The Matchup: Northwestern (17-9) @ Wisconsin (19-7)
Location: Kohl Center (Madison, WI)
TV: Big Ten Network (1:00 PM Sunday February 21st, 2010)
Radio: WGN AM 720
Fun Fact: Northwestern was the opponent when Wisconsin opened the Kohl Center
About the Game
Wisconsin beat Northwestern 60-50 in Evanston this season. It was the Badgers first game without Jon Leuer and for a time it seemed the team from Madison was in deep trouble without their star. Thankfully for the Badgers, but much to the dismay of the Wildcats, Wisconsin’s other star, Trevon Hughes, picked up the slack in the game’s final 7 minutes to help push Wisconsin on to victory.
The win helped prove to the Badgers they could be successful without Leuer. Now, Leuer is back, having returned in a loss at Minnesota, and the Badgers need to win if they want to stay in the Big Ten Title race. For Northwestern, the loss to the Badgers is one of three or four Big Ten losses which could have turned NU’s season around. The ‘Cats, once seemingly headed to the NCAA Tournament, are now fighting for Big Ten Tournament positioning and a possible high seed in the NIT.
If Northwestern is to pull an epic upset, NU will need to improve on defense. NU’s defensive effort recently has not impressed. The Wildcats have allowed teams to get easy looks at the basket when playing both the 1-3-1 and the matchup zone or switching man-to-man. For whatever reason, it seems this group of NU players lack the innate aggressiveness to pressure passing lanes some of their predecessors have possessed. When they do so, say the last 9:33 of last week’s Minnesota game, this team has the ability to be very good, but it just doesn’t seem to happen enough. Some cite Bill Carmody’s lack of bench use as the reason for this, but I fear many of NU’s bench players wouldn’t be capable of playing pressure defense even if they wanted to do so. If NU wants to beat Wisconsin, the starting five need to fully invest in their defensive effort.
The key guy will be Luka Mirkovic who will be faced with tough matchups down low in Leuer (14.7ppg 5.9rpg) and Keaton Nankivil (8.7ppg 5.0rpg). Both Badger forwards are athletic and can score inside as well as outside. Mirkovic certainly has the skill to defend them, but Luka as a player hasn’t exactly ever taken the advice of NU football coach Pat Fitzgerald and “flushed” bad play. Instead, Luka seems to let it linger, and he missed six key free throws last time out. Mirkovic is perhaps NU’s biggest key to victory. He must “flush” his poor play from Wednesday if NU wants to win.
NU also needs to find a way to contain Trevon Hughes (15.5ppg 38.9% 3PT) and Jason Bohannon (12.2ppg 41.1% 3PT) on the perimeter. In Evanston, Bohannon had a big first half before Hughes finished off the game. While there are some tough matchups in man-t0-man, none are ridiculous in favor of Wisconsin. The key is probably Drew Crawford who would have to face either Bohannon or Hughes. Crawford is physically gifted enough to play man-to-man on anyone, but sometimes he doesn’t bring his “A” game. That’s not uncommon for freshman, but at this point Crawford should have the confidence to show up each game. He’s more than proven he belongs. Now he needs to make sure he lets others know that. His whole team does.
Somehow, it seems Northwestern’s basketball program suffers from some sort of collective mental or physical block. It doesn’t seem to matter what season it is or what personnel are involved. NU hoops remains unable to get over the hump and defy expectations. They’ve come remarkably close multiple times. Probably closer in the last two years than anytime before (though the 98-99 team came awfully close as well, especially in the Big Ten Tournament), but yet NU seems to remain, to paraphrase former NU football coach Dennis Green, exactly what people think they are. They are a team that can certainly pull an upset (ask current #4 Purdue), but they aren’t the team that has truly broken through and become the nightmare matchup a really talented Princeton Offense squad can be for athletic opponents. If NU is to become that team, if they are going to start defying expectations and become more than people think they are, beating Wisconsin in Madison would be a good place to start. It wouldn’t put NU back in the NCAA Tournament, but it would still be one of the more meaningful wins in program history.
So can Northwestern win? The easy answer is that they have no chance. Wisconsin is at home, they’re upset after their last loss, and they have guys like Hughes, Leuer, Bohannon, and Jordan Taylor (9.7ppg 29.4% 3PT). I think the truth, though, is NU does have a chance. As I noted above, NU doesn’t have any terrible matchups with Wisconsin. In fact, I’d much rather matchup with Wisconsin than Michigan State or Ohio State. In NU’s loss to the Badgers, it simply came down to Trevon Hughes making big plays, but that’s not to say that on a different day Juice Thompson couldn’t be the one making big plays. The problem with the game Sunday is that Wisconsin is at the Kohl Center. They’re 52-1 in that building against non-ranked Big Ten teams. Of course, they’re only 1-1 in their last two games. They also almost lost to Penn State and Michigan in that building earlier this season. Clearly this Wisconsin squad isn’t as dominate as past teams. Bottom line, I think NU can win. If NU is to win, though, they need to get through above-mentioned block. They can’t just go through the motions and expect a loss just because the game’s at the Kohl Center. That’s what NU teams of the past have done. Is this team any different? After the loss to Penn State it is easy to answer, “no”, and that’s the answer everybody would expect from NU. No NU team in history has ever answered “yes” to that question. I say that changes Sunday at 1:00PM. Northwestern, 61 Wisconsin, 60*
* We’ll call this the Welsh-Ryan Ramblings Expect Victory Upset Special of the Year. I didn’t have one last year, but looking back at my predictions it probably would have been against Illinois, that almost worked out.