If I were to honestly self-evaluate I’d probably have to admit that my constant harping on the fact that Northwestern isn’t an NCAA Tournament team has been a defense mechanism to prevent myself from once again being disappointed when Selection Sunday arrives. But for better or worse seeing the Wildcats play a fantastic start to finish game in front of a raucous Welsh-Ryan Arena on Saturday night has started to cause me to crack. I’m looking at the schedule from now until the Big Ten Tournament and I’ve come to the conclusion that with a win Tuesday night against Michigan the Wildcats will have the inside track at being the seventh Big Ten team in the NCAA Tournament field. I don’t want to get my hopes up, but the facts support that belief. The Northwestern Wildcats are on the threshold of history.
A little history was made on Saturday night when John Shurna set the NU record for career points. Shurna’s a great player and a great representative of Northwestern University. He’s a humble star who genuinely seems to simply appreciate the chance he’s been given by Bill Carmody and the NU staff to play college basketball. Perhaps it’s because Shurna wasn’t some type of basketball prodigy. He wasn’t a star as a freshman or sophomore in high school, didn’t even become a starter until his junior year, and wasn’t highly recruited by big conference schools other than Northwestern. That’s not the typical track for a guy who might be the Big Ten Player of the Year. The typical track is the one taken by many of the guys Shurna and his teammates face on most nights in the Big Ten.
Tuesday’s opponent, the Michigan Wolverines, bring some of those highly touted recruits to Evanston, but the fact is this is a team Northwestern can match up. The Wildcats lost to UM in overtime the first time the schools met and with a few more made free throws would have been the only team to win at Michigan this season. Part of the reason for this matchup is that Michigan isn’t huge size-wise. Starting center Jordan Morgan is about the same size as John Shurna and Davide Curletti. He’s got some athletic skill, but he won’t tower over the ‘Cats like Myers Leonard did. Along with Morgan the UM front court features 6-8 Evan Smotrycz. He’s a good three point shooter at 41%, but he’s not as athletic as NU’s Drew Crawford, Reggie Hearn, or JerShon Cobb meaning those guys have a shot to guard him man-to-man. I feel the same way about Zack Novack who is another good shooter, but shouldn’t be able to get away from the ‘Cats trio of athletic defenders. Plus, if Michigan wants to play man-to-man they better hope Morgan is in position to block shots because Tim Hardaway Jr. can only guard one of Hearn, Crawford, and Cobb. The other two should have positive matchups for getting into the paint.
Stopping Michigan for Northwestern will be a case of stopping Hardaway Jr. and Trey Burke from getting easy baskets at the rim and not letting Michigan get hot from three point range. I’d say that NU will start in the man-to-man and might stay in it much more than they have in past games. It’s possible NU will switch a lot in the man-to-man, but I think it is probably better than the 1-3-1 to contain Michigan. Look for Crawford to guard Hardaway and Hearn or Cobb to guard Burke with the other getting Smotrycz. That’ll leave Dave Sobolewski on Novack, but despite Novack’s height advantage I think he can handle the job.
On offense the key for Northwestern in their recent success has been Sobolewski and the rest of the supporting cast. I’d watch him closely, but I also thought that JerShon Cobb wasn’t that far off on his shots on Saturday. He just had a little bad luck. It wouldn’t surprise me if Cobb becomes the next complimentary scorer for Shurna and Drew Crawford. Both these teams are coming off of big wins, but the ‘Cats have home court advantage in this contest, not to mention the fact that this is essentially a tournament game for NU. Let’s hope the crowd handles it that way as well. I predict: Northwestern, 68 Michigan, 65