After an upset victory over Illinois on Sunday, Northwestern heads back to Evanston to face the Iowa Hawkeyes on Thursday night. Iowa currently sits only one spot ahead of Northwestern in the Big Ten standings, making this a very winnable game for both teams.
What happened last time:
It’s been nearly a year since Iowa and Northwestern met with the ‘Cats edging the Hawkeyes 73-70 in Welsh-Ryan. Michael “Juice” Thompson led the way with 16 points and nine assists as Northwestern had four players score in double figures. Iowa had a chance to tie the game on the final play, but turned over possession, allowing Northwestern to hold on for the win.
What's changed since then:
Most of Northwestern’s players are back, with only Juice Thompson being the key departure. He has been replaced by freshman guard Dave Sobolewski, who isn't the scoring threat that Thompson was; instead, Sobo has relied on being a good passer and not turning the ball over. Luka Mirkovic also played a big role in last season’s victory scoring 13 points, but he is again unavailable for Thursday’s matchup due to an injury. In fact, Northwestern has played the last few games with only six players available and may have to do so again.
The Hawkeyes return most of their team from last season expect for Jarryd Cole, who was the offensive leader in the teams’ previous meeting. Cole led the team in both points and assists while also playing 32 minutes in last February’s matchup.
Key matchup: Davide Curletti vs. Aaron White
With Luka Mirkovic going down with a mid-season injury, Northwestern has been forced to rely on senior Davide Curletti to be the low-post presence. Because he has yet to develop into an offensive threat, Curletti has had to rely on doing the extra things like making good passes, rebounding and playing defense.
He’ll be matched up against Iowa freshman Aaron White, who has been a surprise for this Hawkeye team. White is a physical player who isn’t afraid to fight for loose balls and draw the foul, and because he doesn’t have a refined offensive game he needs to be aggressive to score. In a game where Northwestern can’t afford to lose any players due to foul troubles, Curletti has to be disciplined and not commit any silly fouls. He also has to own the boards and not allow Iowa to have any second chance opportunities.
What to look for:
Although White is a crucial player for Iowa, the Hawkeyes are a team that depends on their guards for success. Northwestern needs to limit Iowa’s outside shots, especially those from senior Matt Gatens, who scored a team high of 18 points in a win over Penn State.
Iowa has also won two in a row and is gaining confidence, having improved throughout the season. While they aren’t the most talented team, the Hawkeyes are capable of pulling off the upset and will challenge the ‘Cats to a hard fought game on Thursday night. Northwestern has to dictate the pace by running the court and finding some open looks for both Shurna and Crawford. If the Wildcats can do that, they should have their third straight win.
Where we’ll stand afterwards, win or loss:
This is clearly another must-win game for Northwestern as Iowa is in the lower half of the Big Ten standings. Winning at Illinois on Sunday was big for momentum and there’s no reason why that has to run out against Iowa. A third consecutive victory would bring Northwestern to 5-6 in conference play and all of a sudden a .500 conference record doesn’t seem out of reach.
On the other side, a loss would be devastating as this is one of the easiest games left on the schedule. Not only would it kill momentum but it would also kill Northwestern’s chances of making the NCAA tournament.