by Greg Mroz
If this was a matchup between the football teams of these two schools, there would be a lot more buzz surrounding this game than there is right now. The two football squads combined for 19 wins this year and had Northwestern won two more games, they could easily have been Stanford’s opponent in the Rose Bowl. Yet, we’re talking about basketball here, and this matchup contains a pair of schools who have been on the cusp of the NCAA tournament the past two seasons. For each school, this is their last big game before conference play starts. So with that, lets take a look at Friday night’s matchup at Welsh Ryan Arena between the number 6 ranked (academically according to US News and World Report) Stanford Cardinal and the number 12 ranked (also academically) Northwestern Wildcats.
Get To Know The Stanford Cardinal: What was once the powerhouse basketball program of the Pac 12 has now turned into the epitome of basketball mediocrity. The Cardinal are coached by Johnny Dawkins, who replaced Trent Johnson when Johnson elected to take the job at LSU. Dawkins was thought originally to have been the perfect coaching hire, learning his craft as an assistant for 10 years under Mike Krzyzewski at Duke. However, the Cardinal have never made the NCAA tournament under Dawkins, although the Cardinal won 26 games last year en route to an NIT championship. At 7-4, Stanford is not off to the start that they had hoped for this season, yet three of their losses have come to teams currently ranked inside the top 25 (Missouri, Minnesota, and NC State). The Cardinal are lead by 6-10 junior Dwight Powell, who has scored 20 or more points in four of his last five games, including 29 point performance against Denver. This may be a do or die season for Dawkins, because if the Cardinal miss the NCAA tournament again, Dawkins run as coach in Palo Alto may come to an end.
Key Matchup: Chasson Randle vs Dave Sobolewski. These two point guards are very similar. Both are second on their team’s in points per game, both lead their team in assists per game, and both are sophomores from the state of Illinois. Sobolewski, the sophomore from Naperville, has been the Wildcats spark plug this year, taking on a leadership role and in turn soaring to new heights. He is averaging 19.5 points per game his last two games, but more than that, he is showing a swagger that hasn’t been seen on this team since the graduation of his point guard predecessor, Juice Thompson. For as good as Sobolewski has been, his opponent at the point is just as good. Randle, the sophomore from Rock Island, is Stanford’s do-it-all player. Randle is averaging 14.1 points per game this season and has scored over 20 points three times, including a 22 point performance in a loss to then 13th ranked Missouri. Both of these guards are good, but what could be key here is Randle’s quickness. When Sobolewski is on the floor for Northwestern, the Wildcats are at their best, but when he isn’t, Northwestern struggles (see the ends of the games against Baylor and Butler). If Sobolewski gets in foul trouble, it will allow Coach Dawkins to let Randle loose and essentially give him the reigns to do whatever he wants. Randle is the type of player who can go to the hole mercilessly, and if Sobolewski has to play more conservative defense because of his foul situation, Randle will exploit him and/or whoever else is guarding him all night long.
The X Factor: Jared Swopshire. Northwestern’s leading rebounder is going to dictate how well the Wildcats play. Swopshire is averaging 6.1 rebounds per game, and is more than likely going to be matched up against Stanford’s leading rebounder, Josh Huestis, who’s boarding at an 8.2 per game clip, or Dwight Powell, who is averaging 7.0 rebounds per game. On defense, Swopshire is the Wildcats best defender down low. His agility allows him to switch onto players very quickly and at 6’8” he does a great job clogging the lane. Northwestern can’t win a game of this magnitude if they cannot establish an interior scorer, and Swopshire has to be that guy. If the grad student can’t assert himself on the blocks offensively and defensively, Huestis and Powell will have their way with the Wildcats all night long. If can though, then Bill Carmody’s squad has a great chance to win a game against a team from another power conference.
Since Last We Met: Northwestern last played Stanford on December 19, 2009 in Evanston, with the Wildcats pulling out a 70-62 victory. John Shurna led the Wildcats with 22 points, while Juice Thompson chipped in 15. Current Toronto Raptor Landry Fields led Stanford with 24 points and 9 rebounds in defeat. The last Cardinal victory in the series history came in 2008 as Stanford beat Northwestern 65-59 in Palo Alto. The Cardinal had 20 points from Anthony Goods, while Northwestern got 15 points from Kevin Coble. Stanford leads the all time series 4-2.
From The Players: “It’s going to be hard not getting caught up in the emotions and being around so many people I grew up with. But I’m excited. It’s an awesome opportunity.” –Chasson Randle, on playing his first collegiate game in his home state (Interview by Daniel Makarewicz, Quad Cities Online, December 16).
The Final Word: These are two very similar teams, both of which want and need this win very badly. Northwestern will be without Drew Crawford for the rest of the season, which will put the Wildcats at a disadvantage, yet Northwestern has fought through adversity before and they have played good basketball without him. Stanford is a team that on paper is healthier and bigger, but in the Johnny Dawkins era, the Cardinal have played underwhelming basketball when they’ve needed wins the most. In college basketball, there is a certain DNA that always stays true to your team, and for Stanford, they lack energy in big games. Tomorrow will be no exception. Northwestern wins 60-53.
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