Wildcats Offer New Sort of Challenge for Foes

Bloomington – Pesky and eccentric has given way to active and formidable when it comes to Northwestern's basketball team. For years, the Wildcats have been the conference also ran that would give a couple of teams problems with their back-cutting offensive brand of basketball...

Bloomington – Pesky and eccentric has given way to active and formidable when it comes to Northwestern's basketball team.

For years, the Wildcats have been the conference also ran that would give a couple of teams problems with their back-cutting offensive brand of basketball. But Bill Carmody's team has legitimate postseason aspirations this season following recent wins over Minnesota and Michigan State and a narrow loss against a third ranked team, Purdue.

They're doing it with something that's been lacking over the years in Evanston – defense.

While Carmody's team is still looking to lull back-cut foes to death on offense, it's also been able to enjoy some success thanks to a marked improvement on the defensive end as well. It's the biggest reason why Northwestern (10-7/2-5) has a puncher's shot at its first-ever trip to the NCAA Tournament in March.

IU Coach Tom Crean is well aware of the fact that the Wildcats' defense will pose as many problems as their offense when the two teams square of Wednesday at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

"I see a team that's playing as good a defense as anyone in our league right now," Crean said.

The numbers back that up. After ranking last in the Big Ten a year ago in field goal percentage defense (48.3 percent), the Wildcats rank fifth this season at 40.3 percent. Carmody's team is also ranks first in the Big Ten and 12th nationally in turnover margin (+4.6), a stat that was especially big in their upset wins over Minnesota and Michigan State.

After forcing 19 Minnesota turnovers in their 74-65 win over the Gophers last week, Northwestern followed that up with a +11 turnover effort against Michigan State (18-7) to key a 70-63 win over the seventh-ranked Spartans, halting MSU's 28-game homecourt winning streak.

Considering the fact that Indiana is turning it over a league-high 18.3 times per game, it's easy to see why that's a huge area of concern for Crean. While the Wildcats will switch defenses throughout the course of a game, Crean says it's more about the approach that Northwestern has on that end of the floor opposed to the scheme.

"Regardless of if they're in their match-up, their 1-3-1, whatever they're in, they're playing with great energy," Crean said. "It's not uncommon for them to have two or three guys flying around at the ball, and they recover as well as anyone in our league."

While a zone defense isn't necessarily thought of as a way to generate a slew of turnovers, Northwestern is forcing 15.7/game, ranking them third in the Big Ten behind only Purdue (16.5) and Minnesota (16.2).

"No matter what (defense) you're in, if you play it with man-to-man principles, you have a chance to be successful," Crean said. "In the case of Northwestern, they are very active with their hands…the bottom line is they play with great energy and are constantly moving."

Indiana's challenge will be to limit the miscues on Wednesday to give itself another chance at a Big Ten win. While Crean's team is 0-6 in league play, three of those games have been decided by six points or less. In those three narrow losses the Hoosiers have turned it over an average of only 14 times per game, but they are averaging nearly 18 turnovers per game in the three double-digit Big Ten setbacks.

"Whatever (the Wildcats) aren't getting from one defense they can go to another and get it because the people don't change in terms of how active they are," Crean said. "The No. 1 thing they do is create indecision for you on offense, and I think that causes a lot of turnovers."

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