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Big Ten Tournament Preview: Northwestern men’s basketball looks to continue win streak against Minnesota

The win over the Gophers on February 25 jumpstarted a late-season run for the ‘Cats.

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Minnesota Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports

In the past 12 or so months, a lot has changed around the world. COVID-19 entered our world and now seems to be on the way out. Social justice movements have gained a ton of momentum. Former President Donald Trump left the Oval Office, and his position now belongs to President Joe Biden.

Yet through it all, one thing has remained constant: Minnesota and Northwestern are still bottom feeders of the Big Ten and will kick off the Big Ten Tournament by squaring off once again in the 12 vs. 13 seed matchup.

Since last year’s contest, both Richard Pitino’s and Chris Collins’ hot seats have grown hotter. And despite Collins enduring a losing streak lasting 10+ games for the second consecutive year, his seat remains cooler than Pitino’s.

Wednesday’s matchup will have implications on both coaches’ futures at their respective schools. Minneapolis media is already speculating on Pitino’s successor. Charley Waters of the Twins Cities Pioneer Press wrote here that “word in college basketball circles is that a decision that Richard Pitino wouldn’t be returning as University of Minnesota men’s basketball coach was made 10 days ago.” It is unclear what Pitino can do at this point to save his job, but losing a second consecutive game in a two-week span to Northwestern cannot help his case.

On the other hand, many believe Collins’ job should be safe regardless of Wednesday’s outcome. With that being said, Northwestern still has not hired an athletic director since Jim Phillips left for the ACC, and it is anybody’s guess as to whether the new AD will keep Collins on board. Still, he has won three games in a row since the infamous 13 game losing streak. While none of Northwestern’s three latest wins over Minnesota, Maryland and Nebraska were particularly impressive, the wins do collectively point to a brighter future ahead. A tournament victory over Minnesota would give Collins a four-game winning streak and viable signs that the team may be turning a corner entering a critical 2022 campaign.

The last time Northwestern and Minnesota met it was glorious. The ‘Cats had lost 13 in a row. The Gophers weren’t playing quite as poorly as the Wildcats but had lost six of their last eight games.

We all know how this one ends.

Boo Buie dropped 19 points in the second half en route to a game-high 25 point performance. Chris Collins improved his winning percentage at The Barn to 83% (5-for-6) while also snapping the ‘Cats losing streak. Minnesota’s NCAA tournament hopes, on the contrary, were over with the loss.

The Gophers were without starters Gabe Kalscheur and Liam Robbins in the matchup, but that’s hardly an excuse when playing for an NCAA tournament bid against a team that had lost 13 straight games.

Both players’ statuses for Wednesday’s matchup remain unclear. Either one being out, though, would be a big blow for the Gophers. On the other side, the ‘Cats health comprises one of the few distinctive factors that separate these two bottom dwellers of the Big Ten.

In terms of the game itself, there are two areas where both teams can improve on from the last matchup. Remarkably, Northwestern managed to overcome an early 17-3 deficit and still win by eight points while still turning the ball over 19 times against Minnesota. The Wildcats have managed to modestly decrease their turnover marks in their last two games (12 against both Maryland and Nebraska), but turnovers still remain a huge issue for this team since the 13-game losing streak commenced.

For Minnesota, the Golden Gophers shot just 14.8% from three (4-for-27) against NU a few weeks ago. The Gophers shoot 28.6% from deep per game this season. If Minnesota can shoot closer to the team’s season average from three against NU on Wednesday, the Wildcats may be in trouble. In Richard Pitino’s squad’s three games since losing to Northwestern, Minnesota has shot roughly 25% from beyond the arc. Whether the Gophers simply shot poorly in the last matchup or if the Wildcats have found something to fluster Minnesota will be an interesting storyline to watch and one that will determine just how many more basketball games remain on Northwestern’s 2020-2021 schedule.

The reality is the team that has the fewest self-inflicted mistakes will win Wednesday’s matchup. If Chris Collins’ team can be the one to do so, the Wildcats will earn a chance to redeem themselves against the teams that burned them so many times earlier this year.