After two heartbreaking losses in a row, Northwestern finally came through Saturday and upset the No. 6 Michigan State Spartans at Welsh-Ryan Arena. The big surprise for the ‘Cats was senior forward Davide Curletti, who in just his second career start exploded for 17 points while shooting 5-7 from the field and collecting six rebounds. Star senior John Shurna contributed 22 points to the cause, including a couple of emphatic dunks and a three-pointer to beat the buzzer, and junior Drew Crawford added 20 points. Now, with a signature win under their belt but just a 2-3 record in Big Ten play, the Wildcats must head up to Madison and try to ride the momentum of a major upset against the Badgers, winners of two games in a row.
What happened last time:
At the end of last February, the Wildcats and the Badgers faced off in Madison. The then-No. 12 Badgers defeated the Wildcats 78-63 after starting off hot and holding off a late Northwestern rally. Wisconsin shot 57.4 percent from the field compared to just 46.8 percent for Northwestern. Interestingly, Davide Curletti also had a big game against Wisconsin, scoring a career-high 18 points off the bench, and the ‘Cats also got 19 points from point guard Michael Thompson and 14 points from John Shurna. Wisconsin was led by 26 points from forward Jon Leuer, with three other players scoring in double figures for the Badgers.
What’s changed since then:
Michael Thompson, Northwestern’s leading scorer in its last faceoff with Wisconsin, has now graduated. Now running the point is freshman Dave Sobolewski, who is averaging just 8.4 points per game but distributes the ball extremely well. Still, Sobolewski’s freshman legs played all 40 minutes last game and Northwestern will need solid leadership to beat the Badgers.
The Badgers lost leading scorer and rebounder Jon Leuer, who graduated after last season and is currently in the NBA as a member of the Milwaukee Bucks. Leuer averaged 18.3 points and 7.2 rebounds per contest starting at forward. They also lost the other starting forward, Keaton Nankivil, who contributed a solid 9.7 points per game.
Key matchup: Dave Sobolewski vs. Jordan Taylor
After Juice Thompson left Northwestern and took his veteran leadership experience with him, the point guard position was filled by Sobolewski. Sobo has been solid and, as previously mentioned, plays a lot of minutes for the ‘Cats, but he is neither the scorer that Juice was nor does he have the experience Juice had. Wisconsin point guard Jordan Taylor, on the other hand, is a senior who has scored 10 or more points in 12 of 16 games this season and ranks third in the Big Ten with a 2.9 assist-to-turnover ratio. For the ‘Cats to beat the Badgers, Sobolewski will need to control the ball well – and overcome fatigue, judging from his recent playing time – while containing his Badger counterpart and forcing Taylor into some rare turnovers.
What to look for:
Northwestern just upset a Top 10 team, so the ‘Cats should be trying to ride that momentum. Wisconsin knows this, but they also know that the reason Michigan State lost was because Northwestern got key contributions from bench players like Curletti and junior Reggie Hearn. It will be interesting to see if the bench can step up once again, especially as junior Alex Marcotullio may miss the game after apparently suffering a concussion late in the first half against Michigan State (he did not return in the second half). With Marcotullio and sophomore reserve JerShon Cobb, who has missed Northwestern’s last two games with hip soreness, potentially sidelined against the Badgers, another member of Northwestern’s bench will have to step up.
Additionally, Northwestern stayed uncharacteristically solid in the second half against Michigan State, instead making crucial momentum-stealing plays – think dunks by Shurna and Curletti – that kept the energy favoring Northwestern. With this game up in Madison, though, don’t expect the Badgers to let Northwestern gain and keep the momentum that easily.
Where we'll stand afterwards, win or loss:
With a Northwestern victory, the ‘Cats would improve to 3-3 in Big Ten play while the Badgers would drop to 3-4. Defeating the Badgers would greatly help NU’s tournament chances, as following up the Michigan State upset with another solid Big Ten victory would bolster the team’s tournament resume, especially heading into a game against another solid Big Ten team in Minnesota.
With a loss, Northwestern loses the momentum and excitement generated from the MSU victory and would drop to 2-4 in Big Ten play. At this point, each conference game is crucial for the ‘Cats, so a loss here would be disappointing and would put more pressure on the team to pull out a victory in Minneapolis next Sunday.