The Matchup: Northwestern (14-5) @ Minnesota (12-7)
Location: Williams Arena (Minneapolis, MN)
TV: Big Ten Network (8:00 PM CT Tuesday January 26th)
Radio: WIND 560 AM
Fun Fact: Since taking over Minnesota, Tubby Smith has played Northwestern more than any other opponent thanks to two matchups in the Big Ten Tournament.
About the Game
We’re 19 games into the season and as long as Northwestern keeps winning, the magnitude of each game will continue to rise. In game 20 the Wildcats travel north to Minneapolis with a potential at-large NCAA-birth on the line. Right now, Northwestern is in slightly better shape than Minnesota for an NCAA bid. The Wildcats have a better RPI (#56 compared to #64) and have two more wins. Minnesota does have a stronger strength of schedule (#32 to #71). Those numbers will get pushed aside, though, starting at 8:00PM CT tomorrow. By the end of the night, one team will have a legitimate case over the other for an invitation to the big dance.
If Northwestern wants to get out of Minnesota with a victory they’ll have to counter some impressive Gopher athletes. The good news is that Minnesota is actually a very similar team to Illinois, who the ‘Cats just beat. Minnesota’s leading scorer is guard Lawrence Westbrook. Westbrook scores 13.3 ppg and along with fellow guard Blake Hoffarber is the reason I hope NU sticks to the switching man-to-man avoids playing the 1-3-1 zone. Westbrook makes 42.2% of this threes and Hoffarber is the best shooter in the Big Ten with a three point percentage of 49.5%. The good news for NU is that while many of the Gophers are very athletic, Hoffarber is more of a standstill shooter. If Northwestern can put Drew Crawford on Hoffarber in man-to-man, I believe Crawford can blanket the Gopher guard and keep his damage to a minimum.
The area where I’m more concerned about Minnesota doing damage is on defense. The Gophers are masterful at using their small, quick, and smart guards to cause turnovers and turn those turnovers into easy points. Westbrook, Devoe Joseph, and Justin Cobbs will go after Michael “Juice” Thompson and Jeremy Nash in the backcourt. It is critical that Thompson play his normal smart game and, unlike Illinois, stay out of foul trouble. While Nick Frudent and Alex Marcotullio were able to hold the fort against Illinois, I don’t want them to have to face the Gopher pressure.
Part of what makes Minnesota’s pressure so effective is that Tubby Smith rotates fresh players constantly. Athletic forward Damian Johnson (10.5 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 2.1 bpg) leads the Gophers in minutes per game with 25.4. That’s a far cry from Thompson leading NU with more than 38 minutes per game. The Wildcats use of their bench against Illinois might prove very useful in preparing for Minnesota. I expect fans will see more time from Kyle Rowley in order to rest Luka Mirkovic from having to face the constant rotation of not only Johnson and Ralph Sampson III inside, but also Gopher big men Paul Carter and Colton Iverson. Other Wildcats subs like Mike Capocci and Ivan Peljusic may be called on once again as well.
Some of have said this game could, like the Illinois contest from Saturday, be an NCAA elimination game. It is almost certainly that for Minnesota, but I’d like to think NU’s better record might allow them to survive even with a loss. Still, this might be NU’s best chance at big road win as winning in East Lansing or Madison will be tough. That might make this a must-win for NU as well. Perhaps the best news for Northwestern is that while the ‘Cats seem to be trending upwards, the Gophers are dealing with academic issues which have disqualified guard Al Nolen and the disappointment of two close losses in a row. The other good news is that NU has risen to the occasion every other time they faced a must-win. They beat Michigan on the road to help stabilize their season in a tough stretch, they beat Purdue for a signature win, and they bested Illinois in a contest selection committee members will look back on in March. I’m looking at those contests as evidence this year’s Wildcats are one of those teams who constantly succeeds when backed up against the wall. Northwestern, 66 Minnesota, 63