Sunday, February 13th, 2:30 CT.
After what may have been a final blow to Northwestern's at-large tournament bid hopes, the Wildcats look for a quick recovery. However, a win in Happy Valley won't come easy against the tough Penn State Nitanny Lions.
Northwestern's comeback attempt fell short in Ann Arbor, as Michigan pulled a nine-point win over the ‘Cats on Wednesday night. That win was a devastating blow to any remaining hopes of an NCAA tournament bid.
However, there is still a lot on the line for the remainder of Northwestern's season, and the next battle is against a tricky Penn State team, who has upset three ranked teams this season.
Despite their 12-11 record on the season, beating Penn State is no easy task. The Wildcats will have a tough challenge in stopping Penn State senior point guard Talor Battle, who leads the team in scoring with 20.5 points per game. In addition to Battle, Northwestern will need to shut down senior forwards Jeff Brooks and David Jackson, who also average double-figure scoring.
The Wildcats have been a completely different team on the road. Their often-potent scorers seem to go quiet in the hostile road environments. The Wildcats have just one road win in Big Ten play, coming against the 10-14 Iowa Hawkeyes. Northwestern's struggles were magnified on Wednesday when leading scorer John Shurna was held to single-digit scoring.
On a brighter note, senior point guard Michael Thompson has been on a role recently. ‘Juice' Thompson has carried the ‘Cats offensively, and has been one of the team's best defenders. The senior averages 14.7 points per game, but has been consistent for the entire season. That consistency will be needed the rest of the season, starting on Sunday.
However, Thompson's biggest challenge will come on defense, in shutting down Penn State's impressive point guard.
The Wildcats need to get back to their winning ways, and that starts against Penn State.
LAST TIME OUT:
Despite an impressive comeback, the Wildcats dropped one to the Michigan Wolverines. Juice Thompson led the way with 17 points, all of those coming in the second half. In addition, Drew Crawford and Jershon Cobb each finished with double-figures. However, the loss was Northwestern's eighth loss in conference play.
LAST NU-PENN STATE MEETING:
The Nitanny Lions took the season sweep in 2010, winning both games by double-digits. In their first meeting on February 17th, Penn State defended their home court with an 11-point win over the ‘Cats. In their second matchup in Welsh-Ryan Arena, the Nitanny Lions pulled a 79-60 win over NU.
KEY PLAYER FOR THE WILDCATS: Drew Crawford
After a hot start in non-conference play, Northwestern's sophomore forward has been very inconsistent during Big Ten conference plays. Crawford is averaging 12.9 points per game, but has not delivered consistent scoring performances. Northwestern is 2-4 in conference play with Crawford in single-digit scoring.
Needless to say, this wasn't a tough pick. Talor Battle has seemingly single-handedly made Penn State a dangerous team. The mid-season first-team All-Big Ten point guard selection is averaging 20.5 points per game. More importantly, Battle is averaging nearly 38 minutes per game for the Nitanny Lions.
On Wednesday, the Wildcats were badly exposed as a poor team underneath the hoop. Northwestern allowed Michigan to 32 points in the paint, and were badly out-rebounded by an undersized Wolverines team.
At times this season, senior center Luka Mirkovic has looked dominant against inferior opponents. Those games have gone in the Wildcats' favor. Sunday will be another game against a week post team. Penn State doesn't have any big bruisers that will beat up Mirkovic and the NU big men like Michigan did.
The Wildcats cannot rely on three-point shooting like they have far too often. They need a strong game inside the arc for a change. The ‘Cats need to out-rebound Penn State on defense, and be able to setup some inside scoring on offense. Luka Mirkovic, Davide Curletti, and the rest of the Wildcat big men need to bring their best performance on Sunday.
An all-around consistent team effort will bring home a win against a tough Penn State team.