It's been a while since our last installment of Where Are We Wednesday, Inside NU's big-picture column about Northwestern sports. In this edition, the basketball team gets the spotlight.
Saturday was an important day for Northwestern basketball.
In Chicago, more specifically at newly-opened Wintrust Arena, the Wildcats gutted out a 62-60 win in which Vic Law Jr. left with a concussion and Bryant McIntosh couldn't hit the ocean, though he tried quite a few times. It wasn't a signature win, but it was a win, which was significant.
Nearly 600 miles away in Wichita, Kansas, another key development took place. On the back of freshman phenom and resident highlight-maker Trae Young, Oklahoma shocked top-five foe Wichita State, a team that rarely drops a contest at home.
The win vaulted Oklahoma from unranked to 17th in the AP Poll, creating what many, including myself, felt Northwestern's non-conference schedule was missing: an opportunity for a legitimate signature win and a chance to stake an NCAA Tournament claim. Creighton and Texas Tech are good teams too, and would've looked good on a postseason resume. But Oklahoma is bigger than those.
Friday's matchup pitting Northwestern and the No. 17 Sooners in Norman gives Chris Collins's team the chance to add a win that will move the needle at the end of the year, a shot to show the Tournament committee it can be a quality team away from home.
It will be no easy ask, though.
Trae Young, Oklahoma's five-star point guard, has been ridiculous this season.
He's averaging 28.9 points per game to go with 8.9 assists, and he's basically a threat to pull up as soon as he crosses half court. He's coming off a 26 point, 22 assist game against Northwestern State. 22 ASSISTS!
Young has to the favorite for Player of the Year at the moment, and he's generated a ton of hype for Lon Kruger's team, which adds to the possible impact of an NU win Friday.
Vic Law Jr.'s status remains unclear after he suffered a concussion against DePaul, but Chris Collins said Tuesday he's hopeful Law can return for the Oklahoma game. That'll be a really important storyline to monitor as the week unfolds given that Law is the team's best perimeter defender by a fair amount, and he would likely be tasked with guarding Young.
Looking past the Oklahoma game, there already isn't a ton of margin for error in conference play. The Big Ten appears to be down this season; outside of Michigan State and Purdue — and NU already dropped the ball in its only chance to beat the Boilermakers — there are no opportunities to earn wins over ranked opponents, though it's plausible that Minnesota, Maryland or Michigan could crack the top 25 at some point later in the season. Regardless of how the middle-tier teams in the Big Ten stack up, there aren't many possible wins that will have the impact that beating Oklahoma will.
Topping the Sooners would give the Wildcats' their fifth straight win, with a home matchup with Brown as its only remaining non-conference game. Northwestern would head into Big Ten play riding a sizable winning streak and, in theory, playing with a lot of confidence. There would still be a lot of work to do, but it would be manageable, and maybe even favorable. After some brutal early-season losses, that's a good spot to be in.
Winning in Norman Friday would put Northwestern right there.