This may be the most critical four-game stretch in Northwestern basketball history.
On Saturday, John Shurna broke the Northwestern all-time scoring record as the Wildcats (16-10, 6-8 Big Ten) soundly defeated the Minnesota Golden Gophers (17-10, 5-9 Big Ten) 64-53 in a game that would have virtually eliminated NU from tournament contention with a loss. And, with 10:40 left in the second half, Shurna assumed the title of Northwestern’s most prolific scorer in typical fashion – with a deep three from the top of the key. With 18 points on the night, Shurna now stands alone at the top of the list with 1,902 career points.
Not to be lost in the commotion surrounding Shurna’s record-breaking tally is the performance of freshman PG Dave Sobolewski, who led the ‘Cats in scoring with 22 points. Sobolewski also catalyzed the offense while Shurna struggled to score before he rallied for 12 points in the final 3:34 minutes of the first half.
With the crucial win against Minnesota under their belts, the Wildcats face Michigan Tuesday at Welsh-Ryan Arena in what stands as the most important game of the year thus far.
What happened last time:
No. 13 Michigan (14-3, 4-1) and Northwestern (11-5, 1-3) last met on Jan. 11 in Ann Arbor where — in classic Cardiac ‘Cats fashion — Northwestern let a 10-point second half lead slip through their fingers and fell to the Wolverines 66-64 in overtime. Michigan would go on a 10-0 second half run that was punctuated by three Northwestern time outs.
Several missed opportunities came back to haunt the ‘Cats and ultimately cost them the game in the final seconds. With 0.3 seconds left in overtime, Northwestern guard Alex Marcotullio was fouled by Michigan guard Tim Hardaway Jr. as he took a desperation three. To tie the game, Marcotullio needed to sink all three free throws. He missed the first, made the second and purposely bricked the third to give Northwestern a chance to put back the rebound. The ball bounced off the backboard just within reach of Marcotullio, but his desperate attempt at a sprawling hook shot failed to find the hoop.
Northwestern forward Drew Crawford had a chance to give the Wildcats a lead with the score tied at 54 and 1.5 seconds remaining in regulation, but a faulty drive to the hoop ended in a travel and the game went into overtime. Shurna and Crawford scored 21 and 20 points, respectively.
The Wildcats made a significantly higher proportion of their shots than the Wolverines, but Michigan was able to take 35 more shots. Additionally, the ‘Cats' inability to pull down any offensive rebounds (7 to Michigan’s 17) hampered their ability to maintain the lead.
What’s changed since then:
Since the last meeting, Northwestern has gone 5-6 by bouncing between marquee wins and blemishing losses. The Wildcats immediately responded to their heartbreaking loss in Ann Arbor with an 81-74 win in Evanston three days later against No. 7 Michigan State, which stands as the team’s most impressive win and persuasive notion of tournament worthiness.
However, the Wildcats’ defeat of the Spartans was immediately followed by double-digit trouncings in Madison against Wisconsin and Minneapolis against Minnesota. The three-game losing streak was capped off by a crushing two-point loss at home to Purdue, when Robbie Hummel floated the go-ahead shot with eight seconds left and the Wildcats were unable to respond. Northwestern followed with a three-game winning streak at the expense of Nebraska, Illinois and Iowa, then dropped their last two games against Indiana and Purdue before beating Minnesota Saturday.
Michigan, in turn, went 7-4 in the same span and saw their ranking drop down to No. 19 as of Sunday afternoon. Road losses against Iowa, Arkansas, Ohio State and Michigan State devalued their stock but have been counteracted by wins against Michigan State, Purdue and Indiana. The Wolverines have won their last four games and upset No. 6 Ohio State in Ann Arbor on Saturday.
Key matchup: Dave Sobolewski vs. Trey Burke
When Shurna and Crawford played at their regular levels this year, the success of the Wildcats hinged upon the emergence of third scorer. This scorer, for the most part, has been Dave Sobolewski.
Other than the upset of Michigan State, when Davide Curletti scored 17 points, the Wildcats have not won a game in which Sobolewski hasn’t scored at least 10 points since Dec. 2’s contest against Mississippi Valley State — Sobolewski scored three points and played only 14 minutes.
Additionally, the Wildcats haven’t lost a game in which Sobolewski has scored at least 10 points, except for Dec. 28’s loss at Ohio State — the No. 2 team in the nation at the time — and Feb. 12’s loss at Purdue.
Barring a formidable effort from Reggie Hearn or Alex Marcotulio — which is definitely possible given their productive performances thus far — Northwestern’s ability to overcome Michigan will depend on whether or not Sobolewski can handle Michigan freshman point guard Trey Burke.
Burke is averaging just over 14 points and just under five assists per game for Michigan. While he may play a more prominent role in his team’s offensive scheme than Sobolewski as the Wolverines’ second leading scorer, he and Sobolewski shoot identical percentages (43.1 percent) and nearly identical three-point percentages (Burke’s 35 percent just misses Sobolewski’s 38 percent). Also, Sobolewski turns the ball over half as frequently as Burke.
The Wildcats’ offensive rolls are largely ignited by Sobolewski, but sustained by Shurna, Crawford and the rest of the team. For the Wildcats to beat Michigan, Sobolewski will have to keep the trend going and outplay his Class of 2015 counterpart.
Where we'll stand afterwards:
Simply put, a win this Tuesday is essential for Northwestern’s journey to the NCAA Tournament. If the Wildcats can hold back Michigan, March Madness could be well within reach. Well, as long as NU beats both Iowa and Penn State — both teams the ‘Cats have bested this year.
A loss to juggernaut Ohio State would do virtually nothing to Northwestern’s chances, granted the Wildcats win the games they should and defeat their first opponent in the Big Ten Tournament (which would be Illinois if the season ended today).
A loss Tuesday means that Northwestern will have to win the remainder of the games on its schedule, including Ohio State, and would likely need a win in the Big Ten Tournament to burst through the bubble for the first time in school history.
It’s hard to predict exactly what will happen in the games that precede Selection Sunday and if the Wildcats can reach their first NCAA Tournament since its 1939 inception. One thing is for sure: It certainly won’t be boring — nothing ever is with the Cardiac ‘Cats.