Michigan and Northwestern do battle tonight in Evanston, Illinois with both teams looking for another win to pad their NCAA tournament resumes, namely the Wildcats’ first ever trip to the big dance.
We caught up with Inside NU’s Zack Pereles to preview tonight’s game:
Northwestern has caught everyone by surprise this season, but what is the reaction to this team in Evanston?
Right now, there's more panic than celebration among the fans as the Wildcats have lost five of their last seven. But you're right, before the season started, this team was regarded as a middle-of-the-pack team with the potential to sneak into the upper-middle tier. If Northwestern misses the tournament at this point, recency bias is going to play a major major role in the overall evaluation of this team — as it should — but in general I think most fans will eventually realize the major progress this program is making. And of course if Northwestern finally breaks the streak, it'll be cause for massive celebration, and this team will go down in history.
When the Wildcats are firing on all cylinders, what is going right for them and who is their X-factor?
Northwestern's two wings, Scottie Lindsey and Vic Law Jr., are fantastic defenders, and Northwestern has the Big Ten's best field goal percentage defense. The defense has kept this team in games throughout the year even when the offense has struggled, as it has over the past month. Part of the recent struggles have been because Lindsey had mono and is just now rounding back into form after missing a few weeks. When the offense is at its best, Bryant McIntosh is getting into the paint and dishing it out to shooters or scoring, Dererk Pardon is hitting the boards, and role players Nathan Taphorn, Gavin Skelly and Isiah Brown are bringing scoring and energy off the bench.
As far as the X-factor goes, it's undoubtedly Law Jr. He's been the worst shooter in Division I basketball who's attempted at least 100 shots in the past month, at under 25 percent from the field. He has shown a solid three-point stroke at times this year, but it has completely abandoned him as of late. He doesn't quite have the handle to beat people off the dribble, so he relies mostly on catch-and-shoot threes and pull-up mid range shots. He has to rediscover his shot if Northwestern wants to get back on track.
Chris Collins received some heat for leaving Duke for the Northwestern job. It's been a process, but how well has he done building them into an NCAA-caliber program?
He has completely remade this program, stocking it with talent it simply didn't have under Carmody. Law and Aaron Falzon, who is out this year after knee surgery, were Top-100 recruits. McIntosh was a great find, and Lindsey is finally living up to his potential. And you're seeing it in the crowds — Welsh-Ryan Arena has sold out four of its final five games — and in the renewed dedication to the program. A renovated stadium and new locker rooms are on the way. It's on the way up; that's what happens when you get the talent requisite to compete at a Big Ten level.
Fill in the blank: Northwestern wins if ____. Northwestern loses if ____.
Northwestern wins this game if they hit from the outside. It's simple: The Wildcats have shot over 40 percent from three just four times in the 2017 calendar year. That's abysmal. If the Wildcats can knock it down from the outside to keep up with a hot-shooting Michigan team — or at least not have the three-point shot be a huge disadvantage — it will be a huge help. Northwestern loses if Michigan catches fire from deep. It's hard to beat a team that shoots it really well from deep, so Northwestern will have to hope the Wolverines miss some looks they normally make so the hosts can keep up offensively.
What's your prediction for the game?
I'm not quite sure why, but I'm taking Northwestern. The Wildcats have played quite poorly by all accounts recently. But they'll bring it all, and I think Law Jr. gets back on track, which will be a major help. Lindsey is continuing to get stronger after his illness, and Pardon is a monster on the boards. In front of a sold-out Welsh-Ryan Arena, Northwestern wins 74-70. Michigan's road woes continue.
Thanks to Zach for his time! Tonight’s game tips off at 7 p.m. ET and will be broadcast via Big Ten Network.