Northwestern (3-0, 0-0 B1G) will take on Rhode Island this Saturday in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament in Uncasville, Connecticut. Coming off a hard-fought, and fairly concerning victory at home against Western Michigan on Tuesday, the ‘Cats will look to bounce back and advance in the tournament to take on either Washington State or Mississippi State on Sunday in the final. If they were to lose, they would still play on Sunday against the loser on the other side of the bracket. Here are a few things at stake for Northwestern as it embarks on its first road trip of the young season:
Proving it can win against a good Power Five opponent
If Northwestern gets past Rhode Island, the team will likely get a chance to take on Mississippi State, a team that is currently 22nd in the KenPom rankings. That is far above Northwestern, which sits at 57. The ‘Cats certainly can beat the Bulldogs, especially at a neutral site that doesn’t benefit either team, but it would be by far their toughest matchup of the season.
But the way the ‘Cats have looked, they might need a difficult game to really get them going. After the Western Michigan contest, which came down to the final minutes, head coach Chris Collins and team captains Boo Buie and Brooks Barnhizer preached that it was up to them to wash it and move on to play better basketball this weekend. What better chance to prove it than in a game in which they will be true underdogs? An early win against a good team can’t hurt come March either.
The issue will be on offense. Mississippi State is a dogged defensive team capable of making it very difficult for an out of sync offensive team to put the ball in the bucket. And that is exactly what Northwestern was on Tuesday night at Welsh Ryan: out of sync. Bully ball with Barnhizer isn’t going to work as the only plan of action against the Bulldogs. Northwestern will need some of its complementary scorers besides him and Buie to step up.
Showing more toughness and physicality
This doesn’t necessarily relate to the tournament, but it’s still what ‘Cats fans will be watching for as soon as it tips off. Northwestern must rebound (literally) from a physicality perspective. The Broncos completely out-hustled, outran and out-bodied Northwestern on Tuesday, and it was the primary reason the game was so close.
The ‘Cats were out-rebounded by a whopping margin of 43 to 21. Yeesh. It was very, very bad, and incredibly obvious to the eye. The Broncos’ 17 offensive boards (to NU’s four) were almost the difference in the game. Northwestern continued to give Western Michigan second and third chances on trips down the floor throughout the entire 40 minutes.
Obviously, that cannot be the case this weekend. These teams are all better than Western Michigan, and all have athletes capable of doing exactly the same thing that the Broncos did. The ‘Cats must step it up from a physicality standpoint. It starts with the bigs, but it extends to everybody else too. An improved team effort on the glass would assuage a large concern after the game on Tuesday.
Proving that someone other than Buie, Barnhizer and Ryan Langborg can step up
Langborg had a dreadful evening shooting the basketball on Tuesday, as he went just 2-of-9 from the field, but he still finished as the third leading scorer for Northwestern with just six points. Barnhizer had 20, and Buie had 21. So far, those guys have been the entire offense for the ‘Cats.
But maybe going on the road after what must have been a tough week at practice will help get at least somebody else going. Northwestern needs it. A more balanced scoring attack gives them a way better shot against a team with the defensive prowess of Mississippi St. Also, long-term, the current state of things is not sustainable in Big Ten play.
Ty Berry. Matt Nicholson. Nick Martinelli. It would be great if any of those guys ticked up in production this weekend. Northwestern can probably get by Rhode Island without them playing well, but it will be much more difficult to come out of Connecticut with a perfect record if they don’t show up at all.