The Northwestern Wildcats face one of their most important stretches of games over the next week when they welcome Wisconsin and Purdue into Welsh-Ryan Arena. These two games are vitally important to Northwestern's NCAA Tournament hopes. The Wildcats need a split to be considered serious bubble candidates.
Purdue currently has an RPI of 5 and Wisconsin isn't too far behind at 16, so these are going to be some tough opponents, but a victory over either one, even at home, would have to be considered a great win come Selection Sunday.
The game against the Boilermakers is also important because it is Northwestern's only chance to play Purdue during the regular season. The Wildcats won't make a return trip to West Lafayette, Indiana so this is a one-shot deal.
Thankfully, there are reasons to be optimistic in both contests.
Keys to Wisconsin:
- An injury to Jon Leuer. No, I'm not saying the Wildcats should attempt to injure the Badgers' 6'10" junior forward. He already took himself out of the game with a fractured wrist. He'll be out indefinitely. This is important because Leuer was Wisconsin's best inside scorer. He efficiently gobbled up post-possessions for the Badgers and kept the offense in rhythm. Now he won't even be on the court. This is a big plus.
- Rebounding the basketball. You know which team in the Big Ten has similar percentage rebounding to Northwestern on the offensive glass? Bo Ryan's swing offense. Now, the Badgers hammer the defensive glass - currently they rank 1st in defensive rebounding percentage - but if the Wildcats can put some bodies on people they shouldn't give up extra possessions.
- Get a home court advantage. Now, this isn't something the Northwestern players can do on their own. Yes, the Wildcats should try to avoid falling down by 17 and having the crowd freak out, but the people wearing purple in the stands have to come out. Wisconsin has lost tense neutral court and away games this season. They lost at Green Bay in a tense in-state rivalry, but handled Duke at home. Big turnout in the student section on Wednesday could go a long way.
- Find someone that can guard Trevon Hughes. Okay, so every team Wisconsin has played this season wanted to accomplish this key. Not many have succeeded. Hughes has been held to fewer than 10 points just twice this season. One was in the loss to Michigan State. Can Northwestern's 1-3-1 zone focus on Hughes and make him a distributor rather than a scorer? That's going to be a key. Don't let Hughes get an open look from beyond the arc though, he'll knock it down. He's Wisconsin's best three-point shooter percentage wise thus far this season.
Keys to Purdue:
- Hold onto the basketball. Purdue plays amazing defense and part of it comes from the fact that 1/4 of opponents' possessions end in nothing. Their defensive turnover percentage ranks 15th in the nation. The Boilermakers pay for this aggressiveness by fouling a lot. So a corollary to this is that Northwestern needs to make its free throws. Trips to the line can't end in empty possessions either. (I'm looking at you Kyle Rowley.)
- Lock down inside. A dirty little secret about Purdue is that they really don't like to shoot threes. They like to make all of their twos and free throws and have that carry the offense. The Wildcats showed on Sunday against Michigan that they can lock down a team's inside game when they focus on the post. Do that against Purdue and things will start to look much better. On the other hand, Purdue forces its opponents to shoot lots of threes. That seems like a great thing for the Wildcats. (JaJuan Johnson and his defensive abilities in the paint have a lot to do with it.)
- Lock down inside. I know I just said this, but let me repeat it. Northwestern has to contain Johnson. It's important enough to use two bullet points on. When Purdue wins - which is every game besides once this season - Johnson plays well. He played 37 minutes against Wisconsin, but scored 7 points and the Boilermakers lost. Even if Robbie Hummel and E'Twaun Moore get their points containing option number three is the key.
- Be confident. No matter what happens against Wisconsin the Wildcats have to come into Saturday's game believing they can win. Against Michigan it seemed to take a while - and a ridiculous Drew Crawford run - for the Wildcats to believe in themselves. Purdue isn't Michigan. If they spot the Boilermakers even 8 points I'd be worried. They're one of the most complete teams in the country.
Both of these games are important, but Northwestern just needs a split at home. While a 2-3 Big Ten record wouldn't look great to outsiders, it would be awesome considering the schedule the Wildcats have played to this point. Come out to Welsh-Ryan Arena on Wednesday and Saturday to support the 'Cats in these two key games.