On the heels of a disappointing defeat on Sunday, Northwestern will take a trip out of state for a game Wednesday in Minnesota. The ‘Cats opponent, the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers bring a 15-4 record and a #16 national ranking to the contest. This means that as bad as NU’s loss to Wisconsin might have been, NU can erase they defeat with an even more significant victory on Wednesday. The win would be especially big given that it would be a road win which is valued by the selection committee even more than home victories.
This might be stating the obvious, but this game won’t be easy. Teams that lose by 20-plus points at home don’t generally pull upsets on the road in their next game. However, Northwestern is a strange team. Sure, they pretty much beat who they should beat and lose to who they should lose to (that would mean a loss vs Minnesota) but the way they play from game to game is wildly unpredictable. NU’s lost some bad games besides Wisconsin, but several have been very close as well. On the other hand, most of NU’s wins have been easy, but their closest was to one of their weakest opponents. What’s all that mean? It’s anybody’s guess. I chose to believe that it means even though NU has yet to pull an upset this year that it still is possible.
If NU is going to pull the upset they must play defense. NU’s given up two historic offensive performances this year at Illinois and vs Wisconsin. Some credit those teams (and they deserve some credit), but the truth is that if you get beat so badly twice, it’s a pattern and some of the blame has to fall on you. I mean part of me has no trouble believing Northwestern is the team just unlucky enough to catch both teams on their best days ever, but in truth you don’t get as hot from deep as those teams without seeing some holes in the other guy’s defense. For NU to correct those holes they need to play with a little more effort on defense. In past years NU had guys who elevated the rest of the team’s defensive efforts, but we haven’t seen that this season. It would be a significant step if either JerShon Cobb or Drew Crawford used their athletic skill to really step to the forefront as NU’s top defender. One advantage NU might have in stopping Minnesota is the Gophers are without point guard Al Nolen who suffered a foot injury. With Devoe Joseph having transferred, Minnesota is short at guard. Maverick Ahanmisi will likely start on Wednesday and to this point he’s played just about nine minutes a game. If NU is going to try to use their active zone defenses to get turnovers this might be the night. The only problem with NU going 1-3-1 is the Gophers have Blake Hoffarber who is a 40% three point shooter to use in the holes of NU’s zone.
The other advantage the Gophers will have is size. NU had managed to avoid disaster on the boards in the Big Ten until Sunday when the Badgers dominated the ‘Cats. The Gophers have Ralph Sampson III and Trevor Mbakwe who are both big and mobile and who score in double figures and get more than five boards a game. Mbakwe actually gets more than 10. Colton Iverson is also a big Gopher who can rebound. Between those three, NU is going to need Luka Mirkovic to get some major help from the athletic duo of Cobb and Crawford.
Drew Crawford might be the most significant player for NU in this game. Not only does he need to be a factor on defense and the glass, but he needs to wave his magician’s wand and make himself reappear on offense as well. Crawford averages about 13 points a game, but it seems like he scores either 26 or 0 in a contest. 26 from Crawford would sure help increase NU’s chances.
NU also needs Juice Thompson to stay out of foul trouble. Minnesota will try to apply pressure and NU needs Juice on the floor to break it.
With this game being the first for the Gopher without Nolen anything could happen. Sometimes teams rally especially in the first game without a star. However, sometimes the loss of a player as blessed as Nolen will make a team panic. I think this game will be close as Minnesota adjusts, what likely will win it for Minnesota is the way the Gophers can dominate inside. NU could have a hot shooting night as Williams Arena is known as a great shooing environment, but if they don’t, I doubt any of NU’s inside players will be able to pick up the slack. I predict: Minnesota, 78 Northwestern, 70