What’s at stake for Northwestern on Thursday? Well, I’m guessing an NIT home game. NU’s 17-12 record combined with a strong Big Ten puts them probably right at the borderline on the middle of the NIT. Right now, NU is probably a 5-seed or a 6-seed, but I think with a win over a Minnesota team that is also likely destined to play in the NIT would give NU a strong case for a home game. The game would give NU a two out of three advantage over Minnesota for the year and place the Wildcats at a respectable 5-4 in their last nine games. If they drop a game on Friday to Ohio State, NU will still be 5-5 in their last ten, which while not an official criteria, is still something committees look at when judging teams.
NU just beat Minnesota in the season’s last game, but of course that game was in Evanston at Welsh-Ryan Arena where NU is much better than anywhere else (with the exception of Iowa City, Iowa). Now, NU has to go into Conseco Fieldhouse to try to top the Gophers. Conseco will be pretty empty when these two teams play so the crowd won’t be a factor, but for NU, which is a shooting team, playing in a new environment means adjusting to shooting in that new environment quickly.
Once again, Minnesota’s advantage is the fact they have three monsters inside. Trevor Mbawke at 13.7ppg and 10.5rpg is the headliner, but Ralph Sampson III and Colton Iverson both have size and the ability to rebound and score as well. Sampson even has displayed a nice touch on mid-range jump shots which sometimes presents a matchup problem. NU’s Luka Mirkovic was terrible against Minnesota last week, but thankfully Davide Curletti made up for Luka’s poor play. I think for NU to win on Thursday, though, both will need to play well. Sure, Curletti has been great of late, but Minnesota might shoot better than they have been of late and if that happens, NU can’t give up any easy baskets to along with made Gopher threes. Therefore, both Curletti and Mirkovic need to be tough on the defensive glass.
Minnesota’s Blake Hoffarber is one of the Big Ten’s best shooters, but he was pretty much locked down by Alex Marcotullio and Juice Thompson when the teams met in Evanston. If that happens again I think NU will win the game for sure, but you can bet Tubby Smith will be trying to find ways to get his senior guard open looks. I expect Hoffarber to run off a lot of screens and given NU’s trouble with fighting through screens that does scare me. It is critical that the Wildcat defense be aggressive and active and that they communicate with each other at all times. Whoever has Hoffarber can’t let him go, because if they do it’ll be Gopher threes all over the place.
On offense for Northwestern everyone is pretty much hoping the eight days off since the last game continues John Shurna’s recovery. Shurna is so good when 100% that early in the year one would have said he had an outside shot at Big Ten Player of the Year. He might still have a shot next year if he’s healthy, but he probably isn’t 100% yet. Still, if Shurna is closer to 100% his ability to not only shoot, but to drive on a bigger player and get fouled could allow for NU to get some easy points. I also expect to see a good game from Drew Crawford. Crawford struggled towards the end of the regular season, but he rarely has extended slumps and I would be shocked if he didn’t post a decent game Thursday. I just hope that he doesn’t settle too much for jump shots and that he tries to make things happen at the hoop (and that he converts free throws if fouled).
Overall, NU is in a much better spot than Minnesota for this game. Therefore, I think a quick start for NU would be fantastic. If NU gets off to a hot shooting start I suspect the Gophers will fade away as many of them are likely less than thrilled with the way their year has ended. With Drew Crawford due, I think NU can get that quick start. In the end the game will probably be close, though. I predict: Northwestern, 67 Minnesota, 64