Two Sundays ago after a win over Indiana, Northwestern fans were thinking NCAA tournament. But after 2 ugly losses to conference bottom feeders, the 'Cats playing for much more than pride. Yes, NIT seeding and Big Ten tournament seeding are both on the line the rest of the way, but it's difficult to get too excited about that. And this Sunday, they visit the Kohl Center to take on Wisconsin, a place where the Badgers almost never lose. Tip-off is at 1 PM central on BTN, with Wayne Larrivee and Shon Morris on the call.
This is the second meeting of the season between Northwestern and Wisconsin; the Badgers pulled away late to win in Evanston. You can read my overly angry recap of that game here, and my preview of it here. Since we last saw Wisconsin has gone 5-4, mostly beating up on the bottom of the Big Ten and losing to the top. The exceptions were a convincing home win over Michigan State, and an ugly road loss Thursday night at Minnesota. Sophomore big man Jon Leuer returned to the lineup in that game after missing the previous 10 contests with a broken wrist, and struggled mightily, shooting just 2 for 12 from the field. But before his injury, Leuer was making a case for All-Big Ten, successfully scoring in the low post and on mid-range jumpers. He will likely prove difficult for Northwestern to guard.
Trevon Hughes, whom we saw bury the 'Cats in the last meeting with a barrage of late threes, will still be at the point for Wisconsin, and will still be a handful. 3-point sniper Jason Bohannon will look to shoot over the zone, and the speedy Jordan Taylor won't be easy to handle off the dribble, although he has struggled with his shooting recently and is down to 38% from the field and 29& from 3-point range.
In the front-court, Leuer will be joined by Keaton Nankovil, who rebounds well and is capable of getting hot from 3-point range; he hit 7 of 8 against Purdue but for the season is at just 30% from behind the arc. Also look for Ryan Evans, Rob Wilson, Tim Jarmusz, and aptly named banger Mike Bruesewitz.
KenPom loves Wisconsin, ranking them 7th in the nation, and many Badger strengths stand out. They are 3rd in the country at not turning the ball over on offense, 4th nationally in defensive rebounding, and in the top 20 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. They don't force many turnovers and don't offensive rebound well (although they killed NU on the offensive glass in the first meeting), but other than that it's tough to find any weaknesses. They're also one of the best free throw shooting teams in the nation at 73%, and don't have any key players who struggle from the line.
Northwestern comes in as 11.5 point underdogs, which seems a little low to me given Wisconsin's home dominance and NU's recent struggles. Was Illinois really less likely to win at Purdue today (12.5 dogs) than NU is tomorrow? Anyways, I think Northwestern's performance tonight will say a lot about the makeup of the team, as it would be very easy to mail it in now that their NCAA dreams are all but dashed. I certainly don't expect an NU win, as they could play well and still lose, but I hope they at least play hard and keep this game interesting for a while. Sadly, I think this one could get ugly, much like almost every trip Northwestern has ever made to the Kohl Center.
Wisconsin 66, Northwestern 47
It's hard to be the slightest bit optimistic given Wisconsin's home dominance. Illinois did win in Madison recently, but that broke a 53 game winning streak for the Badgers against unranked Big Ten teams at home, and Illinois is clearly a better team than Northwestern (sorry Chadnudj). And given how badly Wisconsin stunk at the Barn Thursday, look for them to come out angry and break it open in the early going. Hopefully I'm as wrong about this as I was about Penn State having a letdown game at Michigan today (break up the Nittany Lions).
See everyone tomorrow afternoon for the game thread.