The Matchup: Northwestern (14-10) @ Minnesota (19-7)
Location: Williams Arena (Minneapolis, MN)
TV: Big Ten Network (6:00 PM CT Sunday)
Radio: WIND 560 AM
Fun Fact: Including his redshirt freshmen season, Sterling Williams is 3-1 at Williams Arena as a Wildcat.
About the Game
Minnesota comes into this game with a 19-7 overall record, but a 14-2 mark at home. Returning home is probably big for the Gophers after a disastrous game against Michigan on Thursday night. On the heels of that defeat, Minnesota needs a win against the Wildcats to keep their NCAA tournament bubble from bursting.
On the side of things, Northwestern might be out of the NCAA tournament picture, but they are still fighting for postseason position. After NU’s win on Wednesday night over Ohio State, the bracket project moved NU’s projection to a 5-seed in the NIT. Given NU’s struggles on the road (with one notable exception) it is very important to the Wildcats postseason success that they either get to play home games or show they are more than one-hit wonders away from Welsh-Ryan Arena.
Looking back at the first meeting between Northwestern and Minnesota, the Wildcats won 74-65 on the strength of 22 points from Craig Moore and 19 forced turnovers. In this rematch, Tubby Smith will likely focus the Gophers attention on keeping close track of Moore and cutting down on the turnovers. It could lead to an interesting chess match between the coaches if Smith changes his offense to counter the 1-3-1 and Bill Carmody chooses to play more of the 2-3 zone/switching man-to-man he has used in recent games. One determining factor in the outcome of the game and what defense Northwestern plays will be if the ‘Cats can cause enough turnovers to counter Minnesota’s ability to make threes. In the first contest, Minnesota made 10 threes. Gophers leading scorer Lawrence Westbrook made 3-of-8 and scored 18 points, while his teammate Damian Johnson made 2-of-3 and shot 6-of-9 overall. What had to disappoint Smith, though, was how despite the Gophers size, they only outrebounded the Wildcats by two rebounds. This will be another key factor to keep an eye on as NU’s tries for the season sweep. The ‘Cats might be at a disadvantage this time, however, because Luka Mirkovic who played the majority of NU’s minutes at center in the contest in Evanston has been out sick for a week and has lost 20 pounds. Even if Mirkovic comes back, NU will need Kyle Rowley to continue to play as well as he did in the second half against Ohio State if they want to matchup with the Gophers big men.
Overall, Northwestern has struggled on the road this season. While the win over Michigan State is a major highlight of the season so far, the Wildcat losses to Michigan and Iowa away from Welsh-Ryan Arena are low points. Minnesota, on the other hand, his struggled mightily away from Williams Arena, but have only lost two games at home. One factor that might play into Northwestern’s favor is the fact the Wildcats are on an emotional high after the win over Ohio State and Minnesota has to be at least a little down after their disappointing loss to Michigan. However, Tubby Smith isn’t the type of coach to let his team stay down. I expect this will be a close game, but I think Minnesota’s home court advantage combined NU’s road struggles gives them the edge. I fear NU will have to wait until Wednesday at Indiana to record Big Ten road win number two. Minnesota, 65 Northwestern, 60