Northwestern is back in action tonight, hosting #16 Wisconsin at 7:30 PM central. The game will be televised on the Big Ten network, with Wayne Larivee and former NU forward Shon Morris on the call.
Wisconsin comes in at 13-3 overall, and 3-1 in Big Ten play. During non-conference play they got marquee wins over Duke, Maryland and Marquette, and last time out they knocked off previously unbeaten Purdue at home. However, all their big wins were either at home or on a neutral court; on the road they are just 1-2, with the win coming over Penn State and the losses to Michigan State and Wisconsin-Green Bay.
Looking at the Badgers team stats, it's difficult to find any weaknesses. Pomeroy's rankings have them 20th in the nation in offensive efficiency and 8th in defensive efficiency. They don't offensive rebound well, but that's mostly because they focus more on getting back on defense to eliminate transition than they do on crashing the boards. They also take great care of the ball, turning it over on only 15.9% of possessions, 4th best in the country. On defense, they play Bo Ryan's trademark hard-nosed man to man and don't allow easy baskets. While they don't force many turnovers, they lead the nation in defensive rebounding.
The big story coming into this game is the injury to Jon Leuer. The 6'10" Leuer was making a case for All Big Ten honors, averaging 15 points and 6 rebounds a game while shooting 52% from the field and 35% from 3-point range, and those percentafes were even better before he played with a broken wrist against Purdue for much of the game and shot 2 for 15. While you never wish injuries onto opponents, this is a big break for Northwestern as they have no one on the roster who could have guarded Leuer effectively. In his place, Bo Ryan will likely use a combination of freshmen Ryan Evans, Mike Bruesewitz, and Jared Berggren. They'll be asked primarily to rebound, defend, and set up their teammates.
The star for Wisconsin is senior point guard Trevon Hughes, who leads Wisconsin in scoring at almost 16 points per game and shoots 42% from three point range. As well as being a good shooter, he's very quick off the dribble, so Northwestern will have their hands full. His backup Jordan Taylor is the Badgers' 6th man and provides instant offense off the bench. His strength is using his quickness to slash to the basket, and he's capable of getting hot and taking over games like he did last game vs Purdue, scoring 23 points in 29 minutes.
Shooting guard Jason Bohannon is probably the player on Wisconsin who scares me the most tonight, as he's a dangerous shooter who should get some open looks against the 'Cats zone. Bohannon is shooting 42% from behind the arc and is coming off a season high 20 points against Purdue, so hope he doesn't get hot.
The other two starters for Wisconsin are forwards Keaton Nankivil and Tim Jarmusz. Nankivil is a bruising 6'8", 240 pounds, and will likely get a lot more minutes tonight in Leuer's absence. He doesn't shoot often, but converts on 50% of his attempts. Jarmusz doesn't shoot much either, but he usually misses when he shoots, at just 32% on the season and 26% from 3-point range. Despite being 6'6', he has only attempted 12 2-point field goals the entire season in 381 minutes, a truly bizarre stat. Since Bo Ryan knows what he's doing and is playing Jarmusz 24 minutes a night, he must do something well that's not showing up the stat sheets, so I'm assuming he's an excellent defensive player and has a high basketball IQ.
I'm interested to see what Carmody does tonight with his rotations. Luka Mirkovic played well against Michigan, but none of the three backup centers brought anything to the table. As insane as it sounds to go with a 6 man rotation, it might be viable tonight as Wisconsin will be smaller without Leuer in the lineup. Mirkovic certainly can't play 40 minutes a game, so maybe Carmody could go to a small lineup with John Shurna at the 5 and Drew Crawford at the 4, along with Jeremy Nash, Alex Marcotullio and of course Michael Thompson. Those 5 would force a lot of turnovers together and spread the floor well on offense, of course they'd also have a lot of trouble rebounding and defending inside. I don't know, this might be an insane idea, but could be worth a shot if Kyle Rowley keeps missing layups, Davide Curletti keeps committing dumb fouls like moving screens, and Ivan Peljusic keeps turning the ball over and getting abused in the low post.
This one has all the makings of a closely contested halfcourt game that comes down to the last few possessions. With Leuer healthy, I'd have to give the edge to Wisconsin as Leuer would have caused huge matchup problems inside, but without him I don't see either team having a big edge. Northwestern is going to have to work hard for shots on offense as Wisconsin is always very tough to score against, but Wisconsin is also going to struggle to score as they don't have any good options inside without Leuer. The line right now is Wisconsin -3.5, which seems like too many points as this matchup seems pretty even to me. Given that Northwestern is playing at home in front of what should be a raucous crowd now that the students are back on campus, I think the 'Cats pull out a close win.
Northwestern 58, Wisconsin 55
As much as I hate to pick against a Bo Ryan coached team, even some of his best teams have struggled at Welsh-Ryan, and without Leuer this is not one of his better teams, although it's still obviously very good. Northwestern is in desperate need of a marquee win, and tonight will be a great opportunity. Hope for Michael Thompson and Drew Crawford to keep hitting big shots, Luka Mirkovic to rebound well, and John Shurna and Alex Marcotullio to return to form.
I'll have some more content today breaking down the rest of the Big Ten, including Purdue's shocking collapse and Talor Battle's refusal to pass the ball, so stick around.