After three straight blowout wins, the Northwestern Wildcats are 9-1 and will look to continue their strong finish to the non-conference schedule this afternoon against DePaul (1 p.m. CST, Fox Sports 1) down the road in Rosemont. The team has moved on nicely from the shock of Vic Law's season-ending shoulder injury and has a real shot at a 12-1 record before Big Ten play starts.
Saturday might be the Wildcats' last hurdle on the way to 12-1. DePaul is their last non-conference game against a major conference opponent. But the Blue Demons so far have been a major conference opponent in name only. They're 5-5, and haven't beaten a fellow power conference foe. Their best win is a 69-63 season-opening victory over Western Michigan, and since, they've lost to Penn State on the road, Arkansas Little Rock at home (by 22 points) and Stanford on the road (by 19 points). DePaul comes into Saturday's matchup at No. 177 in Ken Pomeroy's rankings.
Saturday's game is the first in a five game series between Northwestern and DePaul. The last time these two teams met was an occasion Wildcat fans have likely tried to discard from their memories. Two seasons ago, in Chris Collins' first in Evanston, DePaul beat NU at Welsh-Ryan Arena on a last second layup, 57-56.
Northwestern comes into this year's game at 9-1, but having played three straight teams in KenPom's bottom 50. Here are a few details to watch on the Wildcats' end:
Nate Taphorn's play and usage
Taphorn, a junior, has played well of late as his ability to stretch the floor has been utilized by Chris Collins. Like in last season, his presence will grow in importance in conference play as Northwestern takes on tougher opponents who can force the Wildcats to take lower-percentage shots. If Taphorn can continue to light it up from deep, look for his minutes to grow especially if he can move on from his early season defensive and rebounding woes. Without Law and with Sanjay Lumpkin's outside shot still a work in progress, Taphorn is the team's best sharpshooting frontcourt reserve who can swing games with threes here and there.
Increased Gavin Skelly involvement
With big man Joey van Zegeren out for the next few weeks, it's sophomore Gavin Skelly's time to shine. Although van Zegeren is a center and Skelly is more of a four, the injury puts the Wildcats right back where they were last season in terms of lacking frontcourt depth. Skelly has played only slightly more than usual since van Zegeren went down, but if he can keep up his production (mostly on the glass) and continue to bring energy off the bench, this next stretch of games could go a long way towards solidifying his spot in the rotation and earning Collins' trust.
In addition to the men's game, Northwestern's and DePaul's women's teams make Saturday a doubleheader when they square off at 5 p.m. CT at Welsh-Ryan Arena. The 12th-ranked Wildcats are looking to go to 11-0, and have only the 15th-ranked Blue Demons and then UMKC to go before conference play. Saturday's women's game can be found on BTN Plus.