Entering their game against the Wisconsin Badgers at the Kohl Center on Wednesday night, Northwestern was coming off an 81-74 victory over Michigan State, a must-win after back-to-back losses to Illinois and Michigan. Those losses were by a combined three points, which meant the Wildcats could easily have been 4-1 in the Big Ten. That was an exciting couple of days. Then came the 20-point smothering at the hands of the Badgers, which reminded fans and pundits of the weaknesses the team still has. Northwestern is now 0-13 all-time at the Kohl Center and they travel to the raised floor of “The Barn” against Minnesota on Sunday afternoon, where they have not won in five years.
What happened last time:
It was the Big Ten Tournament and Northwestern point guard Juice Thompson put on a show in Northwestern’s 75-65 win. In his final conference tournament victory, Thompson had a career-high 35 points, connecting on 11 of 22 shots, including 5 of 12 threes. He was also a perfect 8 for 8 from the free throw line. The Wildcats were playing without an injured JerShon Cobb (if that sounds familiar) but still managed to neutralize the scoring effectiveness of Minnesota’s perimeter players to hold a two-point lead at halftime. Gopher power forward Trevor Mbakwe broke out to score 15 points and block three shots in the second half, exploiting Northwestern’s weaknesses down low, but the Wildcats got to the line 17 times in the final 20 minutes to break open the game, leading by as much as 16 with over four minutes to play.
What’s changed since then:
Injuries, injuries and there is something else I think I’m forgetting. Oh wait, I remember now. Injuries. Both the Wildcats and the Golden Gophers have been fielding shells of the teams that Bill Carmody and Tubby Smith surely expected to be playing when the season began. For the Wildcats, Thompson has graduated and one of the freshmen that figured to take his place, Tre Demps, has been out for basically the entire season with a torn labrum in his left shoulder. Sophomore JerShon Cobb (hip) and junior Alex Marcotullio (toe/concussion), two of the team’s key contributors, have also missed multiple games with injuries. Against Wisconsin, Northwestern only dressed nine players, three of whom walked on to the team. Depth has become quite the dilemma.
Minnesota's agony dates all the way back to last season. The team started the year 16-4, a top 25 team that looked NCAA Tournament-bound. But when senior point guard Al Nolen injured his ankle and missed the remainder of the season, they closed out the season by going 2-10. The Big Ten Tournament loss to Northwestern finished them off and they missed postseason play altogether. This season, many experts expected Mbakwe to head up the Gophers' massive frontcourt and return them to the Big Dance in March. But the Preseason All-Big Ten team member tore his ACL in a November loss to Dayton. The team pulled together to go 12-1 against a weak non-conference schedule, but are now 2-4 in the Big Ten.
Key matchup: Drew Crawford vs. Rodney Williams
These two athletic forwards may not be matched up against each other depending on what defense each team comes out in, but both players are going to be heavily depended upon for offense in this one. Since Mbakwe has been out, Williams, the 6’7” tweener, has really developed into an efficient player, shooting over 58 percent from the floor this season and upping his average rebounds per game to nearly nine in Big Ten play. This makes him a threat from inside and outside, as he has no problem stepping back for a three. Crawford may be the best person to contain him if the Wildcats play man defense. His offensive efficiency has improved from previous losses to Baylor, Ohio State and Illinois, shooting 50 percent in the team’s last three games. However, he looked exhausted by the end of the Wisconsin game, clearly due to the team’s lack of a bench. His energy level will be key for the Wildcats, and it will certainly help if Northwestern can get Cobb and Marcotullio back.
Northwestern seemed to solve their second half scoring woes in their upset victory over Michigan State this past Saturday, but their shooting failed them once again in Madison when the Badgers opened up their lead. Minnesota has one of the best shot blockers in the country in Ralph Sampson III so scoring in the paint, already a Wildcat weakness, will be limited. This means that the Wildcats' threes will have to be falling, and it is important they hit them early and do not fall behind. This was the position they found themselves in on Wednesday in the second half, where they forced rushed shots that only expanded the deficit.
Where we'll stand afterwards, win or loss:
Even with some decent depth and an upset win at Indiana, without Mbakwe, Minnesota is not the team we most expected them to be during the preseason. Northwestern’s 20-point loss to Wisconsin on Wednesday put them at 2-4 in the Big Ten and makes winning games like this essential to avoid dropping to the bottom of the conference. All of Northwestern’s six losses are to teams with a top 50 RPI (Minnesota is currently 36), but they cannot continue to drop these games and still expect to get an NCAA Tournament invite. A win will certainly keep them in the conversation. But a loss will leave them with plenty of room to make up, which could mean trouble for a team with the ninth toughest schedule in all of college basketball.