Northwestern basketball returns to Allstate Arena on Wednesday night for a matchup with a Minnesota team depleted by suspension and injury. The Wildcats and Gophers, both preseason top-25 teams, have lost a combined three straight conference games and have quickly fallen from the Big Ten title race.
It’s only January 10th, but the season is threatening to get away from each of these two November darlings. Here’s what the Big Ten standings look like heading into Wednesday night’s action:
Northwestern, as we’ve discussed in detail around these parts, is careening after shocking blowout losses to Nebraska and Penn State. The 10-7 Wildcats aren’t an NIT-caliber team right now, and most of that is due to mind-boggling struggles on the defensive end.
Minnesota, on the other hand, is dealing with the losses of two of its starters: sophomore wing Amir Coffey to a severe shoulder injury and senior center Reggie Lynch to a major, multiple-offense sexual assault scandal.
If you haven’t heard about the Lynch situation, it’s a doozy. Less than a week ago, Lynch was suspended until 2020 after an investigation found him responsible for an April 2016 “sexual misconduct” incident. Now, just yesterday, Lynch was found responsible for a second incident from the same month and has been recommended for expulsion. He was also investigated for an alleged incident in May 2016.
He was found responsible for a THIRD sexual assault allegation. I'm told that the athletic department was informed of allegations No. 2 and 3 in October, meaning that Richard Pitino and Mark Coyle allowed a player that was accused by THREE women of sexual assault to play. https://t.co/0Chtydru9k— Rob Dauster (@RobDauster) January 10, 2018
On the court, the losses of these two starters will almost certainly condemn Minnesota to mediocrity this season. Coffey was averaging over 14 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists per game and Lynch, last season’s Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, was putting up 10 and 8 while leading all Power 5 players in blocked shots.
However, coach Richard Pitino still has his two best players available. 6-foot-9 junior Jordan Murphy, the nation’s second-leading rebounder, has posted a double-double in all 17 games this season, the only player in the country to do that. He’s an absolute monster on the glass and as a scorer in the paint. Senior point guard Nate Mason is averaging 16 points and nearly 5 assists per game on 43 percent shooting from deep. He’s a lethal shooter with a quick release who can also attack in the lane.
The problem is that right now, Pitino doesn’t have much outside of that duo. Dupree McBrayer, a left-handed slasher with a solid shooting stroke, instantly becomes the third-best active player. Rounding out the starting lineup will be Bakary Konate, a 6-foot-11 senior who hasn’t been a meaningful part of the rotation since the 2015-16 season when Minnesota went 8-23, and sophomore Michael Hurt. Both uninspiring players represent MASSIVE dropoffs from Lynch and Coffey, respectively.
It also means that the Gophers’ already-underperforming bench gets even thinner. Expect to see freshman internet sensation Isaiah Washington as the first player off the bench. The leader of New York City’s “Jelly Fam” movement, Washington has 500 thousand Instagram followers and can be fun as hell to watch with his elite acceleration and patented “jelly” finger-roll layup. He’s also shooting 34 percent from the field and 14 percent from deep. He has a bright future, but Washington is very much going through what Isiah Brown went through last year as far as figuring out his shot selection and how to score against college defenses.
Rounding out an 8-man rotation will be Devonta Fitzgerald and freshman Jamir Harris.
In Minnesota’s first game without Coffey and Lynch, the Gophers collapsed down the stretch for a 75-71 home loss to middling Indiana. Mason went for 22 points, with Murphy and McBrayer contributing 18 apiece and three other players combining for 13. Basically, this is a three-man show. Northwestern needs to try to make other players beat it.
It will be very interesting to watch the Wildcats’ effort and body language on Wednesday night. This is a game they absolutely need to have. Talking about frustration and anger is one thing, but going out and doing something about it is another.
If you have some time, here is what Chris Collins and Bryant McIntosh had to say on Tuesday afternoon.
A loss would mean a three-game losing streak and even darker times. A win could maybe, just maybe, spark a resurgence.
Game Time, location: 8 p.m. central, Allstate Arena
TV: Big Ten Network
Mobile: BTN2Go App
Radio: ESPN 1000
KenPom prediction: 74-73 (53% chance to win)
Betting Line: Northwestern -4
Last meeting: Minnesota 70, Northwestern 66 at Welsh-Ryan on 1/5/17