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Northwesten-Minnesota Preview: Can Northwestern stop the losing streak?

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Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The brutal stretch of four consecutive games against ranked opponents is finally over for Northwestern, as Minnesota, a team with even more struggles than the Wildcats, comes Welsh-Ryan Arena on Thursday night. Other than the Penn State game, Northwestern was not picked by KenPom to win any of its previous five losses, but the site gives Northwestern an 84 percent chance of winning beating Minnesota.

The Golden Gophers are in free fall and have lost 14 of its last 15 games, including a current 11-game slide. But as Northwestern's experience against Penn State shows, the Wildcats cannot afford to take this game lightly.

The Golden Gophers are in free fall and have lost 14 of its last 15 games, including a current 11-game slide. But as Northwestern's experience against Penn State shows, the Wildcats cannot afford to take this game lightly.

Minnesota has played much better of late, including four close losses to Michigan, Illinois, Purdue and Indiana. That might be a more impressive recent resume than Northwestern's three straight blowout defeats to Indiana, Michigan State and Iowa.

"We watched their [Minnesota's] game against Indiana and they look like a different team," Tre Demps said.

Northwestern went to Minnesota on Jan. 9 and destroyed Minnesota 77-52 behind excellent three-point shooting and a new "Chamelon" matchup zone defense. Those two strong points have disappeared in Northwestern's recent contests. The defense has looked disorganized, leaving three-point shooters open. In the Iowa game, after a spree of first-half three pointers, Collins finally made a move away from the "Chameleon" , which had been exposed by Indiana and Michigan State and was again struggling mightily.

One of the main story lines in this game will be whether Northwestern sticks with the defense that worked against Minnesota, even if it has been completely ineffective as of late.

While the defense was spectacular against Minnesota, it should be noted that the Minnesota game was the only game that the hybrid zone/man defense has worked effectively in Big Ten play. Wisconsin's offense created enough good looks against Northwestern, but an awful shooting performance from the Badgers masked imperfections. With six games on tape for Minnesota to observe, Northwestern should be wary of going back to the complicated, help-heavy defense. The "Chameleon" will no longer be a surprise to Richard Pitino's team.

Offensively, Northwestern needs Tre Demps' recent hot streak will continue. After struggling for the majority of the conference season, Demps exploded for a career-high 30 points against Iowa. Northwestern could also benefit from a bounce back game from Bryant McIntosh, who has struggled during the five-game losing streak. Minnesota's players are nowhere near as talented as those of Iowa or Michigan State, and McIntosh should be able to regain his explosiveness and finishing ability against a team that is currently 182nd in defensive efficiency on KenPom.

Northwestern also cannot have the long scoring droughts that have typified this team during the losing streak.

"When teams start to score a couple points and go on runs, we start to disintegrate," Demps said.

Ultimately, this game could come down to both team's younger players. Minnesota has resorted to a lineup of freshmen and sophomores at this point as it tries to find any way to win eek out a victory. Senior Carlos Morris did not play at all against Indiana and Joey King has seen a drop in minutes during the last two games. Meanwhile, Nate Mason and Kevin Dorsey have shown flashes of their potential during the losing streak. Both scored over 20 points against Indiana. Minnesota will also be relying on freshmen Dupree McBrayer and Jordan Murphy as well.

Northwestern could also use some assistance from Aaron Falzon and Dererk Pardon. Falzon's best game of his young career came in the first Minnesota game, when he dropped 20 points and hit 6 three-pointers. Falzon has remained in the starting lineup, but he has struggled mightily and he needs a good shooting night to regain his confidence. Pardon must continue playing well with Alex Olah's foot issues and Joey van Zegeren's limitations. Both senior big men are far from 100 percent.

Overall, Northwestern has a superior squad and, despite injuries to its bigs, should find a way to kill the losing streak at five. However, if Northwestern defends as poorly as in the last three games, it will be a struggle, even at home against an inferior team. It happened against Penn State, and it could happen again given how Minnesota has improved in the second half of January.

This is a must-win for the Wildcats for morale purposes, and while it shouldn't be too difficult a task, Northwestern's recent performances suggest this game could be closer than most expect.