The Wildcats (23-3, 13-2 Big Ten) are headed on the road to put their six-game winning streak and conference title hopes on the line against the struggling, but ever-feisty, Wisconsin Badgers (11-16, 3-13).
Wisconsin comes into their final home game of the season at 1-7 in Madison during Big Ten play under fourth-year head coach Jonathan Tsipis. They are also fresh off of five straight losses: each of the first three came by double digits before the other two members of the Big Ten’s top three, Iowa and Maryland, wrecked them by 26 and 29 respectively. Now, due to a truly unfortunate quirk in their scheduling, the Badgers will have to finish the trifecta.
Tsipis shares intriguing background with Northwestern head coach Joe McKeown: the two each led the program at George Washington directly before heading into the Big Ten, with the latter doing so for 20 years before being inducted into the Colonials’ athletic Hall of Fame during Tsipis’ inaugural year with the program.
But clearly, the two leaders’ programs are on vastly different trajectories. The Badgers, in the midst of a seemingly never-ending rebuild, are led by forward Imani Lewis, who averages 14.6 points and 8.5 rebounds per game in a valiant effort to keep her team afloat with any measure of consistency. The sophomore has scored in double figures in all but three games this season, and has never been held below six points or two made field goals.
The only other real threats on the offensive end are 6’3” big Abby Laszewski, who averages 12 and 7 per contest, and guard Sydney Hilliard, who scores a hair under 10 points per game. As a whole, Wisconsin’s offense, though better than its thoroughly mediocre defense, is relatively one-dimensional, without much, if any, three point range to speak of, and a pedestrian free throw rate. Stop them from getting points inside, and the battle is won.
The Badgers’ other main weaknesses play directly into Northwestern’s strengths. Wisconsin combines a forced-turnover rate that is bottom-30 in the country with a steal rate that is even worse, allowing a Wildcat backcourt that is growing more comfortable by the game to potentially have their way offensively.
Over NU’s past eight games, Veronica Burton and Lindsey Pulliam are combining to average a stunning 38.3 points per contest, as the former continues to blossom offensively and the latter continues her season-long scoring leadership. Should the dynamic duo get going against Wisconsin, the ‘Cats will roll, and it will only get worse the more of Northwestern’s secondary options find their offensive footing.
Here’s how you can tune in to the Saturday matinée:
Location: Kohl Center (Madison, WI)
Tipoff: 11:00 a.m. CT
Radio: WNUR Sports 89.3 FM (available online at WNURSports.com)
Online streaming: BTN+ (BTNPlus.com)
Prediction: Northwestern 76, Wisconsin 52 (ELO) or Northwestern 71, Wisconsin 57 (R1) per warrennolan.com (88% chance of winning in both models)