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Weekend lookahead: The Big Ten's next challenge awaits

The 2017 ACC/Big Ten Challenge is in the books, and you might have heard things did not go particularly well for Jim Delany's league.

Now, with all hopes of interconference bragging rights gone for at least a year, the Big Ten must dedicate itself to some serious intraconference résumé building. Fast. Big Ten play commences this weekend.

You're reading that correctly. The league has rearranged its 2017-18 schedule to wrap up conference play a week early and hold the Big Ten tournament in Madison Square Garden the first weekend in March. Action gets underway on Friday night, with Purdue playing at Maryland and Illinois visiting Northwestern.

That means there will be an island of Big Ten games, of sorts, this weekend. Then the league's teams will play nonconference opponents until the new year, at which point Big Ten play will begin in earnest.

The stakes for this weekend's games, and indeed for the entire conference season, are higher than we would have imagined three weeks ago. Simply put, the Big Ten has done itself no favors in the early going in the eyes of the NCAA men's basketball committee.

True, Michigan State and Minnesota have largely lived up to expectations. On the other hand, Wisconsin is 3-4 (albeit after having played an incredibly ambitious schedule); Iowa has lost neutral-court games to Louisiana Lafayette and South Dakota State; Northwestern and Purdue have fallen out of the top 25 completely (though the Boilermakers likely will reappear there soon); and Indiana, last seen recording an impressive and spirited 10-point home loss to Duke, opened the season with a dispiriting and bewildering 21-point home loss to Indiana State.

There's more than conference pride at stake now. All of the above losses and struggles are part of the league's 2017-18 résumé, and the Big Ten will carry this baggage all the way to Selection Sunday.

Take Penn State. Pat Chambers' team should be giddy with excitement at the its chance to record the program's first above-.500 record in Big Ten play since 2008-09. However, this season, a 10-8 mark or even, who knows, 11-7 in the Big Ten might not be sufficient to land an at-large bid in the NCAA tournament.

The committee has long sought to build interest in the early season by insisting that games in November and December really, truly, honestly do matter when it comes to selection and seeding in March. That emphasis could hurt the Big Ten in 2018, and that, in a nutshell, is the challenge the league now faces. For any team wanting to make the field of 68 (i.e., all 14 teams), the safest course is to finish very near the top of the Big Ten standings.

No. 11 Cincinnati at No. 21 Xavier, Saturday, noon ET

When Mick Cronin took the job as Cincinnati coach on March 24, 2006, he opened his introductory news conference by uttering a single word: "Wow." Now, 11 seasons and 244 wins later, Cronin might have his strongest Bearcats team yet. Then again, Xavier, ranked in the top 25 and fresh off its run to the 2017 Elite Eight, will be the host in the latest installment of this venerable and often tumultuous rivalry. Bearcats, Musketeers, Crosstown Shootout. Wow.

No. 8 Wichita State at No. 16 Baylor, Saturday, 2 p.m. ET, ESPNU

The Shockers are two Martinas Geben free throws away from an undefeated record and, maybe, the top-five national ranking now held by Geben's team, Notre Dame. Gregg Marshall's men came up on the short end of a 67-66 score in the Maui Invitational final against the Fighting Irish, but this still might be one of the best teams in the country, even without the injured Markis McDuffie. Speaking of injuries, Baylor will be doing without veteran sixth man Terry Maston, who will be out until January because of a broken hand.

No. 2 Kansas vs. Syracuse, Saturday 5:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

Bill Self's undefeated sharp-shooters will meet the Orange on a neutral court at American Airlines Arena as part of the Hoophall Miami Invitational. To this point in the season, the Jayhawks have drained no fewer than 45 percent of their shots from beyond the arc and fully 60 percent of their tries inside it. Can any defense slow down Devonte' Graham, Lagerald Vick and the suddenly Curry-like Svi Mykhailiuk? Sooner or later, perhaps, but maybe not Saturday. The last time we saw Jim Boeheim's men, they were eking out a 72-70 win over Maryland at the Carrier Dome, one in which they gave up 11 3-pointers to the Terps.

No. 4. Villanova at Saint Joseph's, Saturday 5:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2

In keeping with our weekend theme of crosstown rivalries, the Wildcats will travel seven miles up Montgomery Avenue to take on the Hawks at Hagan Arena. Stop me if you've heard this before: Jay Wright's veteran team is shooting the lights out from either side of the arc while playing surprisingly good defense. (It's true!) The visitors better be ready, though, because 6-foot-9 Saint Joe's freshman Taylor Funk is shooting 49 percent on 3-pointers.

No. 14 USC at SMU, Saturday, 10 p.m. ET, ESPNU

Welcome to college basketball, Ethan Chargois. The 6-foot-9 SMU freshman is usually the tallest Mustang on the floor by a margin of at least three inches, a distinction that probably will give him defensive responsibility for either Chimezie Metu or Bennie Boatwright of USC. Then again, maybe we should be welcoming those two guys to Dallas instead. Chargois himself is no easy guard, having hit 46 percent of his 3s thus far.

Seton Hall at No. 17 Louisville, Sunday, 4 p.m. ET, ESPN2

Two former Big East foes will go at it on Sunday afternoon when former Louisville assistant Kevin Willard brings his Pirates to town. Watch the ball if you must, but be sure to treat yourself to the spectacle in the paint as well. That's where Seton Hall's 6-foot-10 rebounding machine Angel Delgado will be doing battle with the likes of Ray Spalding (also 6-10) and Anas Mahmoud (a 7-footer). Forgive me if I greet every missed shot in this one with anticipation, delight and popcorn.