In the absence of two usual starters, the 'Cats will need all hands on deck for their Big Ten Tournament battles. Photo by AJ Anderson/North by Northwestern.

This year, Northwestern men’s basketball (21-10, 12-8 B1G) is taking their cue from the opening lines of British punk band Chumbawamba’s 1997 hit “Tubthumping”: “I get knocked down, but I get up again.”

A season that started off smoothly has turned into a bumpier ride following a string of Wildcat injuries, but Northwestern has continued to pick themselves up, dust themselves off and weather the seemingly never-ending storm. The ’Cats have gone 5-3 since the loss of fourth-year guard Ty Berry to a season-ending meniscus injury, managed a road victory over Maryland in the absence of graduate guard Ryan Langborg and have bounced back after a two-game losing streak and the loss to injury of another starter, fourth-year center Matthew Nicholson.

A lineup of second-years have filled the gaps. Forward Nick Martinelli has made the biggest impact, averaging 9.1 points and 4.2 rebounds per game this year and stepping confidently into his new starting role over the past eight games.

Walk-on guard Blake Smith filled in during Langborg’s two-game absence, recording six points and five rebounds in the win over Maryland and putting up 11 points while shooting perfectly from the field in Northwestern’s tough loss to Iowa. Forward Luke Hunger and guard Justin Mullins have also seen additional minutes and had the chance to make their mark.

The display of resilience and ability of players to step up when needed is hopeful and bodes well for the team as they enter conference and NCAA tournament play. In the face of the upcoming gauntlet, Northwestern must continue to step up to the challenge.

At the close of the regular season, the ’Cats are ranked fourth in the conference, so they will play their first tournament game in the third round, on Friday, March 15, in Minneapolis, Minn. Let’s take a look at their most likely opponents.

No. 5 Wisconsin

The Wisconsin Badgers (19-12, 11-9 B1G) are ranked just below the ’Cats and are coming off a rough end to the regular season. Northwestern faced Wisconsin just once this year, on Jan. 13, when the ’Cats suffered a 71-63 road loss to the then-No. 15 Badgers. Since that meeting, Wisconsin has gone 6-9 in the conference, dropping out of the AP top 25 rankings.

The Badgers have started the same five players for every game this year. Second-year guard AJ Storr leads the team in points per game with 16.2, while third-year forward Steven Crowl averages a team-high 7.5 rebounds along with 10.8 points. Wisconsin out-rebounded the ’Cats by six during their last matchup, a drawback to the small-ball lineup Northwestern has favored all season. The ’Cats will have to be in prime shooting form and stay out of foul trouble – they committed 24 during January’s game compared to Wisconsin’s 16 – to come out on top against the Badgers.

No. 12 Maryland

Although Maryland (15-16, 7-13 B1G) is ranked near the bottom of the conference, they should not be underestimated. Northwestern beat them twice this year, but neither game was a comfortable win. The Terrapins have no shot at the NCAA Tournament except in the case of an unlikely Big Ten Tournament Championship victory, so they’ll be fighting hard despite the odds.

Graduate guard Jahmir Young is third in the conference in points per game with 20.8, while third-year forward Julian Reese ranks third in the conference in rebounds with an average of 9.7 per game. Reese, who averages 13.9 points per game, sat out with an ankle injury during Maryland’s final regular season game on Sunday, an 85-69 loss to Penn State (15-16, 9-11 B1G). His absence likely sealed the defeat for the Terrapins and his healthy return will mean the difference for Maryland in the tournament.

No. 13 Rutgers

Northwestern faced Rutgers (15-16, 7-13 B1G) once this season, a heartbreaking 63-60 road loss that saw the Scarlet Knights come back from an 11-point second-half deficit. The matchup was Northwestern’s first road game following Berry’s season-ending injury, and his absence was sorely felt as the ’Cats shot 36% from the field.

Rutgers has the lowest-scoring offense in the conference, putting up an average of 65.8 points per game. However, they put on a tough defensive showing, ranking third in the conference in scoring defense by holding their opponents to an average of 66.6 points per game. They also lead the conference in blocks and rank second in steals. Fourth-year center Clifford Omoruyi anchors the defense, averaging a conference-high 2.9 blocks per game and ranking fourth in rebounds with 8.5 per game. In the absence of a consistent starting lineup and a clear offensive star, the Scarlet Knights will have to rely on their stopping ability to have any luck in the tournament.

No. 1 Purdue

If Northwestern comes out of their first game victorious, they are likely to face Purdue (28-3, 17-3 B1G) for the third time this season. The Boilermakers, led by fourth-year center Zach Edey, have once again dominated the season in the conference and in the country. Northwestern’s 92-88 overtime win over then-No. 1 Purdue back in December was perhaps the most exciting moment of the season, and a tournament showdown is sure to be thrilling to watch.

However, with Nicholson’s foot injury knocking him out of the lineup indefinitely, the ’Cats will be at an even greater size disadvantage than usual against the 7-foot-4 Edey. Northwestern shot at least 50% from three-point-land in their last two games against the Boilermakers, a necessary stat to match if they want to make it out alive while at such a disadvantage in the post. Without Berry, who scored at least 20 points in the last two matchups against Purdue and shot a combined 64% from the three-point stripe over those games, the ’Cats will need all hands on deck.

Championship game?

Northwestern needs two wins to land themselves in the tournament championship game, and at that point, the competition is anyone’s guess. No. 2 Illinois (23-8, 14-6 B1G) and No. 3 Nebraska (22-9, 12-8 B1G) are the obvious favorites, but nine of the 14 conference teams have ended the regular season within a three-win range. The competition is fierce, no matter where it comes from, and if last year’s championship matchup between No. 10 Penn State and No. 1 Purdue is any indication, upsets should be taken in stride.

Ultimately, the ’Cats will be battling for a better outcome than last year’s early exit and another chance to prove their resilience. Northwestern is all but guaranteed a March Madness berth, but their performance in the conference tournament will determine where exactly they’re seeded. Perhaps more importantly, the ’Cats will be fighting for pride – and a chance to write history if they pick up those two wins and make their first-ever appearance in a Big Ten Tournament championship game.

Thumbnail photo by AJ Anderson/North by Northwestern.