Well, here we are.
If Northwestern is to extend its incredibly disappointing season, it will have to snap a six-game losing streak, without its best two-way player, against one of the conference’s most athletic teams. The 10th-seeded Wildcats (15-16, 6-12 Big Ten) are set to face off against 7-seed Penn State (19-12, 9-9) in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament at Madison Square Garden on Thursday evening.
The teams have already met twice this season. Back in early January, the Nittany Lions cruised to an easy 78-63 win behind 30 points from wing Lamar Stevens and 64 percent shooting on two-pointers. Two weeks later, Northwestern responded with a 70-61 win at Allstate Arena.
So, hey, at least the Cats have shown they can beat Penn State this year, right? Well, here’s the thing. Northwestern’s leading scorer in that game, Vic Law, has been ruled out for the entire tournament. Penn State’s best defensive player, Josh Reaves (who leads the conference in steals), will play today after missing that game.
That’s not to say a Northwestern win would take a miracle. It’s possible. Bryant McIntosh said at practice on Tuesday that he plans to play through his shoulder pain. Penn State big man Mike Watkins’ status is uncertain. (Update: Watkins will not play) If he doesn’t play, Dererk Pardon will have a major skill advantage against Julian Moore down low.
But, still, it doesn’t look likely. NU has lost six in a row. Prior to losing three straight games to good teams, Penn State had won six of seven. Tony Carr is the Big Ten’s leading scorer and a potential first-round draft pick. Stevens, Reaves, and the sharpshooting Shep Garner give Pat Chambers a trio of talented wings that are tough to defend.
Northwestern will probably have to play very well to win this game. That means injured B-Mac looking like he did against Wisconsin, except without all the turnovers (which could be tough against Penn State’s top-25 defense). That means Scottie Lindsey hitting plenty of shots, even with Reaves likely guarding him. That means Pardon feasting down low. That means contributions outside of those three, whether they come from Gavin Skelly, Anthony Gaines, Aaron Falzon, or even Isiah Brown or Barret Benson.
Kenpom gives Penn State a 69 percent chance to win. That’s pretty nice. The best thing Northwestern has going for it? Check your calendar.
This is March.— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) March 1, 2018
Yes, this Northwestern season has been awful and depressing and so much less than what we expected, but at least we’re playing in March, unlike Illinois, which lost to Iowa yesterday. Illinois sucks.
Here’s the updated bracket after Day 1:
Game Time, location: 5:30 p.m. central, Madison Square Garden
Mobile: BTN2Go App
Radio: WGN 720
KenPom prediction: 64-70 (31% chance to win)
Betting Line: Penn State -5.5 (O/U 133)