Northwestern had a prime opportunity to earn a signature victory Tuesday night, but let Michigan steal the win in overtime. It was undoubtedly a heartbreaker for ‘Cats fans, and many are now surely wondering if the ‘Cats are bound for another season in the NIT. Still, Northwestern has an opportunity to make the NCAA Tournament if the team can take care of business and go 3-0 down the stretch. It all begins on Saturday when the Wildcats travel to University Park to face Penn State.
What happened last time:
Dave Sobolewski scored a then-career-high 20 points as Northwestern got its first win of the conference season. It wasn’t the easy victory that many fans expected, though, as Penn State actually led at halftime before Northwestern pulled away in the second half. Drew Crawford had a big night against the Lions, as he scored 21 points to become just the 31st Northwestern player to score 1,000 points in his career.
What's changed since then:
The Nittany Lions still sit at number 12 in the Big Ten standings, but they have become a better team – especially at home. All four of their conference wins have come in University Park, including two victories over their last three games.
Northwestern will again be without Luka Mirkovic, who had one of his best rebounding efforts in the teams’ last meeting, grabbing a team-high 11 boards. Northwestern will have the services of Drew Crawford, who went down with an injury in the first half of Tuesday’s game against Michigan but said on Twitter that it was just a bad Charlie Horse and that he's good to go.
Key matchup: Tim Frazier vs. the 1-3-1 zone
Michigan exploited Northwestern’s zone defense on Tuesday night as the Wolverines were able to get a lot of open looks from behind the arc. If Penn State wants to pull off the upset, the Lions will need to follow a similar script and have Frazier attack the zone to find open teammates. As Frazier goes, so goes Penn State as he leads the team in both points and assists.
The good news for NU fans is that Penn State is not the shooting team that Michigan is. Frazier shoots just 27 percent from three-point range, and his teammates have good shooting percentages primarily because they don’t attempt many shots. Still, just about any player can make three-pointers when they’re open, and if Northwestern doesn’t do a better job defending the perimeter, the ‘Cats could suffer their second straight loss.
What to look for:
Look for a battle between styles of play. We all saw how out of sync Northwestern’s offense was when Michigan forced them to run half-court sets in the second half. Instead, the ‘Cats are at their best with a small lineup that runs up and down the floor to get easy buckets in transition.
Penn State is the opposite as it is a prototypical Big Ten team that loves to decrease the number of possessions and keep the game a low-scoring affair. The team that is able to dictate the tempo will have a huge advantage in the final outcome.
Where we'll stand afterwards, win or loss:
Northwestern needs a win to stay on the bubble, as a loss would likely spell another trip to the NIT. The Wildcats should be able to get the victory as Penn State has a losing record and sits at the bottom of the conference standings. With a win, Northwestern would improve to 7-9 in Big Ten play and would need to beat both Ohio State and Iowa to finish at .500 in conference play (what many think is necessary to make the tournament). At this point though, an 8-10 finish looks more realistic, which would give the Big Ten tournament additional importance.
Right now, Saturday’s game against Penn State is all that matters. A victory won’t count as a signature win, but it would help Northwestern’s tournament hopes stay alive, which is all fans can ask for at this point.