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Men’s basketball: Three keys for Northwestern against Wisconsin

The winner of Saturday’s contest is well-positioned to land atop the Big Ten leaderboard.

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Wisconsin Kayla Wolf-USA TODAY Sports

If the matchups between Northwestern and Wisconsin from a season ago are any indication, Saturday afternoon at the Kohl Center will be a rock fight. Across two games last season, Northwestern won by a combined five points, and each matchup was back-and-forth. Across two contests, the score was tied 15 times and the lead switched hands a whopping 25 instances. The ‘Cats went 2-0 in those bouts, and with the Badgers off to a hot start in 2024, Northwestern is next on Bucky’s revenge tour. In order to keep the win streak alive and knock off the No. 15 team in the country, here are three things the ‘Cats must prioritize:

1. Stay hot from deep

Across four Big Ten games, Northwestern is shooting an out-of-this-world 47.9% from deep. Long term, that’s probably not sustainable, but for one game? Absolutely. Leading the way for the ‘Cats has been Ty Berry, whose shooting turnaround might be the story of the season in Evanston. In that quartet of conference matchups, Berry has been lights-out, nailing threes at a 61.9% clip and averaging 18.3 points per Big Ten contest.

Northwestern must keep up the lethal shooting against a Wisconsin team that is second-to-last in the conference in opponent three-point percentage. In other words, only Michigan allows opponents to convert more long-balls in the conference. Not to mention, the ‘Cats are 7-0 when they make more threes than their opponents. With Berry’s hot hand, plus the deep-threat potential of Boo Buie and Ryan Langborg and a newly-inserted big man who offers some range in Luke Hunger, making it rain threes in Madison could be the quickest way to pull a road upset.

2. Avoid foul trouble

Northwestern was somehow able to escape with a victory over Purdue while allowing 41 free throw attempts, but that is a total anomaly. Over the last three contests Northwestern is fouling 18.7 times per game, and against a team like Wisconsin, free trips to the free throw line are one of the surest ways to find yourself in a hole.

The Badgers lead the Big Ten in free throw percentage this season, and as a team, has nearly made as many free throws as their opponents have attempted (231 FTM to 244 FTA). The Badgers have shot perfectly from the charity stripe twice this season with the likes of A.J. Storr and John Blackwell among the most potent shooters in the conference. The ‘Cats have allowed at least 20 free throws in each of their last three games. Meanwhile, under Greg Gard, Wisconsin is 73-18 when the Badgers shoot that number of free throws. Avoiding necessary and tacky fouls, especially early on, is key for Northwestern’s chances.

3. Brooks Barnhizer turning the corner

Brooks Barnhizer was always going to be the X-factor for this Northwestern team. The sixth-man-turned-starter has found ways to contribute across the board, acting as the team’s leading rebounder while also pacing the Wildcats in steals and attempted free throws. But I’m sure Brooks will tell you himself that his scoring has not always been at his standard. Despite being second on the team in points, Barnhizer has struggled from the field for stretches this season. In an eight-game stretch starting against NIU on Nov. 27, Barnhizer shot just 36.4% from the floor.

But over the past two contests, something has clicked. Against Michigan State and Penn State, Barnhizer has shot 65% from the field, combining for 39 points on top of his consistent rebounding and defense. In Happy Valley, No. 13 totaled a career-high 23 points, including several clutch buckets down the stretch to secure the road win. Although the scoring came with a few too many turnovers, if the junior has unlocked something with his shooting motion and offensive arsenal, Wisconsin’s defense could be in trouble.