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2023 Big Ten Men’s Basketball Tournament preview

Northwestern clawed its way to a two-seed. Now, we’ll see what the ‘Cats can do with it in the first tourney of the postseason.

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Rutgers Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern’s improbable run through the regular season came to a close on Sunday, when the ‘Cats downed Rutgers on the road to go 12-8 in the Big Ten and finish with a 21-10 overall record. After three straight losses, and in a conference with head-spinning parity, it was a game Northwestern needed to win. The alternative? Falling all the way from the two-seed in the Big Ten tournament to the nine-seed. Yeah, ridiculous.

Rutgers had beaten the ‘Cats earlier in the season, but, this time, the men in purple got the job done. The storybook season continues. Now, we turn our attention to this weekend’s Big Ten Tournament at the United Center in Chicago.

Since the ‘Cats did secure the No. 2 seed against Rutgers, they have given themselves the benefit of having a double-bye through the first two rounds of the bracket. For those looking at tickets, we know with certainty that their first game will come in the quarterfinals on Friday at 5:30 p.m. The opponent will be determined on Thursday night when Penn State and Illinois face off.

On the surface, Northwestern having to face one of two teams that took them down during its recent three-game skid is not a promising draw. However, this is the Big Ten. Maryland sounds like a horrible proposition after the Terps rained threes down on the ‘Cats two weekends ago. Head coach Chris Collins would also certainly like to avoid Michigan after losing to Hunter Dickinson and co. twice in conference play. There’s just no easy track in a tournament like this one.

A Northwestern vs. Illinois matchup would make for a top tier viewing experience. There have long been questions about the legitimacy of the rivalry between the cross-state conference foes, but there should be none during this year’s basketball season. Both games between the teams have been hard-fought and competitive. At home, the ‘Cats beat the Illini 73-60 in what was seen as an early-season upset, and then the Illini returned the favor in Champaign by a score of 66-62.

At the United Center, Illinois would have the advantage of the crowd. Northwestern fans have shown up consistently during this incredible season, but it’s a harsh reality: Illinois fans will dominate the premises. With that being said, Northwestern was 7-4 on the road this season. That’s pretty darn good, especially in the Big Ten.

If the ‘Cats can counter Illinois’ athleticism and talent with intensity and effort, their defense and guard play is enough to frustrate the Illini. We’ve seen it happen in the first matchup, and through the first half of the second game (at which point Northwestern led 37-19).

The concern is that guys like Terrance Shannon Jr. and Matthew Mayer will get hot from beyond the arc. This is a problem that Collins is going to have to work on as his team advances into the postseason. The Wildcat defense is inarguably stout. Nothing should be taken away from how players like Chase Audige, Brooks Barnhizer and Matthew Nicholson have played on that end of the floor this year. It is true, though, that they’ll occasionally spot teams threes.

In the Big Ten, that makes sense. Try to be disruptive, and don’t let all the superstar big men in the conference dominate you. If good outside shooting takes you down, move on to the next one. Cue the classic Big Ten coach “anyone can beat anyone in this conference” refrain in the press conference. However, it felt like teams were really exploiting this strategy and making the ‘Cats pay for it toward the end of the year.

Maryland made 14 triples and shot 63.6% from three in its win against the ‘Cats. Watching the deficit grow in that one, it felt like the Terps couldn’t miss, and the ‘Cats could do nothing to stop it. In Penn State’s upset victory over Northwestern last week, the Nittany Lions shot the three-ball 29 times and won on Camren Wynter’s last second three in overtime.

It’s slowly becoming a problem, and it’s what Illinois’ chances would hinge on in a potential third matchup on Friday. If the Illini don’t knock down outside shots, the ‘Cats will have the advantage. Chris Collins’ team plays better defense, has more experienced stars and plays as a cohesive unit that knows they have what it takes to beat its rival school.

Penn State is a whole different story. The ‘Cats haven’t actually beaten the Nittany Lions yet this season, and their performance last week was…. disappointing. There’s no Shannon Jr. to worry about in this matchup, but that didn’t matter in the last meeting. Guys like Wynter and Andrew Funk made Northwestern pay and were forces in the win. This team is also on a mini hot stretch after following up the Northwestern game with another upset win against No. 21 Maryland this weekend.

But it’s important to remember that both of those games were, in fact, upsets. Northwestern would be a bigger favorite in this one than they would be against Illinois, and for good reason. The ‘Cats won two more conference games than Penn State this season, and in the Big Ten, two isn’t a small number. Again, so long as Penn State isn’t on fire from three, Northwestern should have solid odds.

Looking ahead, Northwestern securing the No. 2 seed and avoiding the No. 4 seed was a big deal. It means the ‘Cats would likely get Indiana (who they’ve beaten twice) in the semis if they get that far, and not have to worry about top-seeded Purdue until the final.

In the big picture, it’s going to be a wild tournament in Chicago. Nine teams finished with between 10 and 12 wins. It’s unprecedentedly tight, and anyone really could beat anyone. Buckle in.