Sorry for the lateness of this preview; I've been battling a vicious cold and Rodger's laptop charger has mysteriously disappeared, so we didn't get anything up yesterday, but thanks to the magic of Theraflu hot drink mix (this stuff is so good, I have no idea how it's legal), my cough is subsiding and it's back to the blogging grind.
So, Wisconsin comes to town today as Northwestern begins a critical four game stretch against ranked opponents. The Badgers are 17th in the country, 14-4 overall and 4-2 in the Big Ten. As usual, Bo Ryan's squad has dominated at home (undefeated), but on the road they have been a bit more vulnerable at just 1-3 (although all four of those games were against likely NCAA tournament teams). Historically, Bo Ryan''s Badger teams have underachieved in Evanston; Ryan is just 4-3 at Welsh-Ryan despite finishing ahead of Northwestern in the Big Ten standings all seven of those years. Even Ryan's best Wisconsin team, the 2006-07 Alando Tucker-led squad that reached #1 in the polls, struggled at NU, barely escaping a terrible NU team that would win only 2 Big Ten games.
As you would expect, Wisconsin plays at a super-slow pace, in fact they are the slowest team in the entire country per KenPom. What you wouldn't expect is that Wisconsin's offense has been far better than their defense so far this season; KenPom has them 6th in the nation in offensive efficiency but just 41st in defense. The offense has been elite because they don't turn the ball over (13.8% turnover rate, best in the country), rebound their misses (75h in the country, unusually high for a Bo Ryan team), and are incredible at the free throw line (hitting a remarkable 82%).
The offense has been carried by two guys, Jon Leuer and Jordan Taylor. Leuer is one of the best big men in the country; he's a lights-out 3 point shooter (46%) and is tough to stop in the post. NU has no one who will be able to guard him; be afraid. As for Taylor, he's an incredible ball-handler (a nearly 4 to 1 assist to turnover ratio), he shoots the three well (38%), he can get his own shot off the dribble, and he's a fantastic one-on-one defensive player. Once again, be afraid.
Besides the big two, Wisconsin has their usual collection of white role players. Keaton Nankivil is an athletic big man who blocks a lot of shots and hits 50% of his threes, Tim Jarmusz is a steady senior who can hit the occasional three, and Mike Bruesewitz has perfected the art of the ginger afro.
I'm not sure what defense we'll see out of Northwestern in this game; if they try to play match-up, it will be very tough to contain Leuer and Taylor, and if they play 1-3-1, Wisconsin will probably make them pay by burying threes. One thing that might be effective is combining the 1-3-1 with some three quarter court pressure; that strategy was pretty effective last year in Madison, and because Taylor is the only sold ball-handler the Badgers have, they've been susceptible to pressure defense at times; they blew a 9 point lead with 2:30 to go against Michigan State earlier this year, largely due to turnovers.
Offensively, Northwestern will have to attack the basket off the dribble, as Wisconsin's disciplined man-to-man defense usually makes 3-point attempts few and far between. Last year in Madison, John Shurna kept NU in the game pretty much by himself, as he dropped 26 and generally got what he wanted against Tim Jarmusz; hopefully he can do the same today. Drew Crawford could also have a huge day, as he would seem to have an athleticism advantage over whichever wing defender Bo Ryan chooses to put on him. I wouldn't expect too much from Michael Thompson, as he'll likely have trouble getting good looks against the bigger, quicker Jordan Taylor.
Wisconsin would certainly appear to have the advantage, but strange things have often happened between these two teams in Evanston, and NU has been tough at home (23-5) over the past two seasons. The experts expect a close game; Vegas has Wisconsin as just 2 point favorites, KenPom predicts a 1 point Badger win, and Sagarin actually gives NU a very slight edge at home. I'm certainly prepared for another heart-breaking loss in the final seconds, but hopefully NU can finally close out a ranked opponent and get a much-needed signature NCAA win.