On Friday night in Evanston, Northwestern’s final test of the non-conference season arrives in the form of the DePaul Blue Demons. It’s a good buffer in between two parts of the schedule that pale in comparison. The Wildcats are coming off of wins over Brown and Mississippi Valley State, both of whom carry RPIs of 200-plus; in a week’s time, though, they’ll come up against the RPI’s top team, the Wisconsin Badgers, as Big Ten play commences.
DePaul sits smack dab in the middle, both in terms of timing and talent. The non-conference portion of DePaul’s season has actually been very similar to that of Northwestern. The two teams own identical overall records, and rank within 30 spots of each other in Ken Pomeroy’s Strength of Schedule ratings. Like Northwestern, four of the Blue Demons’ five losses have come against KenPom top-100 teams, and like Northwestern, the fifth loss came against Illinois State.
To call this a rivalry would be a bit of an exaggeration, as the two local foes haven’t even faced off since 2008, but it is nonetheless an intriguing game. Most of the stats point toward it being an even matchup. Here are three things to watch for that could decide Friday night's contest.
1. Drew Crawford vs. Cleveland Melvin
Northwestern coach Chris Collins hasn’t intimated at who will guard whom to start the game, but my guess is that Northwestern’s best player, and probably its best defender, Crawford, will start on DePaul’s best player, Melvin.
Melvin is a 6-8 senior forward with a multi-faceted game. He inhabits a wiry frame, and although he actually concedes a few pounds to his Northwestern counterpart despite being three inches taller, his athleticism more than makes up for his unimposing weight.
Statistically, Melvin will be the most efficient offensive player on the court on Friday night. His offensive rating (a complicated KenPom stat measuring an individual player’s offensive efficiency) exceeds that of any Northwestern player, and his other numbers back up that fact. He has shot 50 percent (20-40) from three point range this season, is decent from the foul line, and rarely turns the ball over. He’s also impactful with his rebounding (7.2 per game), his shot blocking (3.8 block percentage), and he does all of this without picking up many fouls.
On the other side of the matchup, Drew Crawford will try to piggyback on a strong showing against Brown. Crawford nearly singlehandedly propelled Northwestern through a lousy 40-minute spell on the offensive end to achieve victory on Sunday. He’ll have to put in another good all-around shift to match Melvin. The DePaul forward’s length might be a slight impediment, so scoring in the post might not be as valid an option for Crawford as it has been in previous games, but he can still score off the dribble and from beyond the arc – and he might have to in order to keep Northwestern’s offense rolling.
Coming into the season, many people pinpointed Northwestern’s lack of size as a major worry, and a huge detriment to any plans for success the Wildcats had. Consequentially, rebounding seemed to be one of the areas in which improvement was a necessity.
Even at times during the season, Collins has made references to his team allowing too many offensive rebounds. However, the Wildcats have been better than you think. Northwestern ranks 52nd in the nation in opponent offensive rebound percentage at 28.0 percent, meaning Crawford and co. have been pretty good at limiting opponents to one shot per possession. But thinking about it realistically, tackling – or rather boxing out – the giants that the Big Ten will throw at them is an entirely different challenge compared to the ones that they’ve faced in November and December.
On Friday night, we could get a glimpse of how well Northwestern is prepared for those Big Ten challenges. DePaul ranks 25th in the country in offensive rebound percentage, better than anybody NU has played thus far. The Blue Demons’ starting front line consists of Melvin at 6-foot-8, Purdue transfer Sandi Marcius at 6-foot-10, 255 pounds, and freshman Tommy Hamilton at 6-foot-10, 285 pounds.
What Northwestern has excelled at in the majority of their 12 games is team rebounding. With Alex Olah, their only seven-footer, not the best rebounder given his size, Crawford, Sanjay Lumpkin and JerShon Cobb (likely to play, not start) have helped out to great effect. They must continue to do so on Friday and beyond to ensure Northwestern’s record on the defensive glass doesn’t succumb to the superiority of Big Ten frontcourts.
3. Taking Control
There’s nothing specific about this DePaul team that is frightening or worrying. The Blue Demons aren’t a particularly good shooting team, they aren’t known for playing exceptional defense or deploying a quirky system, and there isn’t one player that could realistically take over this game. But the same could be said about Northwestern.
Like Northwestern, DePaul is thoroughly average. To win this game, Northwestern must do something – anything – to stand out; to separate themselves, even if the separation is only temporary, bound to disappear come next Thursday.
Maybe it’s Sobolewski regaining some of his UIC form. Maybe it’s Kale Abrahamson chipping in with 14 or 15 points off the bench. Maybe it’s Cobb returning from injury as if he was never out. Maybe it’s an inspired team defensive performance like the one against Western Michigan.
The point is, Northwestern can’t be content with what they are – or what they’ve shown to be so far this season – and expect to beat DePaul. As a matter of fact, this holds true for the rest of the season. It’s unlikely that we see massive improvement from this team over the next two months. But if the Wildcats raise their general level of play slightly, and then count on one or two players – different guys every night – to play above their normal levels, or count on one or two aspects of their game to stand out and separate themselves from past performances, it’ll make a huge difference during the Big Ten season, and allow this team to at least be competitive in one of college basketball’s strongest conferences.