Saturday brings us my favorite and my least favorite thing in the world: a Northwestern basketball game I actually care about.
For quite a while here, I've just been watching Northwestern play basketball without really thinking about it. For fun. The games haven't been haunting my mind all day long, thinking about what could go right and what could go wrong.
But after winning three road games in a row in conference play for the first time since NINETEEN GODDAMN FIFTY, the Wildcats sit at 5-5 in Big Ten play. This is the first time they have been .500 or higher in conference play since Jan. 18, 2006, when the Wildcats lost to Michigan to fall to 2-3. (They started out 2-0!) It's the first time they've been .500 this late in the season since the end of the 2003-2004 campaign, when Bill Carmody was named Big Ten Coach of the Year for going 8-8. If they win, it will be the first time they'll be above .500 in conference play since March 6, 2003, when they lost to Michigan to fall to 8-8.
I want Northwestern to be above .500 in Big Ten play. I want it because it will put us ahead of Ohio State and Wisconsin, who are incontrovertibly better teams. I want it because Go Cats, dammit!
The opponent is Nebraska, and it's at home. So far as games go, this is a winnable one: The Huskers are a better team than Northwestern per Kenpom, but a) this is a home game, so NU is still favored b) as much as I love Kenpom, examining the entire resume of Northwestern and Nebraska says little about a team that's started winning games as its schedule got toughest.
In Northwestern's first six attempts against teams of Nebraska's Kenpom caliber or better, the Wildcats went 0-6. (And lost two games to teams much worse than Nebraska.) Since then, they're 4-2, with the only two losses coming to teams much better than Nebraska, plus a pair of wins over Illinois and Purdue, who have lower Kenpom rankings than Purdue.
We played em before?
Northwestern's played Nebraska twice since they joined the bee one gee, but that says little. Here are players who played more than five minutes when Northwestern played Nebraska in Lincoln last January 26:
Dave Sobolewski (glued to the bench, because Chris Collins is smart)
Tre Demps (still starts!)
Reggie Hearn (graduated)
Jared Swopshire (graduated)
Alex Olah (still starts!)
Alex Marcotullio (graduated)
Mike Turner (transferred)
Dylan Talley (graduated)
Ray Gallegos (still starts!)
Shavon Shields (still starts!)
David Rivers (role player)
Brandon Ubel (graduated)
Benny Parker (averages 1.5 points per game)
These two teams have undergone drastic overhauls in the past year. Tim Miles played three players 39 minutes last year. Two of them are gone. He now has a star, Nebraska transfer Terran Petteway, and actual bench players. Northwestern has been COLLINSED, plus we got Drew Crawford and JerShon Cobb back and Sanjay Lumpkin emerged.
So I wouldn't put much stake in either of NU's two games against Nebraska.
Can NU do strangle-y defense?
Nebraska only has one effective offensive strategy: Having Petteway try to score in whatever way he feels. Ray Gallegos is a kinda effective shooter, and 6'10 big Warren Pitchford is the type of stretchy center that has given NU fits over the years, but neither are the focus of the offense.
Probably the best thing about Nebraska's offense is they don't turn it over much. Northwestern is fine with that: they don't try to force turnovers. They just pack it in and make all interior shots difficult.
Nebraska is not the type of team that can beat NU by shooting, and Petteway is not talented enough to score with five dudes against him. Conclusion: The Wildcats can shut the Huskers down.
Can NU score?
Of course not. This has nothing to do with Nebraska.
Can NU win?
I certainly think they can. Of course, it's all up to whether they can wreak enough havoc on the opposition's offense that it is as ugly and horrific as Northwestern's offense. Nebraska seems like a prime team for that approach, since they already kinda suck at scoring.
But here we are: NU plays a team they can beat at home, and I really really really want them to win. This is how awesome things happen, and it is also how a heart breaks.