It all feels real now. The students are back, it’s really cold and snowy outside, and, most importantly, Northwestern is not only welcoming in an actual Big Ten team, not some pretender like Rutgers, but a really good Big Ten team. Wisconsin is ranked 4th in the nation, and you’d be hard pressed to find five guys who would say that they’re overrated. Northwestern’s home opener in Big Ten play will be no cakewalk.
Northwestern escaped the end of the non-conference schedule without incident. After stumbling against Central Michigan, they responded with 3 wins over Western Michigan, UIC, and Northern Kentucky, handling lesser competition the way Big Ten teams are supposed to. On the road against Rutgers in the Wildcats Big Ten opener, NU held on to win by 4 in a 51-47 snoozefest in Piscataway. Tre Demps has shot 50% in both of his last two games, scoring 16 against Rutgers on 6-12 shooting and dropped 23 on Northern Kentucky on 9-18 shooting. His resurgence as well as McIntosh’s continued success have given Northwestern a steady backcourt, something that they’ll need going forward. With JerShon Cobb slowly getting back to full fitness, maybe the backcourt can become strength of this Wildcat team. Stranger things have happened, like Alex Olah zero field goals from inside the arc against a terrible team. That happened against Rutgers. That cannot happen again tonight. The big man needs to score 10 against Frank Kaminsky for the Wildcats to have any chance.
The Wisconsin Badgers are good. Really good. Stupid good. Like twice as good as any team Northwestern has seen this year good. Every position is strength, except maybe point guard. Frank Kaminsky? Beast. Sam Dekker? NBA talent. Nigel Hayes? Monster. Josh Gasser? Sharpshooter. Traevon Jackson? Microwave. Every starter is an elite Big Ten talent. Sure the bench isn’t super deep, but when you play at Bo Ryan’s tempo, does anyone ever get tired? Wisconsin’s one loss this year was by 8 to Duke, the only team who might have a prayer to knock off Kentucky this year. Every other team has been crushed under the Badgers wagon, including quality wins against Georgetown and Oklahoma. There’s a reason why Wisconsin was a preseason pick to make the final four: it’s because they’re good enough to make the final four. Every single Wildcat will need to play spotless basketball to knock off this team.
G: Traevon Jackson (9.4 ppg, 2.9 apg)
G: Josh Gasser (7.1 ppg, 43.9% on 3FG)
F: Nigel Hayes (12.6 ppg, 7.4 rpg)
F: Sam Dekker (12.4 ppg, 4.4 rpg)
C: Frank Kaminsky (16.6 ppg, 8.4 rpg)
G: Bryant McIntosh (11.7 ppg, 4.9 apg)
G: Tre Demps (11.8 ppg, 27.4% on 3FG)
F: Vic Law (7.2 ppg, 5.1 rpg)
F: Sanjay Lumpkin (7.2 ppg, 5.1 rpg)
C: Alex Olah (10.4 ppg, 7.1 rpg)
*Pours some out for Bill Carmody.* The bottom line is that this team needs to make perimeter jumpers, something that it has not done this year. The Wildcats are shooting just 33.6% from beyond the arc. Against a team that is so much better, the Wildcats need to be around 40% to pull Wisconsin out, opening up the paint.
Role Players Need to Show Up
You know McIntosh will play well, Olah can’t lay two massive eggs in a row, and Tre Demps will shoot until he scores 10, but NU needs someone else. Whether it’s Vic Law being super athletic, Sanjay Lumpkin knocking down some threes, or bench guys like Lindsey or Taphorn, points need to come from unexpected places.
Northwestern has a really bad habit of starting off ice cold from the floor. Against teams that push the tempo, this is OK, because you’re going to get enough possessions to get back into it. If Wisconsin starts off with a 10-point lead in the first 10 minutes, it will be real hard for NU to claw back. Wisconsin’s execution in the half-court is just too deadly.
6:50–New Year, New Team. And by that, I’m talking about haircuts. At the start of the year seemingly everyone was rocking some kind of fade/fauxhawk. Over the winter break, Sanjay Lumpkin and Vic Law have exchanged their cuts for a new shaved look. I thought Sanjay’s cut was the best on the team. I’ll miss it.
7:17–It drives me absolutely insane every time “Clique” gets played over the PA system and the song skips around because the censoring is all messed up. I guarantee you there’s a clean version out there. Why not just play that then try and chop and slice a regular version?
7:25–The house is packed. Is there a lot of red? Well, yeah. But it’s still going to be an awesome atmosphere tonight.
7:30–Anthem time. Not an empty seat to be seen (outside of the MildSide). First game the freshmen have played in with this kind of atmosphere, with the possible exception of Butler. But even then, it wasn’t a conference game. There is juice in the building. Let’s get it on.
7:40–Early on, the moment may be a little large for these freshmen. McIntosh tries a floater over a double team, then Law gets his shot erased, then McIntosh clangs a contested deep two. To be expected, though, against a team that’s this good.
7:45–I know I’ve said it before, but this time I mean it. I’m going to sit down and dig into some NU gametape this week. I just don’t know what the gameplan is offensively. Is it just constant penetration with the hope of making contested lay-ups? Is it drive and kick? Is it pick and roll? I don’t know. Whatever it is, it hasn’t been working. Only FG NU has made was on a third-chance scrapfest. All Wisconsin early.
7:53–Olah can’t pick up fouls, because when he does, Kreisberg has to play major minutes and NU gets thrashed on pick and pops. Wisconsin can’t miss from three. It’s alarming how good they are from out there.
7:55–NU trails by 11 at the under 12. Olah about to check back in even though he has two fouls. It’s hard to second guess this one. Is it a little panicky? Yeah, but these are panicky times.
8:00–Wisconsin’s offense is a freaking art form. When every one on your team can score, you can do so much. They’re making it rain from deep, they’re going inside when they feel like it, and they have taken maybe 2 bad shots all game. Sure this is the best team NU Will play, but every team will be closer to this end of the spectrum than the Rutgers end of the spectrum.
8:05–Oy. The struggles of Vic Law continue. The flu isn’t the issue this time around. The Big Ten is such a different animal. For as impressive as any freshman can look in non-conference, the Big Ten is such a step up. Law and McIntosh have a lot of growing to do this season if NU wants to be competitive in such a great basketball conference. The speed and athleticism is just a game changer. It’s probably been a long time since Vic Law had to matchup against people every bit as athletic as he is night in night out.
8:12–2-3 zone from NU. It took Wisconsin a possession or two, but they have it figured out. Crisp perimeter passes followed by getting ball to the elbow or on the baseline 15 feet out. Hayes is such a zone beater it’s just not fair. His size and mid-range game just trash defensive strategies.
Well NU beat Wisconsin in football, so there’s that. That is the only positive thus far. NU hasn’t made a three. They’re shooting below 30% from the floor. Players not named Tre Demps have combined for 11. There were 9 such players who saw the court in the first half. There have been games this year where my prevailing thought was that the offensive was working, just no one could hit. Today, that is not the problem. Settling for bad shots is now commonplace, and it’s not NU fans’ favorite whipping boy Tre Demps who’s at fault. Olah settled for a 18-footer. Lumpkin pumped an NBA range triple with 7 seconds of the shot clock. Law has forced multiple bad shots. McIntosh is putting up floaters no matter if there are three defenders in front of him. At some point, this needs to be addressed. Defensively, it’s hard to complain because Wisconsin is just so freaking good. Giving up 43 in a half is bad, don’t get me wrong. But when Duje Dukan is going to hit 2 out of 3 triples and Sam Dekker is going to go unconscious, what can you do? Alex Olah’s two fouls didn’t help either. Kresiberg vs Kaminsky is like the Greg Oden vs Vince Scott matchup. It’s just unfair. For the second half, I want to see execution. I don’t care if NU shoots 30% again. I just want there to be possessions where NU passes up a good shot for a great shot. I want off ball movement. I want the ball to zip around the floor. I want back-cuts. I want good offense. Defensively? No dunks I guess would be cool.
8:43–Most of the same stuff early in the second half. Demps given the green light whenever he feels like it, defense still pretty poor. McIntosh fell asleep and promptly got a three jammed in his face. I’m questioning some of these Collins rotations. At times, it seems like it’s the coaching version of button mashing: just hoping something good happens.
8:49–Sam Dekker just threw down a massive jam after another Wildcat turnover and Wisconsin is up 61-34 with 12:30 to play. It kind of encapsulated the day. Wisconsin is just this much better than Northwestern in all phases: offense, defense, and coaching.
8:55– 61-36 Wisconsin with 11:40 to play. Wisconsin is everything I love about basketball. It’s the pass to the assist that makes great team ball, and Wisconsin knows it. Bo Ryan has everyone playing as one unit. He even allows players to have their time on the ball every once in a while, but when they overstep, like Dekker did with a heat-check airball in the first half, he lets them know. It’s just good basketball.
9:03–It’s that time of the game where we start looking for positives that aren’t necessarily basketball related. NU has the better uniforms. They won in football. Chicago is a cooler city than Madison. NU won in football. Anything else?
9:11–Stadium empties out at the under 4. NU down 26. NU has never led. NU has never been competitive. NU is getting welcomed to real power conference basketball right now. I know Wisconsin is the best in the B1G by a lot, but it’s hard for me to say that NU can compete in the middle of the conference after this kind of showing. Even teams at the bottom of the Big Ten, like Penn State or Purdue, have weapons, and right now, a dull butter knife could cut through the NU defense. To make matters worse, the offense is the same as it’s always been over the past year and a half: uninspiring. I don’t know how that end of the floor is going to get solved. It’s a really serious problem.