A much anticipated Big Ten season opens for Northwestern on Friday with muted enthusiasm. The Wildcats (9-1) are preparing for a powerful Purdue (12-1) squad uncertain about the status of backup forward Ivan Peljusic, starting guard JerShon Cobb, and starting forward/leading scorer John Shurna. All three have suffered injuries in the last two weeks and all three (but especially Shurna) are critical to NU’s potential Big Ten success. I said early this week that one of the key’s to NU making its first NCAA Tournament was a healthy roster. The latest reports on Shurna were positive, but even if he plays he might not be at full strength. Positive reports have also come out about JerShon Cobb who suffered a hip injury coming into the year and then got slammed to the ground with great force by a St. John’s player which no doubt made the young freshman extremely sore. Teams can (and do) rally when missing starters, but to beat a very talented Purdue team down two starters would be asking an awful lot of a Northwestern team that while possessing some depth, isn’t deep offensively.
Perhaps NU’s best hopes for an upset rest on the fact that Purdue isn’t that deep on offense either. The Boilermakers are a very hard-nosed aggressive defensive team that will overplay and try to create points off turnovers. On offense, though, the Boilers are primarily a two man team. Center JaJuan John scores 20ppg and guard E’Twaun Moore gets 19.5ppg. If you are primarily a two person offense those are two good guys to have as your two, but if someone NU can take one of them out of the flow the Boilers next best scorer NU will see is D.J. Byrd. Byrd only scores 5.7ppg, but did have a big game in Purdue’s win over Michigan which started the Boilers Big Ten season on December 28th. Purdue also got a good game from guard Ryne Smith versus Michigan. It’s hard to know what defense NU will play against Purdue, but if they play the 1-3-1, Coach Matt Painter will no doubt ask Smith (46.3% 3PT) to once again spot up in the corner and look for threes. Moore, of course, is also a solid three point shooter at over 43%, but the rest of the Boilers are not great shooters. Point guard Lewis Jackson makes just 20% of his threes and scores just 4.5ppg. Basically, he gets the ball to Johnson and Moore and he does that well.
If I were Northwestern’s I would really try to work the backdoor cuts vs Purdue’s very aggressive overplaying defense. In order to do that, though, Shurna needs to be healthy because you need to cut quick given how fast and aggressive Purdue is on defense. Once NU gets a few easy backdoors that should open up the three point shot. NU’s three point shooting has been primarily John Shurna (at least as far as true consistency), but NU will need more than him in the Big Ten play. I’d like to see Juice Thompson get more aggressive on offense and Drew Crawford and Alex Marcotullio more consistently hit jump shots. If those things happen I think NU can pull several Big Ten upsets.
The bottom line going into this game is that Northwestern isn’t healthy and they’re playing a very talented team which can probably take advantage of playing the undermanned ‘Cats. I don’t honestly think Purdue is that much better than Northwestern, but I think once again bad luck has struck the Wildcats at the wrong time. At some point Northwestern basketball has to catch a positive break, but the long list of inconvenient bad luck which seems never to end now seems to have brought a less than 100 hundred percent John Shurna (who when healthy is the Big Ten’s best all around player and would be a major matchup problem for Robbie Hummel-less Purdue) to West Lafayette, Indiana and I suspect Purdue will take advantage of their good luck. I predict: Purdue, 77 Northwestern, 68