The Chris Collins era at Northwestern got off to a strong start with a 72-55 home win over Eastern Illinois on Nov. 9, but the Wildcats will need all the momentum they can muster if they want to pull off the road upset over a sneaky-tough Stanford Cardinal squad on Thursday.
The 'Cats (1-0), rode senior Drew Crawford's 25-point, 11-rebound night and a stingy defense held the visiting Panthers to just 30.2 percent shooting overall and a two-of-18 performance from beyond the arc to a comfortable victory, pulling away in the second half and never looking back.
Stanford (1-1), is not a national title contender, but they are a solid Pac-12 squad with a high-octane offense that will almost certainly make more than 30 percent of their shots from the floor. The Cardinal bested a decent Bucknell squad 72-68 and lost 112-103 to BYU in one of the most entertaining games of the young college basketball season.
Stanford is averaging 87.5 points per game and is shooting 47 percent from the floor. The 'Cats shot a solid 46.5 percent against Eastern Illinois and a blistering 47.6 percent from three, but only Crawford reached double figure scoring.
The Cardinal boast a 4-1 record over the Wildcats in school history, and won 70-68 last season in Welsh-Ryan, when Stanford's Aaron Bright hit a go-ahead three with 1:30 remaining. If the 'Cats want revenge for the heartbreaking loss, here's what they'll need to do on Thursday.
Share the scoring burden
Crawford is a terrific player, an All-Big Ten guard who averaged 16.1 points, 4.7 boards and 2.1 assists on 48.4 percent shooting in his last healthy season, but Stanford is too good of a team for the 'Cats to win with only Crawford putting the ball in the basket.
The Cardinal are a solid defensive unit, allowing 66.5 points per game last season, and they have veteran wings like Anthony Brown and Josh Huestis who will make Crawford work for his shots. Northwestern had four players besides Crawford score eight points or above, but they need at least one of Sanjay Lumpkin, JerShon Cobb or Dave Sobolewski to get hot from the perimeter.
Cobb dished out eight assists against EIU but shot just 3-for-9 from the field and took far too many contested jumpers. Lumpkin was three-for-three from deep and will be relied on once more to space the floor in catch-and-shoot situations. Sobolewski did a nice job of getting to the line, making sever-of-eight free throws, but he needs to look for his shot more as he recorded just one actual field goal attempt in 25 minutes.
The most likely candidate is Cobb, and if he can knock down a few jumpers early or make some successful forays into the paint Stanford will not be able to solely focus on stopping Crawford and daring other Wildcats to beat them.
Hold their own down low
Northwestern is thin in the front court and there is no reasonable way to expect Alex Olah and Nikola Cerina to matchup with Dwight Powell and Stefan Nastic, but the Wildcats' big men need to do a better job of guarding the block and scoring down low.
The 'Cats went small for much of their first game with a three-guard lineup, but will not be able to do so as easily against a Stanford team that boasts plenty of size in the front court.
The 7-footer Olah took just five shots against EIU and while he looked decent with his hook shots, he also took some ill-conceived jumpers, which he will not be able to do against the Cardinal. Olah finished the game with eight points, eight rebounds and two blocks, but he will have the tough task of matching up with Nastic, a refined post scorer who will give Olah trouble down low.
Cerina will likely exceed the 11 minutes he played against the Panthers and will often matchup with Powell, a versatile scoring power forward who can attack the basket and shoot jumpers. Powell averaged 14.9 points and 8.4 boards as a junior and has looked even sharper as a senior.
Collins will need to use a smaller lineup at times to attack in transition and take advantage of the slower Cardinals, but ultimately, this game will likely be won on the interior, and there is no way Northwestern can pull off the upset if Olah and Cerina do not bring their best effort.
Contain Chasson Randle
Senior guard Chasson Randle exploded for 33 points against BYU, and while he struggled from three-point range, going just two-of-seven, he excelled in every other aspect of the offensive game.
Randle took nine free throws, made plenty of tough jumpers and even got to the rim off the dribble seemingly at will. Through two games, the 6-foot-2 scorer is averaging 25.5 points, 5.5 boards and two assists.
Northwestern has the personnel to stop Randle, but it is going to take a concerted team effort to keep him from dominating on the offensive end.
Cobb will likely be the primary defender, as his mix of quickness and strong defensive instincts will help him to deny penetration and goad Randle into taking more difficult jumpers, but the big men at the rim will also need to be ready to rotate and contest shots without fouling if he gets into the paint.
The Cardinal do not have another guard who can catch fire like Randle, so if Northwestern is at least able to make him work for his shots and not feast on open looks off screens or in transition then Stanford will likely struggle to put up huge numbers against a decent Wildcats defense.
It is certainly easier said than done to contain a player of Randle's caliber, but expect it to be the focal point of Collins' defense.
This is a highly-experienced Stanford squad that may be playing for coach Johnny Dawkins' job this season, so expect them to come out sharp after a tough home loss to Brigham Young.
Northwestern should be able to hang around thanks to the heroics of Cobb and Crawford offensively, but the tandem of Powell and Randle will ultimately be too much for them to overcome.
Stanford 81, Northwestern 72