I know various projections have Northwestern in the NCAA Tournament right now, but at this point I don’t see Northwestern as an NCAA Tournament team. So far Northwestern has lost to the only sure BCS-conference NCAA Tournament team they faced in Baylor and that loss wasn’t even close. Yes, the ‘Cats have nice wins over some mid-major tournament teams and a win over possible bubble team Seton Hall, but that’s not enough yet for me to put them in the Big Dance. There was a time when I would have been more optimistic, but perhaps I’ve been beaten down by getting my hopes up so much over the past few years only to see them crushed. Sometimes I honestly wonder if Northwestern has a basketball program just to make their fans’ lives miserable. Of course, that misery would turn to total joy if Northwestern were ever to make the NCAA Tournament because so many long suffering fans and former players would feel as if everything they hoped and worked for over many years finally paid off. So while NU isn’t an NCAA team as of this moment, we have to wonder if they can be one as of March. March might be several months away, but I actually think we’ll get a clue as to NU’s fate on Selection Sunday in the next eight days.
Northwestern will be on the road at ranked opponents Creighton and Ohio State before the New Year starts. While many will say NU has no chance to beat Ohio State and a limited to shot at Creighton, I think wins in both games are possible, though, winning one of two is more realistic. Even just getting one of the two wins, as long as the loss doesn’t look like the Baylor game, will make me shift my view about NU’s tourney chances. The reason is that to make the NCAA Tournament a team can’t just beat everyone they are supposed to beat. They need wins which boost their resume. Perhaps making Creighton even more important, it often helps if one of those resume boosting wins comes outside of conference play. Therefore, let’s look at what NU needs to do to beat the Blue Jays.
Creighton is led in scoring and rebounding by Doug McDermott. The Jays are 9-1 and McDermott has been their leading scorer in 9 of the 10 games and the leading rebounder in 8 of the 10 games. But don’t start to believe Creighton is a one man team. They squad also features point guard Antoine Young who is a double figure scorer and an excellent ball handler. He’s not a great shooter like McDermott who makes 57% of his three point shot is, but Young’s quickness could give NU’s guards some trouble.
Creighton also has a center in Gregory Echenique who scores almost double figures and who has collected 1/3 of his rebounds on the offensive end of the floor. Considering that the ‘Cats struggled at times to secure the glass against smaller teams this season this has to be a concern. NU needs to see Luka Mirkovic put together his second strong game in a row and really play with attitude and focus.
Stopping McDermott and Young is perhaps an even tougher task with Creighton as a team making 43% of their threes and having almost a 2-to-1 assist to turnover ratio. The 1-3-1 zone seems a little risky to employ. The only thing that might make it worth considering is that Northwestern might be a stronger team than any of the squads Creighton posted those numbers against. Still, I’d like to see NU play man defense. I think the ‘Cats can handle the Blue Jays if they play with focus and intensity. They just can’t be lackadaisical. Also, I’d like to see Reggie Hearn guard Young as I think his 6-4 size and bulk will be tough for the 6-0 Young. I’d also like to see Drew Crawford and JerShon Cobb rotate on McDermott as they are NU’s most athletic players and the best way to stop him is probably not to let him catch the ball in an area where he can make plays. Some might suggest John Shurna take that defensive assignment, but I don’t want Shurna so exhausted from chasing McDermott through screens that he doesn’t have the legs to hit shots. Realistically, this should be a high scoring game and NU needs at least 25 points for Shurna to win that type of game. If John has no legs to get into this shot we could see a Central Connecticut State type performance and nobody wants that. However, if Shurna knocks down 6-7 threes NU has a got a great chance. As a team, I’d say Northwestern needs to make at least 12 threes to win this contest. That’s possible as Creighton’s three point defense has been just average, but NU needs to make it look just bad. NU’s centers need to hit some shots and a healthy Alex Marcotullio would help a lot too (though I don’t want to assume he’ll play). Also, NU cannot just expect to hit threes and win. The threes are a key factor, but the basket must be attacked as well. With that in mind, I’m really hoping we’ll see JerShon Cobb step up and have a big game. He’s got the talent and he seems to be getting more into the flow these last few games. This would be a big game for him to up his game and make some big plays. Obviously, Drew Crawford is also a factor whenever NU wants to attack the hoop, when he does so he must make his free throws. It’ll take a great effort, but NU can beat Creighton. They can beat Ohio State too, but that’ll take an even greater effort, but beating Creighton could be a great springboard. I’ll have an official prediction up in the next day or so. I want to believe NU can win this, but I know it’ll be a tough task.