We will be seeing several Big East-Big Ten matchups in the coming years, after the Gavitt Tip-Off Games were announced a few months ago. But in 2014, we will be seeing a crossover matchup featuring these two conferences.
The Butler Bulldogs and Northwestern Wildcats, two teams looking to rebound after lackluster seasons in 2013, will be locking up at historic Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Indiana on December 6, 2014. And as we approach the 2014 season, Big East Coast Bias has been taking part in a litany of early previews of nonconference games. And while this may not be the next Showdown at the Okay Corral, there's a presence of intrigue hanging over this matchup of two teams who are trying to break out of their shells in their respective conference.
I was able to get in contact with Henry Bushnell of Inside NU -- SB Nation's Northwestern Wildcats blog -- to talk about this game, and here's what he had to say:
Robert O'Neill: First and foremost, heading into the season, what do you see as Northwestern's biggest strengths and weaknesses?
Henry Bushnell: In terms of general strengths and weaknesses, this year's Northwestern team actually shouldn't be too dissimilar to last year's. They'll be good defensively - top-15 in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency a year ago - but could struggle to score the ball again.
In terms of personnel, NU has several capable wing players, and Romanian center Alex Olah is now an established Big Ten post player, but there is uncertainty behind Olah in the front court, and at the point guard position. Collins could turn to any of four players as his floor general, but two are natural two-guards, one is a freshman, and one spent almost all of 2013/14 mired in a season-long slump - in other words, none are ideal options.
O'Neill: The first full offseason of Chris Collins produced Northwestern's best recruiting class in quite some time (#53 per 247Sports), out of the five commits, how many of them do you think will have an immediate impact this season?
Bushnell: I'll go with three, but with the caveat that I'm not entirely sure who those three will be. The one certainty is Vic Law, a local product touted by some as a top-100 player in his class. Law is a 6-6 small forward whose offensive game is somewhat unrefined, but who will undoubtedly get plenty of minutes based on his athleticism alone.
Second on the list of immediate contributors is probably Bryant McInstosh, the freshman mentioned above who could potentially start at point guard. He's a smooth combo guard with a good handle, and if not for his youth, might be the ideal candidate to trigger Collins' offense.
After that, at least one of the three will have to have at least a minor impact. Gavin Skelly could provide frontcourt depth that was noticeably absent last season, and swingman Scottie Lindsay, while more of a project, is a scorer who has impressed throughout the offseason.
O'Neill: I thought Butler was bad offensively (68.5 PPG, last in the Big East) last season, but then I saw Northwestern (59.5 PPG, last in the Big Ten). Where, if at all, will more scoring come from for the Wildcats this season?
Bushnell: There are a few possibilities, but none are sure things. JerShon Cobb is the team's best scorer, but has struggled with injuries, and Tre Demps took a step forward last year, but was still inconsistent. Olah should provide more of a post presence, which should not only raise his scoring averages, but help raise those of others. And one of McIntosh or Law could emerge. But the offense doesn't figure to be significantly better than it was last season.
O'Neill: In one word, how would you describe Northwestern's style of play, and why would you pick that word?
After Collins tried to implement a more up-tempo approach early last season, he realized it wasn't going to work with the current personnel. So... he did exactly the opposite. Northwestern began to slow the game to a crawl, and that was when this team "found its identity," as Collins would say.
They began to make a concerted effort to control the pace, grind out possessions, and reserved the majority of their energy for the defensive end. And it was this formula that allowed NU to pull of the upsets that they did.
However another word or phrase would be "in transition", which is what this program is. And that means "plodding" might not be so accurate for this year's team. Collins wants his Wildcats squad to eventually be able to play in transition.
O'Neill: Two part question here: Would you consider the Butler game to be Northwestern's most important out of conference matchup? What would a win mean for the Wildcats?
Bushnell: I probably would. Collins has filled the non-conference slate with cupcakes, and while the Wildcats will host Georgia Tech and play either Northern Iowa or Virginia Tech in Cancun, the Butler game will be their only opportunity for a true road win of any substance.
And that's what a win would mean for NU. There are likely only three or four games during non-conference play in which Northwestern won't be heavily favored, and this is one of them. It's also one of only two true road games. Should Northwestern win it, they shouldn't go into conference play with any more than two or three losses.
O'Neill: Who do you think presents the most favorable matchup for Northwestern in this game?
Bushnell: It has to be Olah, not just because of his 7-foot frame, but because he has now developed the offensive game to take advantage of it against smaller defenders. And he also became an above average shot blocker a year ago. I'm not sure Butler has anybody who will be able to match him down low.
O'Neill: Ultimately, who wins this game and why?
Bushnell: I'm going to go with Northwestern, though I don't feel all that great about it. Collins' first NU team had a tendency to rise to the occasion, and with the rest of the non-conference season filled with the Northern Floridas and Mississippi Valley States of the world, Northwestern will be relishing the trip to Hinkle. And if last year's visits to Assembly Hall and the Kohl Center are any indication, the Wildcats will be unfazed by the stage.
Also, fun fact, NU went 3-1 in the state of Indiana last year, with wins at Indiana and Purdue, and over Iowa at the Big Ten Tournament; the only loss was the subsequent Big Ten quarterfinal against Michigan State.