Thursday, March 10th, 1:30 CT.
Conseco Fieldhouse, Indianapolis, IN.
With the regular season in the books, Northwestern has just one shot left at earning their first NCAA Tournament berth—that comes in winning the Big Ten Tournament. The first step of that comes on Thursday, when the take on a familiar foe, the Minnesota Golden Gophers.
The Wildcats' last opponent of the season was Minnesota—a 68-57 win on March 2nd—and they'll get another matchup with the Gophers. Northwestern (17-12) will be the eight-seed while Minnesota (17-13) will be the nine-seed.
Entering Indianapolis, things could not be worse for Tubby Smith's Golden Gophers. The team has dropped 10 of their last 11 games, dating back to their January 26th win over Northwestern. The biggest reason for Minnesota's struggles has been the loss of senior point guard Al Nolan, who is unlikely to return on Thursday.
"He's a very good player, so it's certainly important to them," said NU head coach Bill Carmody on Al Nolan. "I don't know what else to say, I think it's just really obvious that he's a good guy. When you take a good guy out or he's at half speed, it's going to affect the rest of the guys."
And though the team has struggled without Al Nolan, Trevor Mbakwe is not to blame. The 6'8 forward is averaging a double-double, and has been very hard to contain. However, that has not been enough to lift the Gophers.
Meanwhile, Northwestern has been carried by their point guard, Michael Thompson. The senior is trying to go out in style. Thompson has carried the Wildcats, most recently to a ‘Senior Night' win. But ‘Juice' has higher goals than just competing in the Big Ten Tournament. The senior wants to pull off a shocker and win the whole tournament.
"We have the mentality that we're going down there and win it all," Thompson said. "We're going to take it one game at a time. Everyone's working hard; everyone's happy, and excited for the opportunity that we have."
G: #22 Michael Thompson (5-10) 15.3 PPG
G: #3 Mike Capocci (6'6) 1.8 PPG
F: #1 Drew Crawford (6'5) 12.1 PPG
F: #24 John Shurna (6'8) 16.8 PPG
C: #12 Luka Mirkovic (6'11) 7.8 PPG
LAST TIME OUT:
In their last game, Northwestern beat Thursday's opponent, the Minnesota Golden Gophers, 68-57. Juice Thompson and Alex Marcotullio led all scorers with 18 points, while John Shurna and Davide Curletti pitched in with double-figure scoring.
Northwestern and Minnesota have split the season series with a win for each team. In their first matchup in Minnesota, the Gophers pulled an 81-70 win. However, the Wildcats got revenge on March 2nd, earning a 68-57 win. In their two matchups, the two teams have combined for a score of 138-138.
KEY PLAYER FOR THE ‘CATS: John Shurna
Juice Thompson continues to deliver incredible efforts, but Northwestern needs that secondary option, something which made them deadly during non-conference play. John Shurna needs to be that guy.
Any dream scenario of winning the Big Ten Tournament have to involve big games from John Shurna, and going by that ‘one game at a time' cliché philosophy, Minnesota comes first. If Shurna can become a threat from outside, then that takes the pressure off Juice Thompson. The offense will be in motion after that. Northwestern needs to have a big scoring game to beat the depleted Gophers. Shurna is the key.
KEY PLAYER FOR THE GOPHERS: Trevor Mbakwe
The Gophers need to play with desperation, and they need a huge performance from forward Trevor Mbakwe. He has been a phenomenal player on an otherwise struggling team. As dominant as he has been, it has not been good enough for the Gophers to get off their skid.
If Mbakwe can plug up the paint, then Northwestern will be forced to rely on outside shooting—something which has not always been good to them. Another Mbakwe double-double may not be good enough—the Gophers need a special performance from Mbakwe.
KEY TO A WIN: Shooting
When you take away a scorer and quarterback like Al Nolan, you take away a huge part of the Gophers' offense. When facing a high-scoring team like Northwestern, that's a big blow. Northwestern needs a big scoring output from their usuals—Juice Thompson, John Shurna, and Drew Crawford. If they can find their shooting stroke, Minnesota will struggle in finding an answer.