After their loss to Purdue ended a three-game winning streak, the Wildcats look for revenge against the No. 20 Indiana Hoosiers Tuesday night. With a 5-7 record in conference play, Northwestern is now tied for seventh place in the Big Ten, just two positions below fifth place Indiana. To win this game, Northwestern must shake off the disappointment from Purdue and come out ready to play against the Hoosiers.
What happened last time:
It’s been almost a year since the Wildcats and the Hoosiers last went head to head. Last February, Michael “Juice” Thompson had an extraordinary game, dropping 22 points and going a perfect 11-11 from the free-throw line. His phenomenal play and Alex Marcotullio’s surge from the bench led Northwestern to a 70-64 win. In fact, Northwestern had little trouble against Indiana last year, winning both matchups and earning the season sweep.
What’s changed since then:
With the graduation of Juice Thompson, the Wildcats lack both a scoring presence and a leader on the court. Juice was replaced by freshman Dave Sobolewski, who put up season-high numbers in Northwestern’s game against Iowa on Feb. 9, scoring 23 points while playing the entire game. Despite that spectacular performance, though, Sobolewski’s numbers are nowhere near Juice’s average of 16 points per game his senior season. What Sobolewski does bring is passing efficiency, which will be key against Indiana’s somewhat lackluster defense.
Key matchup: Dave Sobolewski vs. Cody Zeller
No, they don’t play the same position, but these two freshmen are matched up in that they’re both making immediate impacts for their respective teams. Dave Sobolewski played 39 minutes in Northwestern’s game against Purdue, and while he doesn’t always add much in the scoring department, he does bring consistency both in his passing and his field goal percentage. Sobolewski shot 66 percent from the field and didn’t commit a single turnover against the Boilermakers. Considering that Indiana’s defense is one of the worst in the Big Ten, Sobo should be able to continue putting up these kinds of numbers.
On the other end, forward Cody Zeller has made an attempt to excite Indiana’s defense with his blocking abilities. With an average of 6.4 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per night, Zeller will be a formidable force in the paint. The Hoosiers lost just one senior last year, so Zeller’s ability to come in as a freshman and start among veterans means something: He’s one to watch out for.
What to look for:
Due to its subpar defense, Indiana tends to win games by outscoring opponents. The Hoosiers are fifth overall in field goal percentage among Division I teams, shooting 49.6 percent from the field. Therefore, the best way for Northwestern to win this game is through defense. If the ‘Cats can shut down the three-point line and tighten up in the paint, they should be able to defeat the Hoosiers. On the other end, Northwestern ranks 18th in Division I in assists per game, something to take advantage of against Indiana’s lackluster defense.
Where we’ll stand afterwards, win or loss:
With a 5-7 record in Big Ten play, Northwestern really needs a boost of energy if it wants to keep any NCAA tournament dreams alive. A Northwestern win would break the four-way tie for seventh place in the conference. Indiana would fall to 7-7 in conference play, and Northwestern would be just a half-game behind.
Realistically though, at this point Northwestern’s best chance to make the tournament is to win the Big Ten Tournament. The ‘Cats would likely have to win every game remaining on their schedule — with the exception of maybe Ohio State — to have a chance at an at-large bid. Since it’s a long shot that the ‘Cats win every game left on the regular season schedule, a loss here doesn’t suddenly kill any tournament chances. But hey, let’s shoot for a win anyway, it always helps.