But in the wake of back-to-back bitter road losses at Purdue and Indiana, the Wildcats must win Saturday against Minnesota and Tuesday against Michigan (both at Welsh-Ryan Arena) to look like a legitimate NCAA team. Victories in those two games would push Northwestern to 7-8 in the league and back into the conversation.
"I told the guys, 'You gotta get wins, fellas,'" coach Bill Carmody said in the Chicago Tribune after his team's 71-66 loss Wednesday night at Indiana. "At 5-8, we're not in the discussion. We need to get to eight (wins) to get in the discussion."
While outsiders might consider Minnesota to be the easier opponent considering Michigan resides in the Top 25, Northwestern fans know better. While the Wildcats blew a chance to win at Michigan on Jan. 11 (a two-point, overtime loss), they suffered a 75-52 beating on Jan. 22 at Minnesota. Northwestern missed its first 14 shots and never made a run.
The Wildcats have limited size and depth, making them a poor matchup for the Gophers. It's a bit of an obvious statement for a team that relies so heavily on its keen outside shooting eye, but Northwestern can't shoot 33 percent again (31 percent on 3-pointers) and expect to earn a split of the season series with Minnesota.
One potential factor in Northwestern's favor? Since their first meeting with Minnesota, the Wildcats have gone small in an effort to dictate matchups. With John Shurna playing the "5," it won't be as easy for Minnesota's Ralph Sampson III (10 points, six rebounds) to be a factor in this game. No big man can be expected to guard Shurna beyond the 3-point arc.
But Minnesota overwhelmed Northwestern with balance, as every starter scored in double figures. The Wildcats looked as if they had become more balanced, too, when all five starters scored in double figures last week against Iowa, but that went out the window against Indiana, as Shurna and Drew Crawford combined to take 33 of the team's 49 shots. The bench provided one point and didn't take a single shot in 28 minutes.
ON THE SPOT: Northwestern coach Bill Carmody has relied on a six-man rotation for weeks, but sophomore guard Jershon Cobb might be riding to the rescue just in time to make an impact. Cobb, a four-star recruit from Atlanta who ranks as the highest-ranked "get" of Carmody's 12-year tenure, has been bothered by hip, leg and back issues since December 2010 and hasn't shown his skills for any appreciable length of time.
Cobb played six minutes on Wednesday at Indiana, which Carmody said serves as a sign that he's going to be able to play bigger minutes Saturday against Minnesota. With Cobb in the guard rotation, Carmody can afford to give his perimeter guys a few minutes of rest each game -- and Cobb's 6-foot-5 frame and wingspan can be put to good use at the top of the 1-3-1 zone trap.
--Northwestern's bid to win four straight Big Ten Conference games for the first time since 1967 came up short with an 87-77 loss at Purdue on Feb. 12. But the Wildcats' three-game winning streak -- wins over Nebraska, Illinois and Iowa -- were significant in putting Northwestern back on track to be a candidate for the school's first-ever NCAA Tournament bid.
Coach Bill Carmody admittedly doesn't want to discuss the Wildcats' possibility of landing an NCAA bid. The Wildcats' RPI rose to No. 37 before the game at Purdue.
"I never look at that," he said. "It's a short answer, but if you do look at it, you (should) look at in another three weeks. We have 18 games in conference and (Sunday at Illinois) was the first in the second half. In the Big Ten you're playing against good teams and it won't change that much, RPI wise. At the end of the day, you still have to have the wins and if you go .500 in conference you have a pretty good chance."
Freshman point guard Dave Sobolewski got a visit last week from former Northwestern star point guard Juice Thompson. Sobolewski starting showing signs of hitting the freshman wall a few weeks ago, but sparked the Wildcats during their three-game winning streak. He played all 40 minutes against Iowa and Illinois and 38 minutes against Nebraska. He scored at least 14 points in all three games, highlighted by a career-high 21 points against Iowa.
"Juice and I have been joking about other people saying I've hit a wall," Sobolewski said. "I kind of use that stuff as motivation."
Sobolowski's three-game stretch helped take some of the offensive load off of John Shurna and Drew Crawford. Sobolewski played strong in the non-conference season, but struggled with turnovers early in Big Ten play. Carmody never doubted Sobolewski's ability to adjust to playing heavy minutes against top-flight competition.
"The last few games he's played very, very well, taking care of the ball again and doing the right things," Carmody said. "I'm coaching that kid hard because you can. He's one of those guys that I was on a couple of times, but I thought his decision-making was very, very good. You can coach him hard, he snarls at you every once and while and all that but in a good way. He's a competitor and he listens. I like the way he played in the last few games and I hope he can continue that."
--Junior guard Alex Marcotullio's insertion into the starting lineup has provided a boost to the offense. In the first three games -- all wins over Nebraska, Illinois and Iowa -- the Wildcats averaged 80.3 points per game. Marcotullio had started only one game all season before the current stretch. He scored a season-high 13 points in NU's win over Iowa.
--Junior guard Drew Crawford fouled out of Northwestern's game at Purdue on Feb. 12. Crawford, in front of his NBA referee dad, Danny, at Mackey Arena, was whistled for a pair of technical fouls. Due to picking up his second technical, Crawford was ejected with 1:25 left in regulation.
--Sophomore guard JerShon Cobb saw his first action late in Northwestern's loss at Purdue. Cobb had sat out eight straight games due to a leg injury, but came into the game to shoot a pair of free throws with 1:25 left in regulation due to Drew Crawford getting ejected and not able to attempt the free throws.
KEY NUMBERS: 80.3 -- The Wildcats averaged 80.3 points during their three-game winning streak. Shooting 53.7 percent from the floor, including 46.1 percent from 3-point range.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Teams were keying in on John and Drew all year; it was time for other players to step up. I think we stepped up pretty well tonight. We had five guys in double figures; that's a tremendous accomplishment for our unselfishness." -- Northwestern guard Alex Marcotullio, after the victory over Iowa.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAMES:
--vs. Minnesota, Feb. 18
KEY MATCHUPS: The Wildcats lost to the Gophers on Jan. 22 due to a slow start, falling behind 11-0 after opening the game with 14 straight missed shots. The Wildcats' best bet to avenge the loss is to play better defense and doing a better job on the boards. The Gophers shot 57.7 percent in their first meeting.
--Senior F John Shurna needs 17 points to become Northwestern's all-time leading scorer after he drilled Indiana for 29 points Wednesday in the Wildcats' 71-66 road loss. Shurna looked as if he would break his career high (37) at one point, but he scored just three points in the final 11-plus minutes. It probably didn't help that he needed to play all 40 minutes to give the Wildcats a shot, while no Indiana frontcourt player saw more than 30 minutes of action.
Shurna finished 11-for-21 from the field with three rebounds, two assists, two blocks and two steals. If he scores 17 points on Saturday against Minnesota, he'd break Billy McKinney's career scoring record (1,900 points) that has stood for 35 years.
--Junior G/F Drew Crawford recovered from his two-technical ejection Sunday at Purdue to produce 18 points in 38 minutes in Wednesday's 71-66 loss at Indiana. Crawford shot 6-for-12 from the field, including 2-for-5 on 3-pointers, while leading the Wildcats with five rebounds. However, Crawford also paced Northwestern with four turnovers. He ranks fourth in the Big Ten in scoring (16.8 ppg) but doesn't rank among the top 10 in any other category. If he could pick up the pace down the stretch, he could be a factor in all-league voting.