Late tonight (10 PM central to be exact, on ESPN2) Northwestern visits Washington State, with the winner moving on to Madison Square Garden for the NIT Final Four. We're entering uncharted territory for Northwestern basketball; this is already the furthest NU has ever advanced in the NIT, and an NIT title (or even a trip to MSG I guess) would make this the best season in modern Northwestern basketball history.
I'm not ready to call this the biggest game in the program's history as others have; the 2009 regular season finale against Ohio State was far more important (a win there would have put NU squarely on the NCAA bubble), and even the Big Ten tournament quarterfinal games vs Purdue last year and Ohio State this year were more important, as wins there would have left NU with a reasonable shot at the Big Ten title and the NCAAs. All that said, tonight is still a very big deal for this program, so get pumped.
Washington State finished the regular season at 19-12 overall, and went 9-9 in the Pac-10, good for sixth place. They'd managed to work themselves onto the bubble with one game to go, but then came the infamous Klay Thompson incident; he was caught rolling down the street smoking endo and suspended for the Pac-10 finale, which the Cougars lost in overtime to UCLA. Then they were bounced in the first round of the Pac-10 tournament by Washington, and landed in the NIT, where they've beaten Long Beach State and Oklahoma State.
The aforementioned Thompson is by far the Cougars best player. A 6'6" wing, he leads his team in scoring (22 points per game), assists (3.8 per game), steals (1.7 per game) and is second in rebounding (5.2 per game). From what I saw on Monday against Oklahoma State, Washington State runs most of their offense through Thompson; look for a lot of pick and roll with him handling the ball and plenty of offensive sets where they isolate him on the wing and let him go to work. He's going to be a nightmare match-up for NU, as he gets himself to the line a lot (169 attempts on the season) but is also lights out from beyond the arc (in a delicious twist, he's making ,420 of his threes, really). If Thompson gets hot, watch out because he could easily go for 35 tonight.
Thompson is terrifyingly good, but fortunately for NU the rest of the Cougar roster isn't very intimidating, largely because their best big man DeAngelo Casto was just suspended for tonight's game for marijuana possession. Casto averaged 12 points, 7 rebounds and 2 blocks per game and likely would have dominated Luka Mirkovic inside, so his absence is huge for Northwestern. In his place, we'll see a lot of Brock Motum, a sophomore from Australia who has been productive offensively in limited minutes, scoring 7.6 points per game on 60% shooting in just 18 minutes a night, but he isn't much of a rebounder or shot blocker and won't be able to out-athlete NU inside the way Casto would have. Washington State was already a poor rebounding team (285th in offensive rebounding and 193rd in defensive rebounding per KenPom), so with Casto out NU should have a decided advantage on the glass, as strange as that may sound.
The rest of their rotation consists of gunner Faisal Aden, a chucker extraordinaire who shoots on nearly a third of the Cougars possessions with mixed results, point guard Reggie Moore, who weirdly shoots better from three (37%) than he does from two (35.6%), defensive specialist/energy guy Marcus Capers, who shoots on just 9.7% of his team's possessions, and Abe Lodwick, who takes 80% of his shots behind the arc despite hitting on only 30% and being 6'7"; I'm guessing he's not much of an athlete. Backup big man Patrick Simon should also get some run in Casto's absence; he's barely seen the court for a month.
Not sure what defense to expect from Washington State; they played a lot of 2-3 zone against Oklahoma State on Monday with good results, but Oklahoma State is a terrible outside shooting team so playing zone made sense; we've seen over the past couple of years that playing zone against Northwestern is generally a bad idea. They've been a pretty good defensive team this season per KenPom: 45th overall, with their only weakness being defensive rebounding, but you'd have to like NU's chances against whatever defense they see, preparing for the Princeton offense in less than 48 hours won't be easy.
I certainly wasn't feeling confident about this game yesterday, but Casto's suspension has me a bit more optimistic, as Washington State now won't have an easy time exploiting NU's weakness on the interior. Still, Klay Thompson is capable of winning this game pretty much by himself, and it's a road game and we all know NU hasn't done well on the road of late (or really ever). Based on the noisy crowd Washington State had Monday night, expect another strong showing with lots of students tonight; it won't be anything like Conte
Library Forum was on Saturday. KenPom has NU losing 73-69, and the Vegas line has NU as 3.5 point underdogs, essentially spotting Washington State the home court advantage. It should be a tight one, let's hope NU can win another road game and get back to Madison Square Garden.