On Friday night I’ll be at the Potterdome in Morton, Illinois to watch future Wildcat Nathan Taphorn and the Pekin Dragons battle the Morton Potters. Despite living in Morton I suspect I’ll be rooting for Taphorn and the Dragons. I’m sure people who are used to seeing me support the local kids are going to be confused, but I can’t help it, when it comes to sports loyalty I’m a Wildcat above all else. That loyalty has resulted in a lot of pain many times since I first entered Welsh-Ryan Arena in 1993, but I know all the pain will be worth it when the Wildcats, my Wildcats, our Wildcats, make the NCAA Tournament for the first the time. All of you who regularly read this blog, all the fans who regularly attend games or rearrange their nights to watch on TV, and myself will share a level of joy which will probably be unparalleled in fandom given what we’ve suffered through. Even Cubs fans have at least seen their team post the best regular season record in the National League before imploding in the playoffs. The point of this preamble is to say that Saturday night’s tilt between the Wildcats and the Butler Bulldogs is potentially a major way station on the road to that first NCAA Tournament. The Big Ten is good enough this season that Northwestern’s win total of eight conference games in recent years might be enough to push the ‘Cats into the dance if they have a decent Big Ten Tournament (which I’m well-aware is non sure bet) and if they don’t drop anymore non-conference contests and in the process pick up some nice wins over Butler and Stanford. This Butler team isn’t the strong group that made back to back final fours, but they’ve got talent and will be a challenge for the young Wildcats.
The player who will be the most significant challenge is potential All-American Rotnei Clarke. He’s by far the best player the Bulldogs have. He averages 18 points per game and is the only player on the Butler roster to make more than 40% of his three point shots (Does this mean 1-3-1 zone from NU? Maybe.). He’s the type of guy who can singlehandedly beat a team and NU better keep sight of him or that could happen. His supporting cast is led by forward Khyle Marshall who scores about 13 points per game, but is probably more of a factor as someone who has 22 offensive rebounds already this season. NU has to contain him and Butler big man Andrew Smith the same way they kept the bigs from Baylor away from the glass. My final concern is Kellen Dunham. He’s supposed to be a great shooter, but hasn’t really had a lot of success thus far this season coming into the game at just 31.7% from behind the arc this season. I worry that Dunham will get hot because, well, as we know Northwestern tends to be the type of unlucky team against who some guy that hasn’t done anything all year catches fire. If Dunham continues to stay cold and Clarke doesn’t go crazy hitting everything he throws at the hoop, I like NU’s chances.
Prediction: I’ve been bad at predicting games this season and I think that’s due to NU’s lack of consistency. Someone recently asked for an overall season prediction. At this point I don’t think I could even hazard a guess except to say this game is a big one for where the season goes. Basically, I think it is a game Northwestern should win. I’ve looked at the stats for both teams and my evaluation of personnel is while Butler has the best player between the two teams, I think NU has the deeper team. If Reggie Hearn and Jared Swopshire can keep Clarke contained and NU plays with the same aggressiveness we saw for 30 minutes against Baylor then I think NU should come away on top. Northwestern, 60 Butler, 58