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Northwestern’s win over Nebraska showcases the Wildcats’ danger, even without full strength

For once, NU’s defense was heavily involved in a monumental win.

NCAA Basketball: Nebraska at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Unlike the last few Wednesday nights for Northwestern basketball, Feb. 7 didn’t have a “big game feel” to it inside Welsh-Ryan Arena. Based on the ambiance of the evening, few would have known that the Wildcats were set to do battle with the upstart Nebraska Cornhuskers, two teams in solid positioning for the NCAA Tournament with significant seeding implications on the line.

Part of that atmosphere could be attributed to considerably more purple than red dotting the seats in Evanston, or from collective anguish surrounding midterms (which, of course, never really end at Northwestern). However, the biggest reason was arguably that NU dominated from virtually start to finish.

Following its first losing streak of the season and slight slide down the Big Ten standings — outside the realm of the vaunted double bye in the conference tournament — Northwestern recognized it couldn’t fall victim to the high-flying Huskers and drop a third straight game. Maybe past iterations of Chris Collins teams would have been entranced after being tantalizingly close to greatness, but not this one.

The Wildcats led for all 40 minutes of the contest. Beyond that, Nebraska never truly felt within striking distance because of Northwestern’s tremendous shot-making. For a fifth straight game, the ‘Cats sank at least 44% of their three-pointers (read more on that from my esteemed co-EIC Iggy Dowling). In fact, a string of three triples from Ty Berry and Ryan Langborg catalyzed a 12-2 purple run that gave the ‘Cats a 15-point advantage with 8:55 left in the first half. Things never got much closer than that the rest of the night.

When Berry suffered a knee injury and left the court at the 8:52 mark of the opening 20 minutes, tangible fear befell Wildcat fans, both in terms of odds against Nebraska and for the rest of the season. Instead of wilting after Berry exited — and never played again Wednesday night — Northwestern’s offense stayed afloat courtesy of 15 second-half points from fill-in starter Nick Martinelli, doing enough to coast in a game that shouldn’t have been (or looked) so easy.

Offense hasn’t been the issue for the ‘Cats all year, and that manifested Wednesday night even without one of their biggest contributors. Most remarkable, however, may have been Northwestern’s defense.

After surrendering a combined 23 points to Josiah Allick and Rienk Mast when the teams squared off in Lincoln in January, the tandem combined for only eight this time around. Critically, the Wildcats secured the interior of their defense by rallying to double both big men. Collectively, the pair combined for zero (!) made shots inside the arc.

Likewise, Collins’ team kept the lid on Keisei Tominaga, particularly after a career-best 31-point outing in Champaign three days prior. The sharpshooter made just three baskets and was 0-of-3 from deep.

“That was kind of our main thing: no threes, no layups,” Collins said postgame about Tominaga, stressing his off-ball movement. “I thought our guys had a greater sense of urgency on him tonight.”

After having defense as its bedrock during its second-ever tournament run, Northwestern has been largely the opposite in 2023-24, sitting 84th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency — down 62 spots from a year ago. Poor rotations and subpar rebounding have plagued the Wildcats for a big chunk of the season, and neither of those has been entirely corrected. Yet, the clock seemed to turn back a year last night in Evanston in a game in which the potent Cornhuskers posted their second-lowest point total since December.

The ‘Cats cruised for much of their game against Nebraska, but there were some rough tidal waves at times. UNL enjoyed a bit of late life because of near turnovers against the press. On top of that, the status of Berry is uncertain moving forward, with Collins saying he had “no update” on the resurgent senior. Most crucially, though, NU never permitted a hasty Husker run, even in periods where its own offense couldn’t flow through Boo Buie or Langborg, who combined for 30 in the first half but just 10 in the second.

Having already claimed seven conference victories — plus five wins over top-53 teams in KenPom rating, and two over top-10 foes — Northwestern is in prime position to dance yet again barring a considerable collapse in its final eight Big Ten duels. Notably, five of those matchups are against bottom-six squads in the conference, and three of those games — vs. Penn State, Michigan and Iowa — line up very favorably at home.

The big looming question likely isn’t if the Wildcats will clinch another trip among the field of 64 postseason teams. Instead, it’s which version of their defense will make a trek anywhere in the country. If last night’s two-pronged showing against Nebraska is any reflection, Northwestern is capable of finding the success on both ends that’s eluded it all year — and which would make it that much more formidable come late March.