Tonight is senior night. Other than the motivation to lock up a #2 seed in next week's Big Ten Tournament that is the only thing we have to play for tonight. These seniors have zealously defended their home court over the past three seasons, losing just four times in Mackey Arena during that span. Ohio State (2007), Duke (2009), and Illinois (2009) are explainable losses, but I still can't figure out how in the hell we lost to Wofford at home last year. What these guys have done in Mackey Arena is nothing short of astounding at times. It's like we are a different team, completely unbeatable, when things are working well at home.
Tonight's opponent is one that might be in a bit of a desperation mode. Northwestern has already likely locked up an NIT berth. If not, they will play in one of the other two postseason tournaments. It is rare for the Wildcats to even be thinking postseason in basketball, so this is a very positive season for them. A win tonight and Saturday in Columbus, however, could make them a little greedy for more. Getting both games would put them at .500 in conference play. If they can then grab a game or two in Indianapolis next week they just might have a chance to make the tournament as an at large depending on what else happens around the country.
One last time for the seniors...
Northwestern is a very hard team to figure out. They have played well enough to be a tournament team on many occasions this year. The home win over Florida State in the ACC/Big Ten challenge looks like the best the Big Ten got in that event at the moment. I was unable to do a formal Northwestern preview because of my grandmother's death on the date of game one, but Lake the Posts provided some help with a solid back and forth on January 15th. Our reactions to that game were varied. I was relieved we had pulled of a win in a game we honestly had no business winning. Lake the Posts was disgusted as the Wildcats blew another close game late.
Unfortunately, Northwestern has only itself to blame for not having an NCAA tournament bid locked up right now. They are currently 16-11 and 7-9 in Big Ten play. They blew a big lead in their Big Ten opener at Penn State. They dropped a game to us at home that they easily should have won. In mid-February they had a particularly brutal stretch where they lost at Iowa, dropped a heartbreaking game at home to Illinois in which they had an even bigger lead than they did against us, then dropped another home game to Michigan in overtime. I fully believe that had they gotten just three of those five, maybe even two, they would at least be at the forefront of the discussion for an NCAA bid, if not in the field already. I know they would feel a lot better about it at 18-9, 9-7 with two games plus the Big Ten Tournament to play, especially since two of those wins would have been very good wins.
Northwestern's "should have been" season comes in a weird way because many of those stumbles were at home. This team has actually been pretty good, by Northwestern standards, away from Welsh-Ryan Arena. They've won at Michigan State. They pounded Indiana for their first ever win in Assembly Hall (and it should be noted that Indiana was a very tough out in Bloomington this year for better teams). They also were very competitive in losses at Stanford and Butler.
The key to tonight's game will be how well we handle their 1-3-1 pressure defense. That was a major point of contention up in Evanston and if they continually force us into dumb passes again it could mean trouble tonight. We had an uncharacteristic 22 turnovers in that game and most of the time we refused to move without the basketball to help the guy that was being trapped. It's not a hard concept. If the guy with the ball is being double teamed and is in trouble there is at least one guy open on the floor. It is therefore your job to get in a position to help the ballhandler since he can't get to you. We didn't do this up in Evanston and nothing frustrates me more than when we show a serious lack of basic fundamentals such as this.
As Boiled Sports said this morning: these guys won in East Lansing. They have an outside chance at the school's first ever NCAA Tournament and absolutely nothing to lose. They looked very good last week at Indiana and took care of business against Iowa last weekend to secure the NIT bid. Why not go for more if you have the chance?
Offensively I would say we struggled against Kevin Coble and Craig Moore since they each had 16 points, but they took a combined 29 shots from the field to get those 32 points. All told, northwestern had a pretty poor night shooting the basketball at 35%, especially since they concentrate on 3-pointers and easy backdoor layups with their offense. Northwestern was also undone in the end by poor free throw shooting down the stretch. We also need to keep an eye on guard Michael Thompson. He averages 10 points per game and leads them in assists at four per night. He had 20 in the win at Michigan State.
I think we should run against this team. We killed them on the glass last time 39-23 and they are not a high scoring team. If we run against them it does not allow their defense to set up. We proved we can run against teams last year against Baylor, so why not tonight? Defensively we allowed next to nothing in the final five minutes of the first game, so I know we will play with that same confidence. Much of that great goes to JaJuan, who had Northwestern fearful of venturing anywhere near the basket.
I think the first five minutes will set the tone of this game. If Mackey Arena is rocking and we come out focused to send the seniors off the right way Northwestern won't have much of a chance. We probably can't go much higher than a 4 seed in the NCAA's at this point, but we can certainly drop lower. Let's aim high. Purdue 70, Northwestern 55
FYI: There will be an open thrad tonight, but I won't be able to participate much except by phone, so it will be slow. Stop on by. the thread opens at 6pm