Northwestern officially opens the 2011-12 season on Sunday versus Texas-Pan America. The game is on the Big Ten Network at 6PM CT and seats remain inside Welsh-Ryan Arena for those who are thinking about attending. Of note is the fact that Northwestern could potentially play their first four games of the season on national TV. The first two will be on for sure with ESPNU telecasting Thursday’s showdown with LSU at 2PM CT. This is a huge step for a program which at times has been pretty much an afterthought (if a thought at all) when it comes to the media. Obviously, some of this media attention is the result of the national attention which has been on the ‘Cats the last three years as they’ve come close to making their first NCAA Tournament. When you consider the role this year’s seniors have played in turning program into a competitive force in the Big Ten you can’t help but hope they’ll be the group to breakthrough in March.
As far as this game goes, UTPA was a 6-win team last year and dropped a 91-72 game to DePaul on Friday night. Some people aren’t happy with NU playing UTPA because they refer to the game as an RPI killer, it’s true UTPA isn’t going to be a top-100 squad in March, but NU does get a great advantage from playing UTPA. The advantage? It’s a team NU plays every year. Why is that important? Because UTPA won’t be as clueless as to what NU’s Princeton Offense entails and NU will actually have to work to get good shots. That’s important because I think some of the success NU has had in non-conference, including the 10-1 and #25 national ranking start of two years ago, has been because they’ve played teams that weren’t used to seeing the Princeton Offense. Well, the Big Ten has all seen the Princeton Offense so playing other teams that have also at least makes NU not get so many cheap baskets because defenders are essentially running into each other trying to defend backdoor cuts.
For NU, it looks like JerShon Cobb and Alex Marcotullio might not see the court as they’re still hurt. Drew Crawford isn’t listed as a starter, but was reported to be closer to 100% than the other two. Even if all three sit, NU should score points, though, UTPA’s knowledge of NU’s system has kept this game close the last two years. UTPA guard Brandon Provost scored 16 points and grabbed 8 rebounds against DePaul on Friday. He didn’t miss a three in the game as well. He’ll be an interesting matchup for NU’s freshman guards Dave Sobolewski and Tre Demps who will be in their first official college basketball game. With Marcotullio (who many expected to be a team leader) out, those two will need to step up. Another UTPA guard Jared Maree is also a capable outside shooter who the ‘Cats can’t lose sight of. Reggie Hearn played good defense against Robert Morris in NU’s exhibition win and may be a key factor in helping stop opponents’ top shooters this year. Hearn may be a former walk-on, but he’s a big guard with good length and decent athletic skill. Plus, he seems to have the level of “want to” which all great defenders have.
UTPA’s starting front court of Earl Jefferson and Josh Cleveland posted a total of 14 points and 6 rebounds versus DePaul. In addition, 6-7 sub Ruben Cabrera scored 12 points and grabbed 5 rebounds. These players don’t have the size of Big Ten front court players, but they’ll play hard. They might not offer a great simulation for 7-0 260-pound LSU center Justin Hamilton who NU will face Thursday, but I don’t they’ll be pushovers either and I’ll be looking to see how Luka Mirkovic and Davide Curletti respond to the challenge.
Looking at the overall matchup, NU’s missing starters might limit the game’s scoring a bit as all three of those guys can put the ball in the basket. However, NU’s still got more fire power than UTPA. I predict: Northwestern, 92 UTPA, 70