Somehow when no one was looking Northwestern’s matchup with Penn State Thursday on ESPN2 at 8PM turned back into a big game for NU’s tournament hopes. Yes, the Penn State game’s magnitude is based somewhat on an expectation of NU doing something unexpected (I get a just used the phrase expectation of the unexpected, but I think as NU fan that’s something you have to develop otherwise you have no hope in your life) either at Wisconsin or in the Big Ten Tournament, but without a win over Penn State inside Welsh-Ryan even a win at Wisconsin or a run to the BTT’s final game might not be impressive enough to get NU into the Big Dance.
It’s still amazing, and more than a little depressing, to me that Penn State’s senior class has never lost to Northwestern. Of course, one look at Talor Battle’s career stats against NU and you don’t have trouble believing PSU might be the dominate team in the series. What’s really amazing is that with the exception of the 2008-09 game at Penn State in which NU held a large lead before Battle caught fire and lit the Wildcats up in the second half, the games haven’t even been close. We all remember a couple weeks back very well, but if we think back to last season it was the same story twice. NU doesn’t even seem to play Penn State well inside Welsh-Ryan, where they play everybody well!
At times people have focused on matchups and Penn State does have some big athletic guys in Jeff Brooks, Andrew Jones, and David Jackson. All three are about 6-8/9 and can score the basketball in a number of ways as well as rebound. I’ll be the first to admit that those types of players can give NU trouble, but Penn State isn’t the only team in the Big Ten with such guys. There is also Battle, who does seem to catch fire vs NU, but he’s not the only good shooter Northwestern faces during the course of the year. He might be the only one with 2,000-career points (a record he not surprisingly set vs NU), but if NU can contain Demetri McCamey who is bigger and probably a better pure shooter, shouldn’t they be able to contain Battle? For some reason Penn State seems to scare NU.
I actually think some of NU’s game plan vs Illinois is what they need to bring out in order to beat Penn State. Like PSU, Illinois destroyed Northwestern the first times the teams played, when NU was the road team. However, in the ‘Cat home game NU got the better of the Illini. How did they do it? I think one major aspect to NU’s upset of Illinois was letting go of the loss. This might be tougher vs Penn State because it’s not just the loss two weeks ago that they need to let go, but a whole career of failure. However, it’s not worth worrying about. Those games are in the past. They won’t give Penn State any extra points on Thursday nor will they cost NU any.
If NU can’t let go of those past games than anything else I write is worthless, but let’s assume they do and talk a little more specific basketball strategy. First off, I think NU needs to pick up Battle at 90 feet. NU hasn’t done much pressing, but I’m not saying press. Tim Frazier will probably bring the ball up the court for Penn State most of the time, I just want Talor Battle to have a shadow the whole day for tip to the final buzzer. I’d even try to follow him into the locker room at halftime, but that’s probably not allowed. I’d also say that I’d personally choose Alex Marcotullio to be that guy. I know that’d probably mean starting him over JerShon Cobb or Drew Crawford, but the truth is I think Marcotullio is the only guy Northwestern has who consistently fights on defense and I truthfully trust him more than anyone else. If Northwestern ends up with Cobb or Crawford switching all the time and Battle runs a pick-and-roll with a big guy and gets himself isolated on Luka Mirkovic as he did at PSU it’s over for Northwestern. That CAN’T happen, but I’m sure Battle will try to make it occur. Versus Illinois NU did a much better job of not letting guards attack big men and doing so again will be critical.
On offense, I think NU needs to try to play fast again. The slower offense worked a couple times, but Penn State wants to play slow. All their big wins have been low-scoring. I think NU needs to go back to the “see an open shot, pull the trigger” system for this game. They’ll be at home where they shoot better and maybe being given the green light will relax some of the guys who have slumped of late. Sure, if NU employs that game plan and the shots don’t go in then they’re screwed, but they’ve been pretty well screwed with every other game plan they’ve tried versus Penn State, so I’m advocating a different one. Remember, NU’s fearless approach on offense resulted in 55 points in the first half against Georgia Tech, so it does have a track record.
I’d also like to see NU hit the glass hard. Look back at the Ohio State game. OSU is big and quick, but NU hung with them on the glass because they sent four or five guys to the offensive glass every time. That’ll be critical as well because with Jones, Jackson, and Brooks PSU will probably get some offensive rebounds of their own.
In the end, I think this game comes down to how well Northwestern shoots the ball. Northwestern defended Penn State okay (but not great) in Happy Valley and I’m confident the Nits won’t explode on NU in Welsh-Ryan. However, NU’s 2-of-21 three point shooting pretty much cashed any chance NU had of getting a win in the Bryce Jordan Center. Inside Welsh-Ryan NU does shoot much better and I think the freedom to fire will make a difference. The last two wins have silenced a lot of Bill Carmody’s critics, but I really think the great coaches are the ones who you hate to play twice because even if you roll them the first time, you know they’ll have a plan to make life tough for you the second time around. Bill Carmody found a way to do that vs Illinois and I’m thinking (and hoping) this game goes down much the same way. I predict: Northwestern, 71 Penn State, 70