By Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
Based on Northwestern’s win-loss record in its last three games, you might be tempted to think it didn’t have a very good week. That would be a false presumption. From a 20-point blowout against Iowa to Sunday’s second-half grind with Indiana, the Wildcats moved forward in several respects – from Jared Swopshire’s offensive reawakening, to the cagey unveiling of the 1-3-1 zone, to Reggie Hearn’s injury recovery – and now enter Wednesday’s home matchup with Minnesota, the second time they’ve played the Gophers this season, feeling much better about their chances than they might have just one week ago. Beating Illinois in the road, then battling the No. 2 team in country deep into the second half gives reason to believe Northwestern can compete in the nation’s toughest league.
It won’t get any easier from here. Minnesota enters having lost its last two games, but both opponents – at Indiana, home to Michigan – are, depending on where your preferences lie, two of the five best teams in the country. The Gophers are a top-10 squad in their own right. They throttled Northwestern on their home floor earlier this month, and haven’t really slowed down since. The Wildcats are starting to find themselves on conference play, and knocking off a team like Minnesota – a likely top-3-or-4 NCAA Tournament seed come March – could reignite legitimate at-large tourney consideration.
Recapping The First Meeting: Minnesota 69, Northwestern 51
The second Big Ten game of the season was a regrettable one for Northwestern. After a humiliating blowout home loss to Michigan, the Wildcats traveled to Minnesota to face not only an infinitely talented and extensively deep Gophers team, but one of the nation’s quirkiest road venues and a rabid fan base to boot. Early on, the Wildcats managed to keep then- No. 9 Minnesota in check by using a 1-3-1 zone defense for much of the first half, and the end result was altogether positive. Northwestern headed to the locker room having allowed just 17 points.
After the break, the floodgates burst, and from there, it was all clinical. Minnesota unhinged the 1-3-1, punished the Wildcats on the glass (they grabbed 64 percent of their own misses, and 77 percent of Northwestern’s) and uncorked a 26-7 run, punctuated by five three-pointers over a 3 ½ minute stretch from guard Austin Hollins. The second half of the second half wasn’t remotely competitive; Minnesota had walk-ons finishing one-handed alley-oop dunks. It was a humbling loss for Northwestern, extending the Wildcats’ unbeaten streak in Minneapolis since Tubby Smith took over in 2007-08, and more importantly, showing just how far away Northwestern is from contending in this league.
Minnesota’s Big Ten Progress
The Northwestern win was Minnesota’ second in conference play, following a conference-opening victory over Michigan State. The Gophers have since vanquished Illinois, but dropped consecutive games at Indiana and home to Michigan. But don’t let the recent mini-slide skew your vision of the Gophers.
They are one of the best teams in the Big Ten – that truth shone through even in the two losses, both tight games decided in the closing moments. Minnesota continues to rebound the ball exceedingly well, it averages 1.16 points per possession in conference play (2nd in the Big Ten) and makes 46.8 percent of three-point attempts, the best among league opponents. Can’t spot a weakness? Turnovers. The Gophers cough it up on 23.5 percent of possessions, which ranks last in the Big Ten. They also rank last in avoiding steals.
Key Matchup: Mike Turner and Alex Olah vs. Trevor Mbakwe
Following Sunday’s loss to Indiana, Carmody harped on Northwestern’s lackluster rebounding. And for good reason. The Wildcats snared just 24 boards, compared to the 36 credited to IU. More pointedly, Olah and Turner – Northwestern’s two “centers” – managed just one rebound between them (ONE!). Alex Olah is seven feet tall, Mike Turner is 6’8’’. There is no direct correlation between height and rebounds, but one board? Seriously? Carmody was understandably peeved, partly because IU’s second chance points sucked the momentum out of Northwestern’s second-half comeback.
Part of it also might have been apprehension about Wednesday’s matchup. Because if Northwestern doesn’t compete on the boards, if Olah and Turner get bullied on the low block, Mbakwe and the rest of the Gophers will gobble up their own misses, extend possessions and wear down Northwestern’s defense. The key to beating Minnesota is keeping them off the glass. It is, after all, the best rebounding team in the country, and Mbakwe – who boasts a 17.6 percent offensive rebounding percentage and 25.0 percent DR – is one of the best individual rebounders in the country. Olah and Turner must limit his ability to corral errant shots.
Prediction: Minnesota 74, Northwestern 62
Last time these teams met, Northwestern tried to slow the game down, which limited Minnesota’s ability to get easy buckets in transition. Once the Gophers broke through the Wildcats stodgy defense and long-possession offense, they unleashed their immense athletic potential and scoring proficiency with a flurry of dunks and easy tip-ins and uncontested threes. In Minneapolis, that breaking point came to pass in the second half. This time, Northwestern will hold down the Gophers offense into the latter half of the second period. Reggie Hearn will post another big game, Alex Olah will compete with Mbakwe on the boards and Jared Swopshire will continue his recent hot streak.
In the end, the Gophers’ talent and size advantages will win out. I was genuinely encouraged by Northwestern’s effort and competitive drive against Indiana, and I believe them fully capable of hanging with Minnesota, and I do think the Wildcats will pull one big home upset before the end of the season – just not this game, not Minnesota. The Gophers are a tough matchup for any team, but especially for a team that’s rebounding as woefully as the Wildcats of late. Northwestern will keep Minnesota on its toes throughout, but the drama will end there. Minnesota will snap its losing skid.
*For more insight on Minnesota’s individual players, check out our preview from the first matchup.