When do everything super man Drew Crawford went down with a season ending injury that pretty much ended Northwestern's NCAA Tournament bid hopes (but hey, they did win a bowl game for the first time since the 40s), and knocked them down from the Wisconsin/Iowa possible bubble team tier to the tier below with Purdue. So by rights, with this being a home game and all, this should be a pretty easy victory for Minnesota. But, for whatever reason, Northwestern never seems to be an easy game, even if the Gophers have won four of the last five and won both comfortably last season.
The Wildcats do have two good wins on their schedule already, having won at Baylor and beating Illinois State in overtime (yes, Illinois State is a good win), and two of the three losses are explainable (vs. Maryland - although they got crushed, and vs. Stanford sans Crawford), but they have a dreadful loss to Illinois-Chicago and it's just hard to believe they can do much damage in conference play without Crawford, which isn't to say they haven't had some players step up already in the post-Shurna era.
It starts with Reggie Hearn, who actually leads the team in scoring at 14.5 per game (compared to Crawford's 13.5) and who has averaged 16.5 in the two games he's played since Drew went down. Of course, Hearn also missed the team's last game against Brown (NERDS!) with an ankle injury and I can't find any info on how severe it is (but to be honest I went to Sippin' on Purple and that was about it). If Hearn does play, you'll see a very efficient scorer who gets points without taking a ton of shots due to hitting a high percentage of both his 2s (59%) and 3s (43%). He also averages an impressive 5.5 rebs per game for a 6-4 shooting guard, which is a nice bonus.
The two guys who will probably have to have huge games (along with Hearn) in order for the Wildcats to make a game of this are the seven-footer Alex Olah and his 6-8 PF companion Jared Swopshire, who potentially have the size to overwhelm Rodney Williams and Trevor Mbakwe down low. They combine for 16 points and 11 rebounds per game, and Swopshire is particularly scary. He was a four-star recruit out of high school who signed with Louisville and was good enough to hit double figures in scoring twelve times his sophomore, but missed the next season with an injury and was unable to get back into Louisville's rotation, so he packed up his bags and moved to Evanston. He's shown some of that old ability and explosiveness, but mostly has just been ok because he appears to have forgotten how to shoot. He's the most likely guy on the roster to replace Crawford's all-around production, so let's hope he doesn't start putting it altogether right away this weekend. AS for Olah, he's ginormous (7-0, 275 lbs.) and given the Gophers propensity to allow offensive rebounds and their relatively under-sizedness he could be a massive pain. Northwestern could also bring in Chier Ajou who is 7-2 but I feel rather confident in guessing he's a bit of a project. Sadly, Luka Mirkovich is gone.
Lastly, how could we possibly talk about Northwestern without talk about little wiener nerds who love shooting threes? There's Dave Sobolewski (aka The Lesbian) who is the starting point guard and who is somehow an effective player. Then there's Alex Marcotullio (aka The Lefty) who is the scariest one because he seems to be the streakiest and could just go off and hit 10 threes or something. And lastly freshman Kale Abrahamson (aka Shurna's little brother right down to the goofy looking jumper) who is 6-7 but is as scared of the lane as Rick Rickert used to be. Any one of these guys could go off and help keep the game close, or multiple ones of them could and really give the Gophers a scare. It's also worth noting that guard Tre Demps comes off the bench and absolutely loves shooting. As with all chuckers, there's a threat of "HE'S ON FIRE" but probably not.
Realistically the Gophers, having solved the zone last year after ten freaking years of looking lost, should wipe the floor with Northwestern. The Gophers biggest weakness is giving up offensive rebounds, and the Wildcats don't hit the o-boards very well. The Gophers are awesome at blocking shots, and Northwestern gets a ton of shots blocked. Basically the Gophers are much more athletic (as usual) and much more skilled (a new one). Northwestern will have to have three things go their way to win this game:
1. Gophers struggle against the zone. This would have been a bigger concern a couple of years ago, but over the past two seasons they're starting to get it. Plus Hollins and Hollins are both really smart players, smart enough to cancel out the boneheadedness of Joe Coleman (I like him as a player, but he's no Hollinses). The team has struggled with turnovers this year so this could always go backwards, but as long as they are getting good shots the turnovers can be negated.
2. Get hot from 3. This one is very possible, with Northwestern hitting a good percentage this year (38.4% - 35th in the country), shooting a lot of them (40% of all attempts are from 3 - Gophers are at 27%) and have a whole mess of guys who like to chuck them up (7 Wildcats have at least 22 attempts on the year compared to only 3 Gophers). Northwestern gets nearly 37% of their points from 3-pointers this year, one of the highest percentages in the country. The Gophers are good but not great defending the three - if one or more of their chuckers gets hot it could be trouble.
3. Northwestern, on paper, has the size advantage against Mbakwe and Williams. Of course, Minnesota's pair averages 13.6 rebounds per game vs. Northwestern's pair's 10.5, 2.7 blocks to 1.6, 2.0 steals to 1.1, shoot 57% from the field compared to 44%, have shot 120 free throws compared to 61, and are a pair of seniors compared to a freshman and a first year transfer. Other than that though, it's pretty close. I think I'm going to put that in a table form. Wait for it:
Here's how I see this going - Northwestern comes out in a man-to-man, but also hits a few three-pointers so it starts out around 10-10 or so, then the Gophers start to get it going and jump out to like a 22-12 lead. Northwestern goes to their zone which they always seem to try to save to screw with everyone's head, but this year's Gophers have no problem with it, open up a 40-24 halftime lead and cruise to a 78-59 win. Book it, nerds.
[NOTE: After I wrote this I realized Northwestern played Michigan tonight. I made sure to watch a good chunk of the game, and without Crawford or Hearn their offense seemed to consist of either a failed drive to the hoop or someone chucking a three. Their inept offense would be the most notable thing about the game if it wasn't for their catastrophic failure on the defensive end. Nobody could stay in front of Michigan's guards and they were backed up by nobody protecting the rim or rotating to cover the shooters so basically the Wolverines could pick and choose how they wanted to score, and that was only when they had to actually set up an offense because Northwestern for some reason was completely opposed to the idea of getting back on defense and I think Michigan scored 80 points in transition. Some of it could be that Michigan is just that good, but the Wildcats looked brutally bad. The Gophers could win by 40. Also Dave Sobolewski still looks like a lesbian.]