There’s really no such thing as a “good loss,” but the ‘Cats got about as close as possible after being defeated by Michigan State 77-72 this Wednesday.
The young team battled back from what could have turned into a blowout behind a breakout performance from Boo Buie, and made the game against the 15th-ranked Spartans competitive. This Saturday, Northwestern takes on another good team — cross-town rival Depaul. Here’s everything you need to know before the big game.
The history between Northwestern and DePaul
A rivalry between the two schools seems natural, both being private universities with power conference men’s basketball programs based in or just outside of Chicago. DePaul leads the all-time series 20-13. However, the ‘Cats have won each of the last four contests over the Blue Demons, their longest streak in the rivalry.
They met every year from 1971 through 1988 (save for a one-year blip in 1982), and since then have entered a cycle of not playing each other at all for a five-to-six year period, followed by a five-to-six year period in which they do meet every season. This cycle will now be broken, though, as the teams have faced off annually since the ‘13-14 season and are scheduled to continue to do so each year through 2024.
Northwestern and Depaul first played in the 1970-71 season, which resulted in a 91-77 home victory for NU. After the teams evenly split their first four matchups, the Blue Demons won the next 11 matchups, albeit with plenty of close wins over the stretch: they only had two double digit victories during that period.
Another interesting note: DePaul was ranked in five of those 11 consecutive victories, whereas the ‘Cats have never been ranked when playing the Blue Demons. Three of those times DePaul was ranked in the top ten, and even reached number one overall before the matchup in the ‘80-81 season. Despite finishing with a 9-18 record that year, Northwestern actually managed to give the Blue Demons a game, only losing 62-54.
How good is the 2019 iteration of DePaul?
The Blue Demons have had a fantastic 11-1 start to their season, and though they have not yet cracked the AP top 25, they have consistently received votes over the last few weeks.
And those aren’t just 11 meaningless wins over terrible teams. DePaul has beaten four power conference opponents in Iowa, Boston College, Minnesota and Texas Tech, with the first three all being on the road. Any road win over teams at that level (especially Iowa) is a quality one. That’s not even mentioning that they took down a 2019 NCAA Championship participant!
Their only loss occurred two weeks ago at the hands of the Buffalo Bulls, who are only a 7-4 MAC team, but have also advanced in the NCAA tournament each of the past two years. It was an odd game too, as the Blue Demons shot better from the field and from three than their opponents, and were even with the Bulls in turnovers, yet lost 74-69. The five point gap can most clearly be found from the foul line, as DePaul only shot 7-18 from the charity stripe while Buffalo went 12-for-16.
Statistically, head coach Dave Leitao’s squad sit just inside the top 100 for both points scored per game and points allowed, and that all around solid play translates to their scoring distribution. Chicago native Charlie Moore and Paul Reed both lead the team, averaging 15.8 points per game each, while Jalen Coleman-Lands and Jaylen Butz are double digit scorers as well.
After watching some of their film, I came away very impressed by their defense, but somewhat disappointed in their offense.
They prefer to play man-to-man, trusting in their all around athleticism and the ability of Reed, as the 6’9” forward has an intuitive sense of when to rotate off his man and swoop in for a weak side block.
What he did on this play below was downright mean.
Reed is averaging an astonishing 3.4 blocks per game, good for seventh in the entire country. Sheesh.
On the other side of the ball, their stagnancy stands out to some extent. It feels like every possession guys are standing around aimlessly as one high ball screen is set, leading into a couple passes before a jump shot is jacked. They rely on their individual talent far more than any strategic system.
That’s not to say that isn’t often enough. DePaul has the caliber of players that can make tough shots and score without any complicated design. It can just get ugly in certain stretches when a lot of possessions look like this:
But overall, this is a very good team that Northwestern will be playing on Saturday, with the Blue Demons having done more than enough to prove their worth.
Matchup to watch: Paul Reed vs Pete Nance
The two forwards both each lead their respective teams in scoring, blocks and rebounds. However, Reed’s overall numbers are better by a decent margin. Nance played well when matched up with the top tier front courts of Purdue and Michigan State, scoring 14 points in both contests and, in the Purdue game, often looking like the only viable offensive option. Whether Nance can play up to that level again will be a determining factor in this game.
One area Nance does have a slight advantage in is three point shooting. While only shooting marginally better from beyond the arc than Reed, Nance has shown much more of a willingness to go after deep looks, averaging 4.6 attempts per game compared to 1.8 for his counterpart.
Northwestern would be well advised to run Nance in a lot of pick and pops should he be matched up with Reed. If the talented sophomore can get it going early, it’ll force the Blue Demons’ rim protector away from the hoop or force them to switch out of their preferred defense.
Depending on how you feel about Pittsburgh, this is either Northwestern’s third or fourth toughest opponent of the season so far. Against Pitt and Purdue, the ‘Cats didn’t get destroyed, but they also didn’t really have a shot at winning the game in the closing minutes. They got closer against Michigan State, but the outcome of the game was never in any great danger.
I have a feeling Saturday will be more of the same. Northwestern keeps it close and plays well against DePaul, but just doesn’t have enough to pull out the victory in this battle for Chicago.