Five Thoughts: Northwestern-Wisconsin

Michael Hlebasko offers his five thoughts following Northwestern's epic win.

— It's a big deal any time you get a win in a building for the first time. The older that building is, the more meaningful the feat becomes. The Kohl Center is only 16 years old, but has garnered a reputation as one of the most hostile environments in college basketball. The team playing its home games in that building this year is awfully good too, and Northwestern thoroughly outplayed them in the second half. Northwestern had one of its biggest chances yet to support all the talk of newfound defensive prowess, and they took it with aplomb. Wisconsin shot just 26.3 percent from the field. In fact, their best individual shooting performance came from Ben Brust, who shot a solid but unspectacular 38.8 percent. This was a deserved victory for NU on a court where the home team wins with such frequency that road wins are precious. Northwestern was able to perform a smash and grab and escape with the victory—the most impressive of the 11 so far.

— What more is there to say about Drew Crawford? He was sublime tonight. He was engaged in the offense from the opening tip and paired with Tre Demps (who else?) to lead the run that pushed Northwestern's lead as high as 15 in the second half. Much has been made of Drew's decision to stick it out in Evanston over chasing a possible role on an NCAA Tournament team, and for good reason. He's not going to get to play in one here, but I hope that Drew's sacrifice is remembered as this program continues to ascend. This team wasn't expected by many to eclipse 4 total Big Ten wins, yet here they are at 4-5. As great as the defense has been, we all know they probably have none of those wins without Crawford. The wins in the coming years will also have Crawford's fingerprints on them. Crawford has created a model for the kind of player this program wants to fill itself with going forward. If Drew continues to perform this way and this year's team gets another marquee win or two, I see little reason anyone should be allowed to wear #1 in purple ever again.

— Nikola Cerina played the best game of his career tonight. I would include "thus far," but it's basically impossible to imagine him having a more significant performance for Northwestern. There's nothing wrong with that. Just as we will always have Davide Curletti's explosion in the Michigan State upset, Nikola Cerina's six points, two rebounds, and three steals (!) will forever be our main memory of the big man. I have criticized Cerina's game, especially his mobility and usefulness on offense, but he played out of his mind tonight against a quality Wisconsin frontline. His scoring included a nifty reverse layup, and his first two buckets came during crucial stretches for Northwestern. Of even greater significance was his post defense. Cerina picked up his fourth foul with 12:16 remaining (Olah picked up his fourth less than a minute later), yet continued to play tough defense and help stymie all Wisconsin attempts to mount a comeback on the offensive end. There is a very good chance Cerina never gets to six points in a game again, but no matter. Thanks Niko, we'll always have Madison.

— Press break issues aside, this team is starting to display some serious confidence on offense late in games. The offense has been awful for most of the year, but when the game slows down even more and defenses hunker down, the Wildcats have two players who they feel they can count on to get a decent shot for himself or a teammate. Drew Crawford hit some huge ones down the stretch tonight, some with high degree of difficulty and some that were easy because of his own doing. Tre Demps does exhibit the kind of shot selection that could lead to mistrust, but he's shown himself of late to be a late-game assassin, and a perfectly capable distributor (he led Northwestern with 5 assists tonight). Demps is better than anyone on the team at using his dribble to gain space, a skill that is the rarest of all among Northwestern's perimeter players. Bizarrely, I feel more confident in this team making shots in the last 5 minutes than any other time of the game.

— This team has a legitimate chance to finish the conference season .500. I can't believe that I am typing this, and I'm even more surprised that I think it might actually happen. The four remaining home games are all winnable, with two being games that Northwestern should be favored in (Penn State and Nebraska). Managable road games at Purdue and Nebraska, along with the totally plausible scenario of beating one or more of Illinois, Minnesota, or Indiana at home, combine to give the Wildcats a legitimate chance of finishing 8-8 in the Big Ten this year. If that happens, the Big Ten Coach of the Year vote should be conducted like the North Korean elections with single-candidate balloting. This team is undeniably on the trajectory promised by the coaching staff, and Collins and his assistants are everything that the lofty rhetoric (partially their own, partially the media's) purported them to be. It's on the students to do their part of the job now. Go to games. Get loud. Don't worry about anything other than Northwestern basketball for two hours. We are in the midst of beginning a journey that will see many things accomplished for the very first time by Northwestern basketball. Winning at the Kohl Center was one of those things. Watching this journey unfold has gotten more enjoyable every day, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

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