The last time Northwestern faced Penn State, it wasn't pretty. In fact, it might have been the ugliest offensive game of Northwestern's season. The Wildcats shot just 39 precent overall, including 3-for-26 from three (and 0-for-12 in the first half), and struggled overall in an 71-62 defeat.
So what has to change?
Well, for one thing, the shooting absolutely must improve. Northwestern gets over 36 percent of its points from downtown, the 29th-highest percentage in the nation. So from behind that line, Tre Demps can't go 2-of-8, Aaron Falzon 1-of-9, and Bryant McIntosh and Scottie Linsey each 0-of-3.
Luckily, the Wildcats should be feeling confident about their outside stroke after lighting up Rutgers for 17-of-28 shooting from downtown. Demps hit on 6 of his 8 tries; Falzon hit 4 of 7, Nathan Taphorn 3 of 5 and McIntosh and Lindsey both 2 of 4. The Wildcats got good looks in both games (although in the Rutgers game they were shooting with acres of space, rather than just a few feet against Penn State). Still, when the Wildcats have open looks, they must hit them. If they don't, it'll be another struggle.
Another key will be the pick-and-roll game. McIntosh beat Wisconsin nearly singlehandedly coming off ball screens. He scored 28 points (on just 19 shots) and picked up 5 assists. Wisconsin threw different looks at NU's catalyst, but he could not be stopped.
The very next game against Penn State though, the sophomore point guard scored just 12 points on 15 shots. While he managed to finish with 10 assists, several of those came in the latter portion of the second half with the Wildcats trying to get within striking distance. Penn State learned from the Wisconsin tape, and head coach Pat Chambers devised a good defensive gameplan to limit McIntosh.
His ability to distribute and score on the pick-and-roll Thursday night will be key. He was able to do both against the Badgers, but just one against the Nittany Lions. Since, he hasn't been able to do either consistently. McIntosh will need a bounce-back game if Northwestern is to win the backcourt battle.
But perhaps nothing is more important than the return of Alex Olah, who registered his first double-double of the conference season this year against Rutgers (14 points, 10 rebounds in just 22 minutes). The senior center also played his best game since December in last week's loss at Michigan.
Olah played just seven minutes in the first meeting between Penn State and Northwestern, his first game back from a stress fracture in his foot. The Romanian big man has since returned and scored in double digits in five straight games. His presence will be key against a long and athletic, but not necessarily talented, Penn State frontcourt.
When it comes to recent play, Penn State certainly has the edge. The Nittany Lions have won four of their last six after a four-game losing streak. The recent run includes wins over outright Big Ten champion Indiana and Iowa. In fact, Penn State hasn't lost at the Bryce-Jordan Center since Jan. 21 against Wisconsin.
This game's importance lies primarily in its impact on Big Ten Tournament seeding, as broken down here by Ben Goren. Northwestern and Penn State both head into the contest at 6-10 in conference. Along with Nebraska, the teams are almost guaranteed to be the 9-, 10- and 11-seeds in the conference tournament. Who ends up where, though, remains to be determined.
Media Availability Notes
Tre Demps and Chris Collins met with the media Wednesday afternoon. Here's what they had to say about the matchup.
- Demps thinks these games down the stretch come down to who plays harder and who plays smarter. "When you get to this point in the season, it's just a matter of who wants it more."
- This is Demps's final regular season road game. He said he's, "just try to enjoy the process every day, every minute of being a college basketball player."
- Demps added that this week means a lot as far as standings, and that having something to play for serves as extra motivation.
- Demps said the team needs to "not be so hesitant" and "attack earlier" against Penn State's defense. He added that he thinks the team's offense has been better in recent weeks.
- Collins started out with the announcement that center Joey van Zegeren hurt his knee in practice Monday and is done for the season. Read the whole story here.
- Collins said he hopes the shooting performance against Rutgers carries over to Penn State and gives his players confidence. "I thought we got really good shots," Collins said. "I've always been a proponent of when you think a lot about your shot, you end up not shooting as well... Usually when you're throwing yourself into competing and fighting, you end up shooting more freely... I hope the law of averages pans out."
- "A lot of times, people don't factor in, when you have a broken foot like that, you don't do anything for a month." Collins explained it took Olah six games (after his absence) to truly get back to himself as far as his moves, his timing and his conditioning. "I think it took about 12 games overall to get him back."
- Collins mentioned that he's seen a sense of urgency from Demps and Olah as the season and their careers as a whole have winded down. "No matter what, no matter where you move on, it's never gonna be like this," he said. "We're excited about this week." Collins mentioned the team still has a lot to play for as far as standings, the NIT, becoming the winningest team in program history and winning 20-plus games.
- Collins thinks this week will show how much the program has grown as far as playing in games that really matter. He mentioned multiple times that the team controls its own destiny as far as seeding.