By Paul M. Banks and Mike Gallagher
(PMB) Given that both of these teams just suffered EMBARASSING losses (Minnesota losing at home to lowly Michigan, Northwestern getting blown out in Iowa City by a very weak Iowa team), this game today is essentially a “play-out game.” The loser of this one will pretty much have their bubble burst. Unless they respond very well from this loss and then run the table during the rest of their conference slate, and win a game or two in the Big Ten Tournament. Of course, you think Goldy Gopher is already out of the running? This Valentine’s Day, it seems like these two middle of the road Big Ten teams are in the final round of “Elimidate” regarding making the Big Dance….
Mike: As you said Paul, anything can happen, it just looks, especially from Minnesota’s perspective, like this season is imploding in front of our eyes. With the Gophers having to face Wisconsin and Purdue at home, Illinois and that same Michigan team we were just referring to on the road, plus this game against Northwestern, it would seem that a loss would destroy the one-in-a-million shot the Gophers have. I personally believe they are already out because of their lack of quality wins (only reasonable ones would be against Butler and Ohio State) as well as their awful losses (Portland, Indiana, Michigan just to name a few). They need to play their best basketball right now and unfortunately are not doing it, as they’ve now lost five of their last seven.
On the flip side of the coin, I know I’m stepping on popular opinion here, but looking at Northwestern, I believe if they lose this game they’re still alive as I’ll detail more later. For Minnesota it may be the final round of Elimidate, for Northwestern I’d say it’s still in the preliminary “get-to-know-you” rounds.
(PMB) Well, that sounds promising! Here’s more sunshine; sort of: Northwestern looks to match the school record for home wins and regular-season wins Sunday as it hosts Minnesota. Of course, that stat is more evidence of how awful the program’s history is, rather than being an affirmation of this season being so spectacular. The Wildcats posted 17 regular-season wins in 1982-83 and again in 2008-09 while also notching 13 home wins a year ago. So as Northwestern seeks its first ever NCAA Tourney berth, I think their program is a great metaphor for that friend we all have, you know the one who comes close but just always strikes out with the ladies, for whatever reason. Not saying that I’m North Carolina or anything when it comes to the ladies, it’s just funny how we all know a dude like that- just how it’s funny that NU has never broken through!
Mike: You may not be North Carolina, but I’m certainly hoping you’re not Northwestern either Paul. But seriously, let’s not depress Northwestern fans even more by comparing their squad to that guy you were referring to, that’s just cruel. I’d call Northwestern the little brother to UI, the lovable little guy that has always lived in the shadow of his big brother’s accomplishments. But I’m done softening the blow Northwestern fans, the fact of the matter is the program has been a joke in the Big Ten for so many years, it seems like the little brother was disowned by the family and no one cares about him anymore.
The home wins is a nice landmark, one I’m sure they’ll break at some point this season, but like the Gophers, it essentially means nothing if your away record is 2-5 like both of these teams. You have to be able to go on the road and pick up wins, and the inability to do that will probably be the ultimate downfall of the Gophers, and perhaps Northwestern also.
(PMB) I’d probably analogize myself to the Maryland Terrapins actually. But I’ll save that comparison for another day. I said 10-8, but NOT 9-9 in conference play would be good enough to get the Cats into the Big Dance. Entering this game, they have 7 losses with a visit to Wisconsin remaining (where no one other than Illinois ever wins) So, unless they get another resume building win at the Kohl Center, they can afford to lose zero of these remaining games. Two with Penn State, home vs. Chicago St., a visit to Indiana and a home game vs. Iowa. Sounds very doable right?
Mike: Paul, it’s outrageously doable. Here’s the thing with Northwestern, granted their non-conference schedule was a joke designed to pad their win total, and they also only have two quality wins (Purdue, Illinois), but they have the toughest part of their Big Ten schedule behind them. Looking at those five games you mentioned, and obviously you can’t count the wins before they happen as Northwestern showed us in their loss to Iowa, it should be a cakewalk the rest of the way. That should be five wins, not including the game today. Can you keep a 21-win team (22 with a W today) with nine Big Ten wins out of the dance? I’d say no.
You would say ten wins in conference is a must and you might be right, but I’m convinced the Big Ten will get six in the tournament and Northwestern will be the last of the bunch.
(PMB) Makes sense to me. My key to this game? Northwestern playing “team” offense. Good balance reflected in the statistics. The Wildcats have assisted on 73.8 percent of their field goals this season, posting 401 assists on their 552 made baskets. The percentage ranks second in the nation. NU has ranked in the top five nationally in assist percentage each of Bill Carmody’s 10 seasons as head coach.
Mike: If Minnesota lets the Wildcats set up that team offense you’re talking about, specifically in the half court, this game is over. Without Al Nolen, the much-feared full court press the Gophers employed earlier this year has almost been completely non-existent. It’s an absolute must, even without defensive stalwart Nolen, that the Gophers find a way to pressure the ball all 94 feet, because it causes so many mistakes by opponents. People around Minneapolis will tell you that the press was one of the main reasons for the hot start the Gophers had. Now, without it, you’ve seen what opposing teams, specifically point guards (Michael Thompson already did it once), have been able to do to the Minnesota defense.
My key is the Gophers press Paul, and if it doesn’t show up, my guess is that this one goes the Wildcats way. Honestly, even if the Gophers do manage to press, the writing might be on the wall for this game, as well as for the rest of the Minnesota season.
You can find this game on Big Ten Network Sunday 4 p.m.
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