WARNING: THIS BASKETBALL GAME IS NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART. IT IS NOT FOR THE CASUAL FAN OF COLLEGE HOOPS. IT IS FOR THE TRUE DIEHARDS ONLY, THOSE WHO HAVE WATCHED ANEMIC BIG TEN BASKETBALL AND LIVED TO TELL THE TALE.
Northwestern is in Madison tonight to take on Wisconsin in a basketball game that will be virtually inconsequential and borderline unwatchable.
The Wildcats (13-10, 4-6 Big Ten, No. 82 Kenpom) are coming off a 58-47 loss to Michigan that all but confirmed that they will not be heading back to the NCAA Tournament this year. Meanwhile, the Badgers (10-13, 3-7, No. 90) have lost six of seven and will be watching the Big Dance from their couches for the first time since 1998 when it rolls around in March.
I guess a Northwestern win would keep its infinitesimal Tourney dreams alive, but the Cats would need to go 7-1 down the stretch and win a game or two in the Big Ten Tournament to get on the right side of the bubble. Their remaining schedule includes Michigan, Michigan State, and two games against Maryland. Kenpom has NU as the favorite in precisely two of its final eight. Unless the gods of competent offense decide to strike the team bus with a magical lightning strike, that’s not happening.
Wisconsin, shockingly, is similarly done for. After 19 straight bids, it’s finally been a rebuilding year for a program that has epitomized consistency and postseason success for so long. This offseason, the Badgers lost a quartet of seniors — Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig, Zak Showalter and Vitto Brown — that had been a part of 13 Tournament victories, including a pair of Final Fours. That left just stud sophomore Ethan Happ and a collection of role players and youth.
It’s been bad. Coming into the season, some thought they could hang around the upper-middle part of the Big Ten because of Happ and the fact that, well, it’s Wisconsin, but that hasn’t happened. The Badgers started out the year 4-7, some key players got hurt, and they are now struggling mightily in conference play. They have a couple good wins (Western Kentucky, Penn State) and a couple bad losses (Rutgers, Iowa), but overall are 4-13 against KenPom top-100 competition.
Happ has done his part, though. He averages 17 points, 8 boards and 4 assists (all team-highs) while leading the Big Ten in usage rate. His footwork allows him to either score or get to the line nearly every time he gets it in the post, and he’s a threat on the offensive glass as well. Joining Happ in the starting lineup are:
- Two four-star freshmen from Minnesota. Point guard Brad Davison is the only non-Happ player who averages double digits, but he’s scored just 17 points in the last three games combined as the grind of Big Ten play has taken a toll. He’s been forced to play a ton of minutes as two of Wisconsin’s talented young guards are injured.
- Sophomore shooting guard Brevin Pritzl, who is Wisconsin’s best option from beyond the arc.
- Junior wing Khalil Iverson, their second-best player.
The youth of this team gives Wisconsin fans hope that better things are on the horizon, but Gard will have to prove he can win with his own guys if he wants to stick around in a program that has come to expect success.
Here’s the thing about tonight’s game: there’s not going to be a lot of offense. Northwestern is averaging 64.7 points per game in Big Ten play (thanks, Gophers), Wisconsin just 62.8. Northwestern is 319th in the country in adjusted tempo, Wisconsin is 345th. The lack of any kind of pace means that if shots aren’t falling, this could be extremely ugly. Wisconsin lost 49-37 to Virginia — granted, the best defensive team in the country — earlier this season. Northwestern has been held to 51 points or fewer four times.
And oh yeah, it’s on national TV (FS1). What an excellent way to represent what a lot of Big Ten basketball looks like this year. If anyone wants to actually see some aesthetically pleasing hoops, I’d recommend tuning into Villanova-Creighton, the early game on FS1.
Although everything I said about how much Wisconsin has struggled is true, the Badgers are still the rightful favorites in this game. Despite the down season, they still have easily the highest attendance in the Big Ten, and Happ is tough to stop. In each of the last two seasons, Northwestern’s win over Wisconsin has been its biggest of the season. This time, the only thing on the line is pride.
Game Time, location: 7:30 p.m. central, Kohl Center
Mobile: FoxSportsGo App
Radio: ESPN 1000
KenPom prediction: 61-64 (40% chance to win)
Betting Line: Wisconsin -3
Last meeting: Wisconsin 76, Northwestern 48 in BTT on 3/11/17