The NU Guide to B1G Championship

By Ben Moskow

PREFACE: How did we get here?

Northwestern Men’s Basketball (9-14, 6-13 Big Ten) has had a season full of ups and downs. We’ll give you the Cliff Notes if you’re not yet up to speed.

First week of December (2-0): Two blowout wins against teams that rank No. 350 and No. 356 in the country, respectively. It was nice to see Northwestern win comfortably after a 3-17 conference season last year, but it was difficult to get any indicators of how good this team actually was.

Dec. 9 (0-1): Pain. So much pain. The ‘Cats led by five against Pitt with 1:27 to play. Pitt scores the last six. Read more on that one here.

Dec 15-26 (4-0): One of the best stretches in Northwestern basketball history right as conference play begins. Two ranked wins in one week, including one against No. 4 Michigan State. The ‘Cats moved to 3-0 in conference play for the first time since 1968.

Dec. 29, 2020-Feb. 21, 2021 (0-13): [REDACTED]

Feb. 25-Mar. 7 (3-0): Wh-what’s this?

The Wildcats rose from the dead and capped conference play with three-straight wins, including a tight one against Maryland, currently 28th in KenPom. Two of these Ws came by five points or fewer, which has historically been Chris Collins’ Achilles’ heel. They now enter the Big Ten Tournament with a serious chance to build momentum for next season, or even…make the NCAA tournament outright?

MOVING FORWARD: Previewing the Big Ten Tournament

Bracketologists are predicting that the Big Ten will receive nine (!) bids to the NCAA tournament this year, including four of the top eight seeds. Anyone with eyes can tell you this has been one of the most competitive years in Big Ten history and all these seeding questions will be answered through the conference tournament in Indianapolis.

Could Northwestern be in the mix for a bid as well? It would essentially require the Wildcats to win the whole thing, putting them at a 14-14 record (11-13 in the Big Ten). This tournament has not been kind to the Wildcats since the miraculous 2016-17 season, as they’ve been bounced in the first round every year since. But for the sake of argument, let’s get a little crazy and see what happens if the basketball gods are seeing purple and white.

FIRST ROUND: No. 12 Northwestern vs No. 13 Minnesota

Why the ‘Cats will win:

  • They’ve got momentum on their side. The Wildcats come in having won three in a row, including an eight-point win on the road over this same Minnesota team. In the 67-59 victory, Northwestern made 22 free throws, including a perfect 12-of-12 from Boo Buie and kept star guard Marcus Carr in check with 13 points. Buie scored 19 in the second half. If Northwestern has a hot shooter to kick to down the stretch, the Gophers could have trouble containing the Wildcats.
  • The Gophers cannot shoot from deep. Minnesota does not have a single rotation player who shoots over 35% from three-point range. As a team, they shoot 28.6% from deep, easily the worst in the Big Ten. This means that the Wildcats will most likely be able to run a 2-3 zone without issue. Employing a zone defense will also help NU deal with speedy guards like Jamal Mashburn Jr., who has a lightning-quick first step.

Why they won’t:

  • The Gophers could be stronger this time. Minnesota played without its second- and third-leading scorers in the prior matchup, guard Gabe Kalscheur and center Liam Robbins. Head coach Richard Pitino has said that both players could be available for the Big Ten tournament. The 7-foot Robbins in particular could cause havoc in the paint that only Ryan Young could have the capacity to stop.
  • Both Gach gets some noncon magic back. Junior Both Gach surprised many in the Minnesota program by averaging 12.7 points per game during non-conference play. In five of those games, Gach hit multiple threes. But he went ice cold during conference play, eclipsing double-digit points just twice in 20 games. If Gach can rip off a hot streak, the Gophers could be dangerous.

SECOND ROUND: No. 12 Northwestern vs No. 5 Ohio State

Why the ‘Cats will win:

  • Ohio State is ice cold. The Buckeyes have endured their worst stretch of the season, losing four in a row to close out conference play. It should be pointed out that three of those losses were against teams currently in the top five in the AP poll, but after beating Illinois and Iowa early in the season, they weren’t able to keep up. That means one of two bad things for Ohio State: either this team is stagnant and everyone else is getting better or this team is getting worse. Either way, this is a sharp contrast from the Wildcats and their three-game win streak.
  • Hot Kopp. Miller Kopp has had two of his best games of the season against Ohio State, scoring 39 points in two games. He’s not the best shot creator on the team and has been extremely inconsistent, but more often than not, he’s nailing open looks. If the Wildcats can get Kopp 10-12 decent shots, he could go off for 20 points in a big game.

Why they won’t:

  • The Buckeyes have something to prove. For Northwestern, there’s potential positives and negatives to the Buckeyes entering the Big Ten Tournament with four straight losses. The negative could be that Ohio State brings its A-game to get some momentum going into the NCAA tournament. Despite recent losses to the conference’s undisputed top tier, the Buckeyes are still a team that can play deep into March (they’re a No. 5 seed in this tournament despite being ranked No. 7 in the AP Poll!) and with a coveted No. 2 seed on the line, Northwestern should expect OSU to enter this one guns blazing.
  • EJ Liddell wants revenge. The All-Big Ten First Team honoree is hot as a stove right now, dropping 15+ points in 10 of his last 11 games. He was the sole reason that the Buckeyes stayed competitive in a loss against Illinois. The Charles Barkley incarnate is going to be hungry to prove himself against Northwestern in particular, who limited him to six points on 0-of-6 shooting last time out.

QUARTERFINAL: No. 12 Northwestern vs No. 4 Purdue

Why the ‘Cats will win:

  • They’ve hung with the Boilermakers before. Last time out, Purdue defeated Northwestern by just five in West Lafayette. The Boilermakers led by as much as 13 in the first half, but Northwestern kept the score within single digits for the entire second half. Northwestern has no reason to fear Purdue, specifically in a situation where it will be up to the first-year Boilermakers to get the job done
  • Purdue has no real point guard. No Boilermaker averages more than three assists per contest. First-year Jaden Ivey has been playing the point position for the Boilers, but he’s much more scoring-oriented than passing. If the Wildcats can get Purdue in a lot of half-court situations and most importantly deny the entry pass to the post, ball movement could become stagnant, and Purdue could be forced to chuck up a lot of long-range shots.

Why they won’t:

  • Edey has been eating. 7-foot-4-inch first-year center Zach Edey has been playing the best basketball of his life recently, averaging 20.5 points and 8 rebounds in just 19.5 minutes over his last two games. He played a career-high 23 minutes against NU last time out, so the Wildcats should expect a heavy dose of the giant. Northwestern will have to find another strategy other than hacking him, as he was a perfect 8-of-8 from the free-throw line last time the teams played.
  • Boiling at the right time: Purdue will enter this game on a five-game winning streak and while the competition has not been the strongest, Northwestern isn’t exactly the Michael Jordan of the B1G either. Recent Ws have come against Penn State, Wisconsin and Indiana, all teams that have beaten Northwestern at least once this season. Even a Wildcat team with impressive wins of their own won’t do much to scare the Boilermakers.

SEMIFINAL: No. 12 Northwestern vs No. 1 Michigan (most likely)

Why the ‘Cats will win:

  • Motivation at an all-time high. If the Wildcats make it this far, they’ll be just two wins out of securing an at-large berth to the NCAA tournament. In a season which has been met by nonstop criticism from the media and fans alike, a win here would be a phenomenal way to silence the doubters.
  • OFF THE HEAVE REVISITED. We all remember the famous baseball pass thrown by Nathan Taphorn to Dererk Pardon for the game-winning layup against Michigan. The ultimate cinematic parallel would be the Wildcats winning this game off of a last second full-court pass from Ryan Young to Pete Nance.

Why they won’t:

  • Resounding rebounding. Last time the two teams played, Michigan won 85-66, and frankly, it wasn’t even that close. Michigan dominated Northwestern 42-28 on the boards – including 12-7 on the offensive glass – despite both teams taking just about the same number of shots. Freshman phenom Hunter Dickinson only collected three rebounds, but Northwestern will evidently have to do more than just box him out. Michigan guards Franz Wagner and Eli Brooks combined for 15 rebounds.
  • Overall talent deficit. This may be a copout argument but let’s be honest with ourselves: something would have to drastically go wrong for this Michigan team to lose to Northwestern. This is one of the best Michigan teams in decades and one of the worst Northwestern teams in the Collins era. That notwithstanding, the Wolverines historically have the Wildcats’ number. Michigan has won 13 of the last 16 matchups and its last two wins have come by 20-plus points. Hunter Dickinson is better than Ryan Young. Isaiah Livers is a better shooter than Miller Kopp. Mike Smith has been far more consistent than Boo Buie. It would take a miracle for Northwestern to win this game.

FINAL: No. 12 Northwestern vs No. 2 Illinois (most likely)

Why the ‘Cats will win:

  • The hottest team in the country. If Northwestern makes it this far, clearly Coach Collins has concocted some sort of formula that can’t fail. Entering this game, they will have claimed the heads of Ohio State, Purdue and Michigan on consecutive days. If you’re keeping score, that’s three top-15 KenPom teams in a row. But this is nothing new for the Wildcats; no one knows about the difficult schedule they’ve had to endure more than Collins. Even in a season with a 13-game losing streak, this would make me do the unthinkable: trust the Collins process.
  • The Fighting Illini could be in cruise control. If it is indeed Illinois in this game, they will have closed out their pre-NCAA tournament season with a three-game winning streak against Michigan, Ohio State and Iowa. They all but have a No. 1 seed locked up in the NCAA tournament

Why they won’t:

  • Inside-outside threat is too much. Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn are significantly better than anyone on Collins’ roster. Collins could stick his best perimeter defender Anthony Gaines on Dosunmu’s case the entire night, but that requires a sacrifice on offense. Similarly, he can throw Ryan Young, the biggest body in the NU rotation, onto Kofi Cockburn but to do that, you have to pray that the game mostly unfolds in the halfcourt.
  • The clutch factor. Dosunmu finished off the Wildcats in impressive fashion the last time these two teams matched up. He nailed two threes with no regard for the Northwestern defense, including a long bomb in Gaines’ face with 42 seconds remaining that put the nail in the coffin of the Wildcat comeback. Even an inch of space is too much to allow for Ayo. Northwestern could play its best defense of the year and still not contain The Closer.

FINAL PREDICTION: Northwestern loses a close one to Ohio State in the second round. The Buckeyes just want that No. 2 seed too darn much! The Wildcat faithful is left with a lot of the same questions that they started out the season with. Chris Collins buys another year with the same core, but he remains on the hot seat. But hey, wasn’t this fun?