The Matchup: #8 Minnesota (21-9) vs #9 Northwestern (17-12)
Location: Conseco Fieldhouse (Indianapolis, Indiana)
TV: Big Ten Network (11:00 AM CT)
Radio: WGN 720 AM
Fun Fact: Northwestern and Minnesota met in the first ever Big Ten Tournament game following the conclusion of the 1997-98 regular season.
About the Game
The NCAA Tournament is on the line in this first round Big Ten Tournament contest. Minnesota can likely clinch an NCAA breath with a win, while a loss will likely send the Gophers to the NIT. Northwestern probably needs at least two wins in the Big Ten Tournament to once again make the NCAA bubble, but a win over the Gophers probably assures the ‘Cats at least a top half NIT seed. A loss and the Wildcats might find themselves on the road in the NIT or in the CBI or CIT.
These two teams split their regular season meetings. Northwestern posted a 74-65 win in Evanston and Minnesota won in a blowout 72-45 at Williams Arena. It should probably be noted that Northwestern might have be plagued by the flu in that loss. As a result, Kevin Coble and Craig Moore played their lowest number of combined minutes all season in that contest.
Looking at the differences in the two games, other than the flu, Minnesota generated many more Wildcat turnovers in the second contest. This helped the Gophers get a great deal of fast break points. This is critical as Minnesota tends to struggle with turnovers at times in their half court offense. If fact, Northwestern forced the Gophers into almost 20 turnovers in the Evanston contest because they stopped the Gophers from fast breaking. This also significantly reduced the number of free throws Minnesota took. The Gophers took 27 free throws in their victory. Gopher guard Lawrence Westbrook is the type of player who excels at getting to the line and making free throws. He is an excellent penetrator and despite his limited size, he can finish at the hoop. Northwestern needs to do a better job on Westbrook than they did on Evan Turner in their last game. What might help the ‘Cats is that Jeremy Nash and Jeff Ryan are both bigger than Westbrook. In addition to getting Westbrook into the lane, Minnesota will try to take advantage of their superior size inside to outrebound NU and score easy at the basket. If Minnesota watched how B.J. Mullens embarrassed NU, they might try the same plan with their own big freshman Colton Iverson.
For Northwestern the key will be getting off to a good start. NU seemed overcome by the magnitude of the Ohio State game and they quickly found themselves down 15 points. Traditionally, the first game in the Big Ten Tournament is a low scoring affair thanks to the early start. If the Wildcats can come out of the locker room and shoot a high percentage in the first half they might be able to coast to victory.
When Northwestern and Minnesota played the second time I expected Minnesota to win, but I expected the game to be close. I think despite Minnesota’s size, Northwestern can play with the Gophers. The reason is Minnesota has nearly as many turnovers as assists. In addition, Minnesota is only a 33.6% three point shooting team. This means Northwestern might be able to use the 1-3-1 zone which has caused Minnesota trouble in the past without having to worry about the Gophers shooting the Wildcats out of the gym. Also, despite both teams losing their last game before the Big Ten Tournament, Northwestern finished the year stronger. Fans should further note that though neither team was great on the road this season, Northwestern played slightly better away from home. Of course, Minnesota is the one team of the two to play on a neutral court. The odds are this game will be as neutral a setting as possible. Neither Minnesota nor Northwestern tend to bring a ton of fans to the Big Ten Tournament. Also, since the game is the first of the day, many fans will not show up until halftime. That means when the game starts the crowd will probably be about 5,000 people in 18,345 seat arena. As a result, the teams will need to bring their own intensity. I hope Northwestern learned how from the Ohio State game. I expect they did, but I don’t think it’ll be so much they put the Gophers away. This will be a very close game, but I do think the ‘Cats will live up to my preseason expectation and break their Big Ten Tournament losing streak. Northwestern, 68 Minnesota, 66