Let’s be honest, Northwestern’s non-conference basketball schedule isn’t that tough. The ‘Cats are 6-0 currently and will be favored to go 11-0 in non-Big Ten (or B1G) games during the rest of the regular season. With that schedule, NU really won’t get to post many wins they’ll use to impress tournament selection committees. Without any big name non-conference wins, NU needs to find a way to justify its non-conference schedule and one way to do that is to look at the number of teams NU plays that do make the postseason. Teams such Creighton, Georgia Tech, and Long Island have legitimate hopes of making some postseason. Those might not be great wins, but at least when a committee looks at NU’s record against teams who are in the postseason those wins will help. American University falls into the same category for NU. The Eagles will not be a top-25 team at any point this season. However, they have a legitimate shot at a Patriot League title and an NCAA bid. They would likely be a #15 or #16-seed (at least one projection has them as a #16-seed facing Duke in their tourney opener), but they’d be in the Big Dance and thus beating them is as significant as anything else NU might do during the non-conference season. Plus, this game is on real TV on the BTN as opposed to streaming video so more causal fans can watch. That’s potentially good for generating a positive impression in the college basketball world at large if the ‘Cats play well again.
Another reason this game against American U has value for NU is that the Eagles have big man with skill in Vlad Moldoveanu. The 6-9 forward scores 20.3 a game and grabs 5.6 rpg. He’s also a decent three point shooter at 31.2% and knocks down 75% of his free throws. Basically, he’s an all-around good player and facing him should test NU’s centers the same way facing Creighton’s Kenny Lawson Jr. did. I have to say that NU’s duo of Luka Mirkovic and Davide Curletti came through against Lawson so I hope they come through versus big Vlad. That Wildcat duo is maddeningly inconsistent and can’t be so if NU wants to do anything in the Big Ten. Overall at this point I’ve probably been more impressed with backup Davide Curletti than starter Mirkovic. Curletti always seems to be hustling and trying to play hard, he just sometimes seems to have trouble with playing foul-free defense. He’s a lot more confident than he was the last two years as he’s now not worried about shooting a three or making a post move. Luka on the other hand seems to be too easily discouraged by bad results. He’s reluctant to take shots if he doesn’t have success early and doesn’t consistently hit the glass or play defense aggressively. Mirkovic was a highly regarded recruit who has shown flashes, but he needs to really step up if NU has any chance of making the Big Dance.
If American wants to make the Big Dance they need more than just Vlad which is why University of Georgia transfer Troy Brewer is perhaps the Eagles key player. Brewer is legit with BCS credentials as he scored 12 points in the 2008 SEC Championship game as a freshman to lead Georgia to the Big Dance. So far this season he’s hitting for 13.6ppg and knocking down 38.8% of his threes. The one weakness he has is more turnovers than assists. With Brewer and Vlad being AU’s only players making over 30% of their threes I’d look for coach Carmody to drop NU into the 1-3-1 early. I know he wants to work on the matchup/switching man, but Carmody has to see that NU hustles more in the 1-3-1 and this Eagle team seems like a perfect team to play that zone against. The Eagles third leading scorer helps argue the point. Stephen Lumpkins scores 12.4 ppg, hasn’t tried a three all year, and has more turnovers than assist. If NU does play 1-3-1 AU will try to get shooting from the sub-30% three point trio of Daniel Munoz, Nick Bersch, and Nick Hendra. All three are regarded as potential shooters, but their numbers don’t show success. Hendra and Munoz are the team’s best ball handlers though and I’d expect them to be the guys under initial pressure against NU’s zone.
Statistically despite AU being a top team in their league NU should dominate this contest, but I’m a bit worried about how NU’s centers will handle Moldoveanu. Can Luka and Davide really shut down such a player? They did stop Kenny Lawson Jr. Therefore, I’d like to think they can even if NU’s interior defense in their last game was terrible. It’s also worth noting that despite a 5-3 record AU has lost their last three overall and their last two against BCS teams by 21 and 19 points respectively. I also think you’ll actually see NU play better on offense than they did versus LIU, despite the fact they shot 50% overall. That means this probably is another pretty solid win for the ‘Cats which is good as they wrap up this home stand and get ready to play in New York. I predict: Northwestern, 85 American, 64