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Is Penn State a must-win game for Northwestern men’s basketball?

Wednesday’s matchup is a key momentum builder for the ‘Cats.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Is Northwestern men’s basketball officially back?

Not quite, but a commanding 88-74 win over Michigan State is a solid start. In Sunday’s victory, Northwestern’s third consecutive defeat of the Spartans, the ‘Cats looked less like the team that was embarrassed by Chicago State and Illinois and more like the squad that toppled No. 1 Purdue.

It was business as usual for Boo Buie, who finished the night with the first double-double of his college career. The story of the night, however, was Ty Berry. The senior guard has been inconsistent throughout the season, but the ‘Cats are outright dangerous when he hits his groove. That’s exactly what he did on Sunday night, racking up 22 points and adding two steals on defense. Berry, Buie and the rest of the team look to continue the momentum as the Wildcats take on Penn State on Wednesday.

The Nittany Lions will be Northwestern’s fourth Big Ten opponent this season. NU has fared well against Big Ten teams thus far, boasting a 2-1 record that includes Sunday’s victory and the December upset of Purdue. However, given the blowout loss to Illinois and the general lack of consistency throughout this season, one must wonder if the upcoming matchup against the Nittany Lions is a must-win game.

By itself, the game does not seem to pose any particular significance. Penn State is one of the less revered teams in the Big Ten, currently sitting at 8-7 in Mike Rhoades’ first season as head coach, and it was blown out by 30 by Michigan State. Yes, the same Michigan State team that the Wildcats beat by double digits.

Looking at this matchup, it appears to simply be a winnable game for Northwestern. Outside of Kanye Clary and Ace Baldwin Jr., Penn State does not have any notable threats that can seriously disrupt the game. Someone who has not been following Northwestern’s year may be inclined to discount this matchup as a less important game as the ‘Cats prepare for tougher competition like Wisconsin and Illinois.

However, in the context of the season, this game is extremely significant. While Northwestern, as a whole, has been successful this season, it has not experienced any sustained success. Any impressive feat is almost immediately followed by an agonizing loss or a stumble against an easier opponent. After Purdue, it was Chicago State. After the win over Arizona State, it was Illinois.

Coming off a notable win against Michigan State, the last thing NU wants to do is take its foot off the gas and lose its fourth game. Northwestern needs a shift in momentum if it wants to remain competitive — beating Penn State does just that.

Additionally, if the Wildcats want to stay on people’s radars, the last thing they can afford is to lose to a lesser team. Penn State, despite the winning record, is a far weaker team than the ‘Cats, and a loss to the Nittany Lions would be just another game for critics to point at to diminish Northwestern’s legitimacy.

Given the context of the matchup, it becomes evident that Northwestern is looking at a must-win situation on Wednesday. An inability to leave Pennsylvania with a win will put the ‘Cats in a rough spot as they continue their conference slate.