Your average Chicago sports fan will wake up on Sunday morning pumped up to see the Chicago Bears meet Wisconsin’s NFL team, the Green Bay Packers, in a battle for the right to advance to the Super Bowl. Personally, I’m going to be much more pumped for another battle between a Wisconsin institution and a Chicago-area team. The University of Wisconsin’s Badgers versus our Northwestern Wildcats at 11:30AM in Welsh-Ryan Arena.
While most people in Chicago won’t see NU/Wisky as all that significant a contest with the Bears/Packers game foremost on their minds, the truth is Chicago’s Big Ten Team needs this win as much as Chicago’s NFL Team needs their own. Northwestern hasn’t yet found a way to beat a team that is perceived and ranked as better than them this season. They’ve hammered a number of weaker squads, but that’s not enough to make a serious case for admission to the NCAA Tournament. Now, beating Wisconsin in Welsh-Ryan might not exactly qualify as a true signature win, it’ll be the first serious supporting detail in the thesis statement that Northwestern is an NCAA Tournament team.
Last year Wisconsin was to Northwestern what Michigan State was this season. NU should have won both games, but ended up losing both. What makes Wisconsin such a difficult matchup for NU is their size and the deliberate style of basketball they play. Wisconsin leads the nation in fewest turnovers and doesn’t rush to get shots. They score just about 70 points per game, but are very happy to play games in the 60s. They also shoot 44% overall and 37% from three as a team. That means that not only does Wisconsin get a shot up on the rim almost every possession, but they can make a pretty high percentage of those. If they miss, they have 191 offensive rebounds this season and forward Keaton Nankivil has 34 of those. Almost half of his about 5 rebounds per game come on the offensive end. Wisconsin’s overall rebound advantage is only about four boards a game more than their opponents, but Nankivil and Jon Leuer, who scores about 19 a game and rebounds more than seven, will give NU problems with their size and physical play. Plus, they aren’t the only big physical players Wisconsin has. It seems like Bo Ryan has some sort of cloning lab at the UW’s med school because he keeps trotting out big guys who appear similar and play a similarly physical style. Mike Brusesewitz is aptly named as he doesn’t shy away from contact nor does Jared Berggren. I think if John Shurna were totally healthy he’d be a big problem for these guys with his quickness and Wisconsin might have to put a smaller defender on him, but I worry that with his ankle Shurna will be defended by one of Wisconsins’s bigs and they’ll get a hand in his face and he won’t be able to get around them.
Wisconsin in the backcourt has Jordan Taylor at the point who is one of several great Big Ten points. He scores about 17 a game and isn’t a good a three point shooter as Nankivil or Leuer who are each over 45%, but he can knock down the open jumper as can swingman Tim Jarmusz. I think NU has to try to play matchup or man-to-man versus Wisconsin because the Badgers have too many weapons they could use against a 1-3-1.
I think NU also has to try to take Wisconsin out of their deliberate pace. NU needs to get some shots up and in early to try and force Wisconsin into a game in which they have move up and down the court and possibly make mistakes. That’s why this being a home game is such an advantage for Northwestern. The Wildcats clearly play better at home. The guards and forwards shoot better from three and the centers seem smarter with the ball and more willing to fight for rebounds. If NU comes out hot from three as they have often in Welsh-Ryan Arena and stays smart with the ball the while game, I think they’ll post a big win for them and the City of Chicago. I predict: Northwestern, 81 Wisconsin, 77