feb. 1 game vs. Georgetown in Madison Square Garden, which is a pretty awesome game. Eamonn regrets the errors, and is now atoning via self-flagellation.

Rapid Reaction: Michigan 71, Illinois 58

February, 24, 2013

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- A few quick thoughts from Michigan's 71-58 victory over Illinois.

Overview: Call him a Renaissance Man. In Sunday's win over Illinois, Michigan sophomore Trey Burke hit the 1,000-point scoring mark by varying it up for the Wolverines. A steal and layup, here. A finger roll, there. A deep 3 for good measure. Some fast breaks. And why not a pair of free throws?

Burke was the obvious highlight -- in what was mostly a sloppy game -- becoming just the seventh true sophomore at UM to hit the 1,000-point mark, joining the likes of Jalen Rose, Phil Hubbard and Chris Webber.

But here are some other thoughts on the Wolverines’ late surging win over Illinois.

Turning point: With a slim three-point lead and just less than 16 minutes left in the second half, Jordan Morgan made a no-look pass to Glenn Robinson, who threw down a dirty dunk, energizing a near dead Crisler Center. During the following timeout, for the first time during the game, Michigan looked relaxed, exchanging high fives. But Robinson then followed that up with yet another dunk, extending the Wolverines’ lead to seven. From there, it remained close, but UM controlled the game better, and finished out with a win.

Key player: Burke, as always, proved vital for the Wolverines’ success. Following his 1,000th point (which came on a free throw), he didn’t even react. It was business as usual as the sophomore finished with a game-high 26 points, eight assists and just one turnover.

Key stat: 16:30 -- The amount of time that passed before Michigan even took a lead over Illinois. The following three and a half minutes were nothing spectacular, and UI would take the lead going into halftime. But it was an especially sloppy stretch for Michigan. The usually strong 3-point shooting team made just two attempts from behind the arc in the first half (29 percent) and only made it to the free throw line three times, putting together a frustrating half everywhere on the floor. Combine that with their six turnovers, and it was a 16:30 that John Beilein will be glad to forget.

Miscellaneous: Michigan improved to 16-0 at home this season with its fifth-straight win over the Illini. … Freshman center Mitch McGary picked up his second career start. He finished with 6 points, 3 rebounds and a block. … Brandon Paul, who averages 16 points per game, was held to 10 and forced into four turnovers while dishing out just one assist.

Next game: The Wolverines close out the conference schedule with two less-threatening road games at Purdue and Penn State, but their two weekends at home with Michigan State and Indiana will provide plenty of excitement. Illinois heads home for a matchup with Nebraska, its last home game of the season.

Big Ten roundtable: Four big questions

January, 23, 2013
The Big Ten is the subject of today's King Court and the CBB Live Extra video, so we decided to have our writers answer a few questions on the nation's top conference.

Among the Big Ten’s title contenders, which one is best built for a deep March run?

[+] EnlargeMichigan's Trey Burke
Brad Penner/USA TODAY SportsWill point guard Trey Burke be the difference for Michigan when the tournaments begin?
Eamonn Brennan: You're really going to make me answer this, huh? Fine: Michigan. Er, Indiana. No, Michigan. No, Indiana. Why are you doing this to me? Here's the thing: Right now, the Wolverines look like the better team. Quite possibly, they are. They are athletic and versatile and incredibly good on the offensive end, and they're led by the best point guard in the country in Trey Burke, who reminds of the cool confidence of Chris Paul more and more every time I watch him play. But Michigan is still just the 39th-best defense in the country, per, and traditionally that kind of D makes it hard to make a deep tournament run. Meanwhile, IU is not only playing top-five offense, but top-15 defense, too. But the Hoosiers have recently allowed a score of opponents to crawl back into games, and have shown themselves not only vulnerable, but even rattled, down the stretch at home and on the road. My head tells me the answer to this question is Indiana. My gut tells me Michigan. Does one of them have to be wrong?

How many losses will the Big Ten champion have -- and who will be that champion?

Myron Medcalf: The Big Ten is the most competitive conference in America. Just check out the past week’s sequence of events. Wisconsin won at Indiana and then lost at Iowa. The Hawkeyes followed that victory with a 72-63 loss at Ohio State. At one point, Iowa was down by 23 points in that game. There’s so much quality and parity in this league that I can’t see the eventual champ earning the Big Ten title without four losses. I think 14-4 will win the conference. With everything that’s transpired, it’s difficult to envision the schools with one loss (Michigan, Michigan State and Indiana) escaping with fewer than three more losses in conference play, because the next tier (Ohio State, Minnesota and Wisconsin) has already knocked off every team in that group.

As for the second question, I believe Michigan will ultimately win the championship for reasons that aren’t all quantifiable. Yes, the Wolverines are first in adjusted offensive efficiency and 39th in adjusted defensive efficiency. But they also have the best player in the country, Trey Burke, running the show. He’s going to lead them to the title by elevating his play in UM’s toughest games. But I’d like 24 hours to reconsider this choice.

What have you been most surprised by in the Big Ten this season?

Andy Katz: I knew Michigan had the potential to be an elite team, but had no idea the Wolverines had the makeup to win the national title. The backcourt of Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. is truly exceptional. This duo can definitely lead the Wolverines to the title if they get the right amount of help from the post. Freshman Mitch McGary is getting to be more effective with each passing game. Michigan has also fully bought into John Beilein's system. He truly is enjoying this team, maybe as much as if not more than any other he has coached. You can tell how much he can't wait to teach them the nuances of his system, enhance their fundamentals and tinker during the game to ensure a victory.

Will Illinois turn it back around, or was the first month a bit fluky?

Scott Powers: Illinois has been like a knuckleball this season. At times, the Illini have been untouchable -- in blowouts against Butler and Ohio State and a rare win at Gonzaga. Other times, the Illini have been knocked around no matter the opponent. I believe somewhere in the middle the true Illinois team lies. The Illini are tough when they shoot well outside, and they possess some individual talent, but their rebounding is shaky and their depth is minimal at some positions. They’re not a top-tier Big Ten team, but they also aren’t a bottom-tier one. They’ve undoubtedly dug themselves a hole with a 2-4 start in conference play, and it doesn’t help that their next two games are hosting Michigan and at Michigan State. Yet in the end, I predict Illinois will turn itself around just enough to finish .500 in the conference and put itself in the NCAA tournament discussion.

Burke coolly leads title contender Michigan

January, 3, 2013

EVANSTON, Ill. -- In the offseason, Trey Burke told the media he thought the Wolverines were national title contenders.

At the time, it seemed like a stretch. There were questions worth asking: How good were the freshmen? Would the Wolverines defend? Could they really get to that next, almost imperceptible level -- where elite college hoops teams reside?

By now, it's long since official: Burke was right.

Of course, if you needed the confirmation of a 94-66 blowout at Northwestern, you probably haven't been paying attention. It's not so much that Michigan won its Big Ten road opener against a banged-up, overmatched Wildcats team in a split Welsh-Ryan Arena Thursday night. It was the manner with which the Wolverines so coolly and clinically dissected said overmatched Northwestern, the way Burke took the game over early, the way he got the Wolverines their 10-0 lead, the way he and his teammates kept pushing the pace and stretching the lead and pouring it on, the way they immediately and constantly snuffed out any and all thought of a nascent Wildcats comeback.

And it was the way the Wolverines -- starting with Burke -- all calmly shrugged the whole thing off.

"We came out, we made the right plays, and we got good shots," Burke said. "That was our goal, to come in and try to make a statement from the get-go. It's our first Big Ten game."

Burke said the Wolverines knew Northwestern guard Reggie Hearn would miss the game, and that his loss alongside guard Drew Crawford's, would make things easier for Michigan, even if he refused to acknowledge it before or after the game.

"We have to keep that attitude where guys are still doubting us," Burke said. "We can't go into a game thinking we're just going to blow a team out."

Of course, that's exactly what the Wolverines did, buoyed by a return from previously injured guard Tim Hardaway Jr., who returned from an ankle injury that kept him out of action against Central Michigan Saturday to score 21 points in 31 minutes. When Hardaway's shots started falling early -- after Burke had already crossed up Northwestern's hapless defense with noticeable, Chris Paul-esque ease -- Hardaway's hot shooting was a harbinger for the rest of the night.

By the time it was over, Michigan had shot 34-of-57 (60 percent) from the field and 13-of-22 (59 percent) from beyond the arc, and scored 1.4 points per possession on the road in their Big Ten opener.

Any way you slice it -- bad Northwestern team or no -- a 28-point road win in your Big Ten opener is some kind of statement.

"We're still trying to make believers out of a lot of people," Burke said.

Rapid Reaction: Michigan 94, N'western 66

January, 3, 2013

Some quick thoughts on Michigan's wire-to-wire 94-66 drubbing of Northwestern Thursday night:

Overview: Northwestern never had a chance. Any version of this Wildcats team -- even one at full strength, with injured stars Reggie Hearn and Drew Crawford or long-since-suspended JerShon Cobb -- would have had a brutally difficult task keeping this Michigan team from scoring at will Thursday night. But that's not the current Northwestern team. Missing all those players, with an undersized backcourt and little besides Alex Olah in the paint, the Wildcats were obviously overmatched. Michigan opened up a huge early lead and never looked back -- oozing confidence all the way through.

Turning Point: The opening tip. That sounds like a joke, but it really isn't: Michigan went up 10-0 by the 16:48 mark -- Trey Burke had seven of those points, including two ankle-breaking moves (one that led to an open 3, one that left poor Dave Sobolewski in the dust) -- and genuinely never looked remotely like losing control of the game from there. The lead was 33-13 at the 10-minute mark, and 51-30 at halftime. In recent seasons, at something like full strength, Northwestern has been at best a foil and at worst a tough out for the Wolverines in Welsh-Ryan. That wasn't the case Thursday night.

Key Player: Trey Burke. Michigan had a handful of impressive performances. Tim Hardaway, Jr. returned from injury on point from the perimeter. Nik Stauskas shot well (as usual) and put the ball on the deck enough to keep defenders honest. Mitch McGary finished with eight boards, and showcased a little open-floor defensive work with an early steal and fast-break dunk. But Burke was the one worth the price of admission. He was in control of the game the entire time -- see the aforementioned opening burst, or his 15-point, 6-for-10 first half performance -- but more than anything it was the way he handled the game. Nothing was rushed, nothing was difficult, and nothing was beyond his control. The Wildcats were unable to put up much of a fight, but I don't care: Burke makes it all look way too easy.

Key Stat: In the first half, the Wolverines finished 21-of-36 from the field and 8-of-13 from from beyond the arc. And then it was over. Good luck defending that.

Miscellaneous: Welsh-Ryan Arena has a pretty great little basketball ambiance; its size makes it intimate, and its age helps it feel vaguely old school. But that purple court is every bit as bad as it looks on TV. (My Twitter replies seemed torn on whether it was drawn with colored pencils or markers. Your mileage may vary.) ... Northwestern had a rough night at the office -- the highlight was definitely when the school introduced football coach Pat Fitzgerald, fresh off a 10-win season, as the "best college football coach in the country," which made visions of a displeased Nick Saban dance in my head -- but freshman center Alex Olah was a bright spot. For a guy who only the most hardcore recruitniks had heard of before he signed with NU, Olah looks like much less of a project than he should be. His ball control could be better, but he has a fledgling hook shot over both shoulders, and he moves well (and intelligently) without the ball. He's a keeper.

Saddle Up: Big Ten, Pac-12 in action

January, 3, 2013
Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action. It is glad its neighbors don't participate in this tradition.

No. 2 Michigan at Northwestern, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2: Winning on the road in the Big Ten is (almost) never easy, and the Wolverines will be missing star off guard Tim Hardaway Jr.

Northwestern's Welsh-Ryan Arena can be a tricky place to play, even if your fans make up half of the crowd. Michigan's strength is offense, and offense can occasionally abandon you on the road.

I could probably go on like this for a little while, listing off all the reasons why Michigan could lose at Northwestern tonight. And you know what? Yeah. Sure. Maybe. It could happen. But I sincerely doubt it will.

Were Michigan traveling to Welsh-Ryan to play a Northwestern team that included Drew Crawford (who suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in December), JerShon Cobb (who was suspended for the season this fall) or even Reggie Hearn (who is likely to miss Thursday night's game with an injury), then this game might be a legitimately scary one for Michigan fans. With Crawford and Hearn, as well as some solid big-man play from Louisville transfer Jared Swopshire and impressive 7-foot freshman Alex Olah, Northwestern was playing pretty well to start the season. With Cobb, this team might have been the one.

Alas, that always seems to be the talk in Evanston -- if only X were true! The Wildcats team that Northwestern fans are faced with is considerably undermanned on both sides of the ball but particularly on defense, where Michigan plays some of the sweetest and most efficient hoop in the country.

Even without Hardaway -- who cooled off a bit after he scored 18.3 ppg in three straight November wins over Pitt, Kansas State and NC State -- the Wolverines offense features the nation's best shooter, freshman Nik Stauskus, great size and depth with Jordan Morgan and Mitch McGary and the immense athleticism of freshman Glenn Robinson III, whose offensive rating of 129.1 (on 18.1 percent usage) is outstripped only by Trey Burke's (133.5, 27.1 percent) and Stauskus, who makes everything (136.7, 17.1 percent).

Burke is smart, hard-charging, Big Ten-tested and totally capable, and he leads the most talented group of players John Beilein has ever coached. The offensive result is a joy to watch.

Colorado at No. 3 Arizona, 8 p.m. ET, ESPNU: ESPN Insider's John Gasaway was tasked with discussing the Oklahoma State Cowboys, whose resurgence has been timed perfectly with the emergence of a Big 12 that, other than Kansas, looks anywhere from mediocre to downright bad. At the risk of giving up too much of our Insider content -- pony up, kids! -- one of John's points not only applies to Oklahoma State but to Arizona too. Under "Don't apologize for your 'down' league, dominate it," John writes:

The Cowboys' resurgence comes at a time when the non-Kansas Big 12 looks about as weak as we've seen for a good long while, at least on paper. But how much weight does that paper really carry when it comes to actual games? Good question. Note for example that in recent years the Pac-12 has tended to sport a very bad conference-wide number for average team strength, and I've been quick to mount what might be called the "Hey, it's not Washington's or Cal's fault the Pac-12 commissioner added Utah for football" defense. In other words, one or two unusually bad teams can bring down a whole league's "average" strength.

This was half of the problem with the Pac-12 last season, the year in which it became the first power six league to crown a regular-season champion that was not awarded an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. That statistic, embarrassing as it may be, came about because A) the Pac-12 didn't beat anyone in the nonconference season, and B) by the time its best teams needed NCAA bubble help, there was nothing to distinguish the regular-season champ. The whole season was a big pile of blah salad.

That will not be the case in the Pac-12 this season. Stanford and Cal are decent teams. Colorado, UCLA and Oregon have Top-25 potential, and if UCLA ever figures out how to play a lick of defense with its talent, it could still prove scary good.

Then there's Arizona. The Wildcats appear to be a bona fide national title contender. You can cast doubt because the important wins have been so very close -- beating both San Diego State and Florida on the final possession of the game -- but when you consider the fact that Arizona went ahead and won those games despite being so young and so reliant on a transfer point guard (Mark Lyons), well, I don't care how tight those wins were. They were wins, and they hint at a potential that only a handful of teams across the country can look to match.

That is how the Pac-12 is different this season. Not only are there more good teams, there is at least one with a shot to cut down the nets in March. Arizona doesn't have the 2012 Pac-12 to apologize for anymore; tonight's matchup with a good Colorado team is no walk in the park, and if the Buffaloes spring the upset, that will say as much about Tad Boyle's team as Sean Miller's. The Wildcats don't need that excuse, anyway. They just need to dominate.

Elsewhere: UCLA begins conference play by hosting Cal. Let's see if the Bruins have figured out how to guard opposing guards yet, because Cal's Allen Crabbe is one of the conference's best (20.9 ppg). … The other Pac-12 game is Stanford at USC. Remember when Kevin O'Neill sold his USC team as a potential tournament squad? That was fun. His team is now 5-8 with losses to Nebraska, UC Irvine and Georgia. But hey, at least USC football is in good hands. … The truly good mid-major stuff is at a minimum Thursday night, but Fairfield's trip to Canisius -- the same Canisius team that won at Temple a few days before Temple beat Syracuse on the road -- is an interesting one. (That Canisius-Temple-Syracuse thing is going to lead us down some truly awesome transitive property rabbit holes by the time the season is over. Just you wait.)

Week 11 college football preview

November, 9, 2012

No. 24 Northwestern (7-2) at Michigan (6-3)

When, where:11 a.m. Saturday at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Radio: WGN-720 AM

NorthwesternMichiganWhat you need to know: What everyone wants to know is whether Michigan star quarterback Denard Robinson is going to play. Wolverines coach Brady Hoke has been quiet on Robinson's status. Robinson missed last week's game due to right elbow injury. In his place, junior Devin Gardner led Michigan to a 35-13 win over Minnesota. Northwestern has had plenty of time to prepare for either quarterback as the Wildcats had last weekend off. Northwestern is coming off a win over Iowa. The Wildcats last played at Michigan in 2008 and won 21-14. Northwestern running back Venric Mark and kicker Jeff Budzien were named semifinalists for positional awards this week. Northwestern needs to win this game to keep in the hunt for the division title.
Scott Powers' prediction: Michigan 34, Northwestern 27

Minnesota (5-4) at Illinois (2-7)

When, where: 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Ill.
TV: Big Ten Network
Radio: WIND-560 AM
MinnesotaIllinoisWhat you need to know: Illinois has a shot to win its first Big Ten game this season. The Illini are riding a six-game losing streak and have been outscored 246-84 during that stretch. Minnesota has only been slightly better. The Golden Gophers are 1-4 in conference with their only win coming against Purdue, which Illinois faces next week. Minnesota's defense also had its problems this season, so Saturday's game could be a high-scoring affair. Illinois senior Ashante Williams has been a bright spot for the defense and has scored two touchdowns this season. Minnesota holds a four-game winning streak on Illinois.
Scott Powers' prediction: Minnesota 31, Illinois 24

Instant Analysis: Michigan 45, Illinois 0

October, 13, 2012

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Michigan put the finishing touches on a 45-0 blowout of Illinois, the Wolverines' first shutout since playing Minnesota last season.

Not a lot went right for Illinois, including losing quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase for the game due to injury in the second quarter, while the Wolverines continued to improve defensively for the third straight game.

It was over when: Denard Robinson returned to the game from injury in the second quarter. Robinson was briefly knocked from the game, but he returned and led Michigan on a drive culminating in a 6-yard touchdown run to give the Wolverines a 17-0 lead. Illinois, which had lost Scheelhaase, never threatened after that.

Game ball goes to: Michigan linebacker Jake Ryan. The redshirt sophomore tied a career high with 11 tackles, including 3.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble. He also pressure Illinois’ quarterbacks all day and was a constant presence everywhere for the Wolverines defense.

Stat of the game: 11.6 yards per carry. That was all it took for Robinson on Saturday. He scored two rushing touchdowns to tie Mike Hart for third on Michigan’s career rushing touchdown ledger with 41.

Record performance: Again from Robinson, who passed the 10,000-yard barrier for yards gained with his 49-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. Halfway through his senior season, Robinson has 10,065 career yards. He was the eighth player in Big Ten history to pass the 10,000-yard mark.

What it means: In a mediocre season for the Big Ten, Illinois is proving to be one of the league’s worst teams. It still has not lost a game by fewer than 17 points. Michigan, meanwhile, continued to prove it might be the league’s second-best team after Ohio State, meaning the Wolverines could be the league’s best bowl-eligible team this season. Michigan’s defense has also held teams under 14 points in its past four games.

Nonconference schedule analysis: Big Ten

October, 11, 2012
This week, is breaking down the nonconference schedules of each and every team in a dozen of the nation's top leagues. On Monday, we began in the South with the ACC, SEC and Conference USA. On Tuesday, we focused on the East with the Atlantic 10, Big East and Colonial Athletic Association. Wednesday was all about the West with the Mountain West, Pac-12 and West Coast Conference. Today we focus on the Midwest with the Big Ten, Big 12, Missouri Valley and the best of the rest.


Toughest: Maui Invitational (Nov. 19-21), at Gonzaga (Dec. 8) vs. Missouri (Dec. 22 in St. Louis)
Next-toughest: Georgia Tech (Nov. 28)
The rest: Colgate (Nov. 9), St. Francis-NY (Nov. 12), at Hawaii (Nov. 16), Gardner-Webb (Nov. 25), Western Carolina (Dec. 4), Norfolk State (Dec. 11), Eastern Kentucky (Dec. 16), Auburn (Dec. 29 in Chicago)
Toughness scale (1-10): 7 -- The first season of new coach John Groce's tenure kicks off with a pretty standard Illinois schedule, but with a twist -- it isn't often the Illini have chosen to play buzzsaw road games quite like their date at Gonzaga on Dec. 8. And the Maui Invitational is a nice field, too, one that begins with USC and features Texas, North Carolina, Butler and Marquette as possible opponents.


Toughest: Legends Classic (Nov. 19-20 in Brooklyn, N.Y.), North Carolina (Nov. 27)
Next-toughest: Butler (Dec. 15 in Indianapolis)
The rest: North Dakota State (Nov. 12), Sam Houston State (Nov. 15), Ball State (Nov. 25), Coppin State (Dec. 1), Central Connecticut State (Dec. 8), Mount St. Mary's (Dec. 19), Florida Atlantic (Dec. 21), Jacksonville (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- If Indiana prevails over first-round opponent Georgia at the Legends Classic, it will face either UCLA or Georgetown -- both of which would be quality neutral-site opponents. But because the Crossroads Classic is in friendly territory, and the ACC-Big Ten Challenge brings North Carolina to Bloomington, the Hoosiers' nonconference schedule sets up the likely preseason No. 1 with a very plausible path to an undefeated pre-New Year's record.


Toughest: Iowa State (Dec. 7), Northern Iowa (Dec. 15 in Des Moines)
Next-toughest: Cancun Challenge (Nov. 20-21 in Cancun, Mexico), at Virginia Tech (Nov. 27)
The rest: Texas-Pan American (Nov. 9), Central Michigan (Nov. 12), Howard (Nov. 15), Gardner-Webb (Nov. 17), Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (Dec. 1), South Dakota (Dec. 4), South Carolina State (Dec. 19), Coppin State (Dec. 22)
Toughness scale (1-10): 3 -- The emergence of Iowa State and a neutral-site game with Northern Iowa provide nice dates, but the Cancun Challenge's best teams are DePaul and a rebuilding Wichita State, and Virginia Tech was hollowed out in the wake of coach Seth Greenberg's offseason firing. There's simply not a lot here.


Toughest: NIT Season Tip-Off (Nov. 12-20 in Ann Arbor, Nov. 21-23 in New York), NC State (Nov. 27)
Next-toughest: Arkansas (Dec. 8), West Virginia (Dec. 15 in Brooklyn, N.Y.)
The rest: Slippery Rock (Nov. 9), at Bradley (Dec. 1), Western Michigan (Dec. 4), Binghamton (Dec. 11), Eastern Michigan (Dec. 20), Central Michigan (Dec. 29)
Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- The NIT Season Tip-Off comprises early-round games against mid-majors at the Crisler Center before presumably taking its show -- which will offer some combination of games against Virginia, Kansas State and/or Pittsburgh -- to Madison Square Garden. There are quality opponents available there, and both West Virginia and Arkansas will present challenges, but other than NC State in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, there are no elite teams on this projected title contender's docket. Good schedule, not great.


Toughest: vs. Connecticut (Nov. 9 at Ramstein Air Base, Germany), vs. Kansas (Nov. 13 in Atlanta)
Next-toughest: at Miami (Nov. 28), Texas (Dec. 22)
The rest: Texas Southern (Nov. 18), Boise State (Nov. 20), Oakland (Nov. 23), Louisiana-Lafayette (Nov. 25), Nicholls State (Dec. 1), Arkansas Pine-Bluff (Dec. 5), Loyola-Chicago (Dec. 8), Tuskegee (Dec. 15), at Bowling Green (Dec. 18)
Toughness scale (1-10): 8 -- Connecticut might not be Connecticut this season, but playing on an air base in Germany is never going to be easy -- especially when you follow it up four days later with a game against Kansas in Atlanta. Talk about travel. The ACC-Big Ten game at Miami is no slouch either, and Texas will be improved when it comes to East Lansing.


Toughest: Battle 4 Atlantis (Nov. 22-24 in Bahamas), at Florida State (Nov. 27)
Next-toughest: at USC (Dec. 8)
The rest: American (Nov. 9), Toledo (Nov. 12), Tennessee State (Nov. 15), Richmond (Nov. 18 in St. Paul, Minn.), North Florida (Dec. 1), South Dakota State (Dec. 4), North Dakota State (Dec. 11), Lafayette (Dec. 22)
Toughness scale (1-10): 9 -- From Nov. 22 to Nov. 27, there are few teams in the country with a schedule as tough as Minnesota's. The Battle 4 Atlantis is this season's premier tournament. Minnesota will play Duke, then Memphis or Virginia Commonwealth, and some combination of Louisville, Missouri, Northern Iowa and Stanford just a few days before stopping off at Florida State for the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Harsh stuff -- and a trip to USC in December is no cakewalk, either.


Toughest: Creighton (Dec. 6), at Oregon (Dec. 15)
Next-toughest: Valparaiso (Nov. 15), at Wake Forest (Nov. 27), USC (Dec. 3)
The rest: Southern (Nov. 11), Nebraska-Omaha (Nov. 18), Tulane (Nov. 21), Kent State (Nov. 24), Jacksonville State (Dec. 18), Sun Bowl Invitational (Dec. 22-23), Nicholls State (Dec. 29)
Toughness scale (1-10): 3 -- The only marquee opponent on this schedule is Creighton, and Nebraska is lucky enough to get Doug McDermott and Co. at home (even if a number of Jays fans are likely to invade Lincoln). A trip to Oregon won't be easy, but when your next-toughest games are home dates with Valpo and USC, your schedule isn't going to rate that highly. And in a rebuilding year, that's OK.


Toughest: at Baylor (Dec. 4)
Next-toughest: Maryland (Nov. 27), Butler (Dec. 8), Stanford (Dec. 21)
The rest: Texas Southern (Nov. 13), Mississippi Valley State (Nov. 15), Fairleigh Dickinson (Nov. 18), Delaware State (Nov. 20), South Padre Island Invitational (Nov. 23-24), Illinois-Chicago (Dec. 1), Texas State (Dec. 17), Brown (Dec. 23)
Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- Northwestern's only road test before conference play comes at Baylor, and it will be a significant test. But the other highlights are limited to good-but-not-great teams, all of which come to Evanston. This isn't as bad as some of Northwestern's recent schedules, but it isn't among the toughest in the Big Ten.


Toughest: Marquette (Nov. 9 in Charleston, S.C.), at Duke (Nov. 28), Kansas (Dec. 22)
Next-toughest: Hall of Fame Tip-Off (Nov. 17-18 in Uncasville, Conn.)
The rest: Alabany (Nov. 11), UMKC (Nov. 13), Northern Kentucky (Dec. 1), Long Beach State (Dec. 8), Savannah State (Dec. 12), UNC Asheville (Dec. 15), Winthrop (Dec. 18), Chicago State (Dec. 29)
Toughness scale (1-10): 9 -- The Marquette game will be on board an aircraft carrier, and you never know what'll happen on one of those things. Combine that with a trip to Duke in the Challenge (the Blue Devils will surely be looking for revenge for last season's smackdown in Columbus) and a home date with Kansas, and the end result is a pretty strong schedule, all things considered.


Toughest: Puerto Rico Tip-Off (Nov. 15-18)
Next-toughest: vs. La Salle (Dec. 5 at the Palestra)
The rest: St. Francis-Penn. (Nov. 9), Bucknell (Nov. 23), Boston College (Nov. 28), Penn (Dec. 1), Army (Dec. 8), Delaware (Dec. 15), New Hampshire (Dec. 23), Duquesne (Dec. 29)
Toughness scale (1-10): 3 -- I thought about going lower, but the Nittany Lions get a little toughness scale boost for a couple of reasons. For one, the Puerto Rico Tip-Off bracket has Tim Frazier and Co. taking on NC State in the first round. For another, this team is still very much in the throes of rebuilding, at a school where the athletics programs have faced (and are facing) some of the most dire times in NCAA history. A so-so schedule is forgiveable, I'd say.


Toughest: 2K Sports Classic (Nov. 15-16 in New York), vs. Notre Dame (Dec. 15 in Indianapolis)
Next-toughest: at Clemson (Nov. 28), Xavier (Dec. 1)
The rest: Bucknell (Nov. 9), Hofstra (Nov. 11), UNC-Wilmington (Nov. 21), Lamar (Dec. 4), at Eastern Michigan (Dec. 8), Ball State (Dec. 18), William & Mary (Dec. 29)
Toughness scale (1-10): 5 -- The 2K Sports Classic features a game vs. Villanova and either Alabama or Oregon State. And the neutral-court Crossroads Classic matchup with Notre Dame is going to be a tough one. But with Xavier being down for this return home-and-home trip, and Clemson rebuilding under Brad Brownell, the schedule doesn't have much of an edge to it. It's merely OK.


Toughest: at Florida (Nov. 14), Las Vegas Invitational (Nov. 23-24), at Marquette (Dec. 8)
Next-toughest: Virginia (Nov. 28), Cal (Dec. 2)
The rest: Southeastern Louisiana (Nov. 11), Cornell (Nov. 18), Presbyterian (Nov. 20), Nebraska-Omaha (Dec. 4), Green Bay (Dec. 12), Milwaukee (Dec. 22), Samford (Dec. 29)
Toughness scale (1-10): 9 -- Now this is a tough schedule. It features road trips to Florida and Marquette (plenty of Badgers fans will be in the building Dec. 8, but still), as well as the Las Vegas Invitational, which offers an opening-round game against Creighton and a possible matchup against Arkansas. Virginia and California are solid opponents, while Milwaukee and Green Bay are nothing to overlook. But the real strength of the slate comes in those road tests, which many of the Big Ten's top schedules can't boast.

For Davie, Weis, goal remains the same

August, 15, 2012
Bob Davie and Charlie WeisAP PhotoBob Davie, left, is taking over a 1-11 New Mexico team; Charlie Weis inherited a 2-10 Kansas squad.

Bob Davie's and Charlie Weis' finales were one and the same, the broadcaster and the Florida assistant joking before the Gators' senior-night loss to Florida State last November.

Davie was barely a week into his new job, Weis was closing his first regular season in Gainesville, and here they were, chatting it up on sidelines of the Swamp, the nexus between the coaches on the verge of tightening once more.

"We were down there laughing a little bit, and all of a sudden a couple weeks later he's the head coach at Kansas," Davie, now New Mexico's head coach, said of Weis.

Act II for the former Notre Dame head coaches is underway this month, each scaling a precipice steeper than Touchdown Jesus, sans all the ballyhoo. Each has embraced his new locale, where the records that cost them their first head-coaching jobs would be cause for celebration.

The tasks, however, remain the same.

"I want to win," Weis said. "That is what I want. I want to win. I want this team to win. They haven't been winning -- that is what I want to do, win. The more wins, the happier I am.

"It puts a big damper on things, when things don't go well. I want to get this program where we are winning more than we are losing. I think when we get to that point, then we will aim even higher, but let's get to that point first."

Davie has admitted to being more comfortable in his own skin his second time around, no longer feeling the need to over-prepare or rehearse on a daily basis.

"At the end of the day, it's all the same process," Davie said. "The process for me at New Mexico is no different than it was at Notre Dame, and Notre Dame is no different than anywhere else -- coach the football team. It's all the same thing.

"Don't get so tied up in, 'Oh, we've always done it this way. We've always done it that way.' Let it rip, man."

It will be easier said than done for the two. The Lobos are coming off three consecutive 1-11 seasons that were notable for former head coach Mike Locksley's off-field troubles, and they could be 10 scholarships short of the 85-man limit this season. The Jayhawks, Orange Bowl winners just five years ago, have gone 18-31 in the four years since, with Mark Mangino and Turner Gill losing their jobs along the way.

Each school was projected last at Mountain West and Big 12 media days, respectively.

Weis will have a familiar leader in Lawrence, having landed one of his biggest recruiting coups from Notre Dame in quarterback Dayne Crist. The transfer, who started the Irish's past two openers but was plagued by injuries and a crowded position unit, said fans on the Big 12's most basketball-centric campus will come out so long as the production is there on the field.

"There's a great deal of excitement," said Crist, who is joined by former Irish teammates and Weis recruits Mike Ragone and Anthony McDonald. "The fans are very encouraged with what they've been seeing, and you can tell that it's just a fan base that's very eager to win. It hasn't been too long ago when they were in the Orange Bowl and things like that, so fans are ready to cheer for the football team. We just have to give them a reason to."

Ten years as an ESPN analyst gave Davie access he otherwise would have never had. Shortly after playing Michigan and USC, he recalled, he was meeting with coaches Lloyd Carr and Pete Carroll, getting up-close looks at how their programs operate.

[+] EnlargeCharlie Weis, Dayne Crist
William Purnell/Icon SMIFor his new gig at Kansas, Charlie Weis, rear, brought along former Irish QB Dayne Crist.
"You go from, you're lucky to even share a handshake, to all of a sudden you're sitting in their office watching them practice," Davie said. "So that was a tremendous opportunity to get out and do those things. But there's nothing like actually coaching. You can analyze things and comment, [but] the great part of coaching is you're actually doing it, and there's just nothing like that.

"I can still smell the grass at Notre Dame Stadium, what it felt like on Saturdays, and that never goes away. You always have that -- the simple things that are hard to explain."

In taking over at Albuquerque, where nearly half a century has passed without a conference title, the 57-year-old Davie is hoping to replicate some of the rebuilding jobs he has seen on the road over the past decade. Bill Snyder's resurrection of Kansas State -- the losingest program in FBS history upon his arrival 23 years ago -- has particularly served as inspiration.

"Just seeing -- and I'm not saying I'm Bill Snyder or saying I can ever do a job like he's done or be the coach that he is -- but just going around the country seeing different programs, to see what Bill Snyder has brought to a Kansas State, for example, is something to me that's tremendously rewarding and tremendously fulfilling, to try to do something like that," he said. "I've been to Manhattan, Kan., done games there. To me, that's what's fun. It's fun to really take a place and put your name on it, try to build it. I'm not saying we can do that but that's kind of the mission."

In late October 2001, just more than a month before being fired by Notre Dame after a 35-25 record over five seasons, Davie and his family built a house in South Bend. They didn't move to Scottsdale, Ariz., until three years later, when the Irish made a new hire.

"I'll be forever grateful for Charlie Weis because he bought my house in South Bend, so I'm a huge Charlie Weis fan," Davie said with a laugh. "I'd still have that house sitting there."

A 35-27 record over five seasons with the Irish did Weis in in 2009, and now, like Davie, he is hoping the lessons learned from the spotlight of one of college football's biggest platforms translate to a second, smaller stage.

"I am more motivated than I have ever been to make this program successful," Weis said. "There might be more unknowns, but I have the same obligation to the administration, to the fan base and to the university. I have the same obligation to work as hard as I possibly can to get us as good as we possibly can be as quick as we possibly can.

"I mean, OK, Notre Dame has a big, national fan base down there, but what does that mean? Fans are fans; alumni is alumni. It's still the same to work as hard as we can collectively both as a coaching staff and players to try to get this right as fast as we can. That's why I'm here. Now it's time to go to work."

Rapid Reaction: Michigan 70, Illinois 61

February, 12, 2012

Here’s a quick look at No. 25 Michigan’s 70-61 win over Illinois on Sunday.

How it happened: After a sloppy start, Michigan found its footing midway through the first half to remain unbeaten at home this season. The Wolverines trailed 20-19 in the first half and answered with an 11-1 run, which included seven points by Evan Smotrycz. Illinois never got within more than five points the rest of the way. Michigan got it done Sunday by forcing 13 turnovers, nine of which came from steals, and had four players in double figures. Illinois sophomore center Meyers Leonard also wasn’t a factor. He sat out a majority of the first half with two fouls and finished with five points.

What it means: Illinois dropped to two games under .500 in the Big Ten for the first time since the 2007-2008 season. The Illini have now lost three in a row and six of their last seven games. At 16-9 overall and 5-7 in conference, the Illini have some work ahead of them if they want to stay off the NCAA tournament bubble come next month. Illinois coach Bruce Weber’s job security also grows more tenuous with each loss. For Michigan, its Big Ten title hopes remained intact. The Wolverines, who are 9-4 in the Big Ten, will host Ohio State in a vital Big Ten game on Saturday.

Outside the box: Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas reaffirmed his expectations for the basketball program on Saturday. He said he wanted for the Illini to be relevant in the Big Ten title race down the stretch. With Sunday’s loss, Illinois lost all hope of that. The Illini dropped into the bottom half of the Big Ten and are in a three-way tie for eighth place.

Player of the game: Michigan’s Tim Hardaway Jr. had struggled in the last two games, scoring a combined 10 points. He broke out of his slump and scored a team-high 15 points against the Illini.

Illinois player of the game: Tyler Griffey came off the bench and had the game of his career. After scoring a total of 14 points in Illinois’ first 11 Big Ten games, Griffey went off for a career-high 18 points against Michigan. He also had six rebounds. Illinois junior Brandon Paul scored a game-high 23 points.

What’s next: Illinois returns home to play Purdue on Wednesday. Michigan doesn’t play against until it hosts Ohio State on Saturday.

Notre Dame mailbag

December, 5, 2011
It's time to take a look at what's on your minds with the regular season over and a trip to the Champs Sports Bowl remaining.

Roald "Roe" Gonzalez from Austin, Texas, writes: Our 105,000 DKR memorial Stadium is awaiting for Notre Dame to Drop by annually for out Turkey Day Shoot out with Notre Dame. Any chance Notre Dame is even considering the invite from De Loss Dodds?

Matt Fortuna: Roe, I don't see that happening in the near future. Notre Dame plays Stanford until 2019, and the Irish's series with USC doesn't seem to be going anywhere. At least for the next eight years (imagine what the college sports landscape could look like in 2019?), I can't see Notre Dame adding Texas on an annual basis.

Ryan from McSherrystown, Pa., writes: Hi Matt,Love your work. Just finished reading your last chat on ESPN and just wanted to see what you think about my optimism for ND next year. This is mostly about the schedule. You point out these games as being the tough ones. USC, OU, STANFORD, MSTATE, MICH, MIA..right? Here is my case. The top 3 QB's in next years NFL draft will come from 3 of those schools. Barkley, Jones, Luck will all be gone and all those schools will be playing with new or young QB's. We are due to beat Mich and Cousins is gone at MSTATE..I don't see MIA as being that tough and they weren't very good this year. Mich is the only one of those teams who brings back their QB and we had them beat at MICH this year. Thoughts...Thanks

Matt Fortuna: Thanks, Ryan. You bring up an interesting point with the quarterbacks, but I still don't see Notre Dame entering 2012 as a better team than most of the ones you mentioned. I think we'll learn a lot about Stanford when it no longer has Andrew Luck, so the Cardinal remain up in the air. Being due to beat Michigan means nothing when the Irish have lost three close ones to the Wolverines the last three years. Michigan will only get better in Brady Hoke's second year and with one more year of Denard Robinson. Michigan State, even without Kirk Cousins, is a program that is on the rise. None of this is to say the Irish can't win any of those games, but they do face an awful lot of opponents who are at least capable of beating them — even more than this year, and this was a more experienced team that lost to South Florida.

Joe from Telsau writes: Re: Crist article - REALLY?A rent a player is OK, Wow!!Please shut up, why do we always have to hear bspn peoples opinion. I hope the ncaa does away with this stupid LOOP HOLE.

Matt Fortuna: Sorry, Joe, I'm having trouble hearing you over all of those capital letters. Seriously, though, I see some instances where the rule is taken advantage of and not used for its intent (see: Jeremiah Masoli). And yes, clearly academics are not the main factor in players taking advantage of this rule. But since when did academics dictate where recruited athletes go to college? Sure, academics are often one of several factors. And yes, some schools adhere to higher academic standards than others while recruiting. But a player who graduates and lives up to his end of the bargain academically should be entirely free to go wherever he wants to after, provided the interest is mutual. What does Dayne Crist stand to benefit from staying one year at Notre Dame as a backup while already having a degree? He graduated early, before his scholarship would have expired, and he should be rewarded for that.

Mitch writes: Ok, Matt. We know all about where FSU's defense is ranked. But doesn't their schedule put them in a position to do just that? Looking at the rushing attempts from the opponents they played, you see teams only having 10-15 rushing attempts all together. Seems to me like they haven't really been worn down since they allowed 100+ yards to Wake.

Matt Fortuna: Great point, Mitch. The best rushing offense Florida State played all season was Maryland's, which ranked 44th in the nation. I'm curious to see what Notre Dame can do with Jonas Gray no longer back there, and if Theo Riddick can make a difference at running back. Considering the Irish averaged just 1.8 yards per carry as a team against Stanford, the nation's No. 5 rush defense, they have some work to do.

Big Ten/ACC Challenge Day 1 preview

November, 29, 2011
Yes, that's right: It's the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. Not the other way around.

Before you ACC fans fire up the angry email machine, don't blame me for the naming convention. It's simply a matter of ritual. Every year, the Big Ten and ACC take turns sharing this two-day competition's first billing. Last year it was the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. This year it's the Big Ten/ACC.

If yours truly had his druthers, the name would be determined by the winner of the previous year's contest. The ACC would have loved this for the first decade of the competition, when it went 10-0 and earned a truly daunting array of bragging rights over its Midwestern brethren. But the Big Ten has experienced a minor renaissance the past two seasons, winning both in 2009 and 2010 and closing the considerable gap, if only slightly, in the ACC's all-time Challenge lead.

Who takes the title home this season? All signs point to the Big Ten being the much stronger, deeper conference overall, but that hardly guarantees victory. As always, the Big Ten/ACC winner will be the league that gets wins in the most opportunistic ways -- usually with a batch of upsets mixed in.

Let's break down those matchups. And while we're at it, since you don't already have enough to send me angry emails about, I might as well throw in a few predictions, too. I eagerly await your "How could you pick Team X over Team Y YOU IDIOT?!?!" emails Wednesday morning. Should be fun. Not as much fun as the Big Ten/ACC Challenge itself, of course. But fun all the same.

Let's begin with Tuesday's games. For my predictions and analysis of each of the Wednesday games, click here.

Tuesday, Nov. 29

Michigan at Virginia, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Prediction: Virginia wins 65-63
Why: Don't get me wrong, that predicted score line is most definitely an upset. In fact, it would be the upset of the Challenge. But there are a few things to take into account here. One: Virginia's brutally slow pace tends to make its opponents play on its terms, and the Cavaliers could force the Wolverines into a grinding half-court game. Two: Michigan is coming off a rather long and arduous trip to the Maui Invitational, which not only involved flights to and from Maui but three tough games in three straight days. Three: It's always tougher to win on the road. Four: As in the NCAA tournament, there are always upsets in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. If Virginia is as improved as many preseason prognosticators have asserted, and if it can keep the air out of the ball, pressure Michigan guard Trey Burke at the point of attack, and prevent Tim Hardaway Jr. from finding a scoring groove, anything can happen. Which is not the most ringing endorsement, I know. But I had to pick an upset somewhere.

Northwestern at Georgia Tech, 7:15 p.m. ET, ESPNU
Prediction: Northwestern wins 80-70
Why: Much like last season, opportunities to scout and gauge the ability of the Northwestern Wildcats prior to the Big Ten/ACC Challenge have been minimal. Northwestern has looked good, but we're not really sure how good. Wins over LSU, Tulsa and Seton Hall in the Charleston Classic are nice, but they're hardly going to convince you of this team's ability to, say, make its first NCAA tournament appearance in school history. Georgia Tech may provide a slightly stiffer test, and not only because the game is on the road. Under first-year Yellow Jackets coach Brian Gregory, Georgia Tech has been brutally ugly on the offensive end but solid defensively, ranking No. 25 in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency thanks in large part to strong perimeter defending and rebounding. Still, Northwestern, with the ever-efficient John Shurna leading the way, should be able to overcome.

Illinois at Maryland, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Prediction: Illinois wins 65-56
Why: At this point in the season, Maryland is just holding on for dear life. That's what happens when you lose a center like Jordan Williams to the NBA and return in the fall to find your point guard (Pe'Shon Howard) and your would-be center (Alex Len) missing thanks to injury and suspension, respectively. Howard's absence has forced guard Nick Faust to take over point responsibilities, a role he told the Washington Post he hasn't played since he was 10 or 11, and Maryland's early results -- with two blowout losses to Alabama and Iona -- have made the difficult transition glaringly noticeable. Meanwhile, Illinois will get its first reasonably difficult game of the season. All six of the Illini's wins to date have been, as colleague Dick Vitale might say, Cupcake City. But the Illini do have talent here, in the form of veteran guards Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson and vastly improved center Meyers Leonard, who will come into Tuesday night's game averaging 12.3 points, 6.8 rebounds and 3.2 blocks per game.

Miami at Purdue, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Prediction: Purdue wins 72-66
Why: Purdue has been almost entirely perimeter-oriented this season. Robbie Hummel, Lewis Jackson and Ryne Smith are this rebuilt team's best and most important offensive players. Even Hummel, who has the size to go down low, has spent most of his effective comeback season playing around the edges of the defense. When the Boilermakers have to face a live frontcourt -- or at least a team that works inside-out rather than outside-in -- they could really struggle. Miami is not that team. The Hurricanes were devastated by injuries to big men Reggie Johnson and Julian Gamble in the offseason, and Jim Larranaga's team has had to get by on little more than the backcourt performance of guards Malcolm Grant and Durand Scott. At home, with the insane folks in the Paint Crew on their side, Purdue should be the favorite

Clemson at Iowa, 9:15 p.m. ET, ESPNU
Prediction: Clemson wins 68-60
Why: If you look only at records -- which would be weird and a not-very-good way to analyze college basketball, but hey, to each his own! -- you might think Iowa and Clemson are on similar ground heading into this one. You would be wrong. Iowa's two losses -- a blowout to a good Creighton team on a neutral court and a 77-61 (!) home loss to none other than the Campbell Fighting Camels -- look very bad indeed. Clemson's two losses, on the other hand, came to reasonably solid mid-majors (Coastal Carolina and College of Charleston) and were the product of one-possession deficits. In the meantime, Clemson ended last week ranked No. 49 in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings thanks in large part to a No. 18-ranked defense. Iowa ended last week ranked No. 109. Iowa's home court can be loud at its best and depressingly quiet at its worst, so as long as Clemson can overcome the Hawks' comfort with the fast-break style in Carver Hawkeye-Arena, Brad Brownell's team should be able to get the win.

Duke at Ohio State, 9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Prediction: Ohio State wins 79-74
Why: On the ESPNU College Basketball podcast on Monday (sorry: shameless plug), our own Doug Gottlieb made a rather trenchant observation regarding Ohio State forward Jared Sullinger's matchup with the Duke frontcourt Tuesday night. He pointed out that Sullinger is best-defended by an athletic, strong big who can play behind him, forcing him to work for position on the offensive end, and who is tall enough to challenge Sullinger's moves around the rim. Mason Plumlee qualifies for this role. Likewise, Duke's offense presents some issues for Sullinger defensively, because the big fella -- for all his incredible strengths on the floor -- struggled at times last season to hedge ball screens and recover in time to seal around the rim. In case you haven't noticed, Duke runs a lot of ball screens. In other words, this might not be Sully's best game. Despite all that, the reason Ohio State wins is perimeter defense. Aaron Craft is as good an on-ball perimeter defender as there is in the country, and Thad Matta's team is loaded with players who can challenge shots and pressure the ball without committing fouls. Duke hasn't played a perimeter defense this capable yet; so many of the things that got them open looks in Maui will be challenged well by Craft & Co. In the meantime, Ohio State's offense -- which is still dynamic but with the added benefit of insane depth -- should put up enough points to hold Duke off in the end.

Halftime analysis: Michigan 14, Illinois 0

November, 12, 2011
Stat of the half: Negative-12. That is the rushing yards Illinois had in the first half. And for how many turnovers the Illini had (a fumble, which was recovered by Michigan safety Thomas Gordon). Michigan's defense stifled Illinois with whatever it tried to do on offense, forcing quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase from the pocket and loading up on running back Jason Ford.

Best player in the half: For the first time this season, two different players. Michigan defensive tackle Mike Martin was dominant in the first half. He took up massive amounts of space, drew two defenders and generally ended up helping freeing the rest of his teammates to be able to pressure Scheelhaase. He also was able to get free and add pressure himself. Offensively, Fitzgerald Toussaint was crucial to Michigan. He had 18 carries for 134 yards, close to his career-high of 170 yards set two weeks ago.

What Michigan needs to do, What Illinois needs to do: Michigan -- Stop turning the ball over. The Wolverines have been in control of the game, outgaining Illinois 249-30 and have moved the ball at will. But Michigan has two fumbles -- both by quarterback Denard Robinson -- and an interception on a Hail Mary. It has negated a stellar defensive performance by Michigan. Illinois -- Find a semblance of an offense. The Illini defense has been good enough, pressuring Robinson and adjusting to Michigan's run game in the second quarter. But Illinois' offense has been terrible. Haven't been able to do anything correctly. Some of that goes to Michigan. A lot goes to Illinois.