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Previewing a wild Sunday: What wins against heavyweights would mean for men’s and women’s basketball

With both teams coming off rough stretches, here are the stakes for the ‘Cats’ road games.

Syndication: Journal-Courier Nikos Frazier / Journal & Courier via Imagn Content Services, LLC

It’s safe to say there is a lot at stake for both of Northwestern’s struggling basketball teams, as they both have a chance to pull off colossal upsets on the road this Sunday at noon. It could be quite the victory Monday for Wildcat fans, but it’ll be much easier said than done considering the talent of their opponents in both College Park and West Lafayette.

MBB @ No. 4 Purdue, 12 p.m. CT

The ‘Cats have yet to lose a game by double digits this season, but with the big three of the Boilermakers that could end and then some this weekend, especially going into the hostile Mackey Arena. After losing close once again to Wisconsin on Tuesday night, making them losers five of their last six, the ‘Cats have officially entered desperation mode.

In their past two games the Wildcats have looked like the fringe tournament team many people thought they’d be coming into the year. They were able to squeak one out on the road against No. 10 Michigan State, before keeping it close all night long against a No. 8 Wisconsin team that shot better than 50% from beyond the arc. Regardless of the questionable call on Chase Audige late, Northwestern shot less than 40% from the free throw line and didn’t do enough in the first 39 minutes for the team to have much room to complain.

These games won’t be the ones that hurt most come selection Sunday for the ‘Cats, as their losses at home to both Penn State and Maryland don’t look great, and they will need a big time win to cover up these mishaps. Their win in East Lansing made up for it a bit, but if Northwestern can find a way to escape West Lafayette with a win, things could look a lot different in Evanston.

The Boilermakers will likely come into the game with vengeance on their mind, coming off a road loss on Thursday night against their rival Indiana. Jaden Ivey may be a top five pick and will be a matchup nightmare. With Purdue’s offense being so dangerous, expect extended Julian Roper minutes similar to NU’s game against Wisconsin due to him bringing more defensively than Ty Berry. With Ivey’s speed and elite change of direction and body control, the ‘Cats can not allow the sophomore to get into transition, and that starts with not turning the ball over.

The worst matchup for the ‘Cats is one that teams have faced all year against Purdue, Zach Edey, the 7-foot-4, 300 pound sophomore who shoots over 70% from the field. The good news for Northwestern is that Edey plays less than 18 minutes a game, the bad news is that when he’s not in, senior Trevion Williams is, who averages a ridiculous 26 points and 16 rebounds per 40 minutes this year. It’s going to be quite a challenge for Pete Nance when defending either player, but he’ll need to step up on that end of the floor and the ‘Cats will need to rebound as a unit to limit Purdue’s prolific offense.

Even more than their past game against the Badgers, there is only so much the ‘Cats will be able to do on defense given their personnel, so if they are even going to keep this close they will likely need to score in the 80s. That all starts with contributions across the board. With the sheer size of Purdue, the ‘Cats will need players such as Audige, Buie and Beran to hit perimeter shots efficiently, something they haven’t consistently done all year.

Northwestern has made it a habit of playing up to their elite opponents and playing down to their less-talented ones, which obviously is not a recipe for success, but it could play to their advantage in this game. If Northwestern is able to score enough points to keep it close and change the narrative by winning a close game late, it could give the ‘Cats the momentum to get back into the tournament conversation, a place they’ve only been once in program history.

WBB @ No. 14 Maryland, 12 p.m. CT

After a 10-3 start, the Veronica Burton-lead Wildcats have dropped three of their past four, all to teams outside of the AP Top 25. Of course, Northwestern’s next opponent is the No. 12 Maryland Terrapins on the road, so it won’t be an easy win, but it’s one that Northwestern desperately needs.

Due in part to their postponements in late 2021, Northwestern has played only four games away from home this year, in which the team has gone 2-2. In the two games they’ve won away from Welsh-Ryan Arena, Veronica Burton has averaged 28.5 points, and in the games they’ve lost she’s had 13.5 PPG. It doesn’t take an expert to find the correlation here, and Burton will have to play well if Northwestern is to come out victorious. With that being said, players around her will also have to knock down shots as well if NU wants to emerge with a win.

Unlike the men’s team, the ‘Cats have a bonafide star, but that doesn’t mean the players around her can get away with not coming to play each and every game. Starting on the defensive side of the ball, Caileigh Walsh and Courtney Shaw will have their hands full trying to guard Angel Reese, who averages 16.6 points in her sophomore season. What’s even more concerning is the fact that Reese and the rest of the Terps absolutely dominate the boards, averaging the second most in the Big Ten. This, accompanied with the fact that the ‘Cats give up the third most rebounds to their opponents, is not a recipe for success. By the way, Reese leads the conference by a wide margin with an absurd 5.4 offensive rebounds a game, so that could be an issue to say the least.

Obviously, the ‘Cats will hope to limit the damage on the boards, but given the disparity in the categories, Northwestern will need to shoot significantly from both in-and-outside the arc if they are to come out victorious. The ‘Cats are in the bottom four in both free throw and three point percentage in the conference, and are dead last in field goal percentage among the Big Ten. They’ve gotten away with this by limiting turnovers and leading the Big Ten in both steals and blocks, but if they are going to get a win against a top-15 opponent in a hostile arena, players like upperclassmen Lauryn Satterwhite and Laya Hartman will have to step up in the scoring department.

If Northwestern is able to pull out a win on the road they will have a chance to finish out the month of January undefeated, as they’ll host Iowa and Illinois in what should be winnable games. The ‘Cats have a chance to make a statement on Sunday in College Park by gaining what would be their most impressive win this season. With a loss, they could come back a sub-500 basketball team in conference play that’s on a three game losing streak. Clearly, there’s a lot on the line for Burton and the ‘Cats.