Indiana’s first 2020 foray did not go well. After taking a five-point lead at #15 Maryland, the Hoosier offense stalled like an old car’s engine in frigid temperatures, the defense correspondingly suffered, and Indiana got crushed by the Terps. The schedule gods did IU a favor though, as Northwestern, currently the Big Ten’s worst team, comes to Bloomington and gives the Hoosiers a chance to correct some of their issues.
The Wildcats (5-8, 0-3 B1G) are led by head coach Chris Collins, who is in his 7th season as the program’s leader. After 20-win campaigns in 2015-16 and 2016-17, including Northwestern’s first-ever appearance in the NCAA Tournament, Collins’ team has slumped since, going 33-44 and 10-31 in Big Ten play. Chicago Tribune columnist Teddy Greenstein penned an article last March asking and outlining what exactly the biggest issues were for the Wildcats.
Already in last place in the conference, the Wildcats announced on Sunday three injuries to significant players that hurts their chances even further. Junior guard Anthony Gaines (26.9 MPG, 5.9 PPG) will miss the rest of the season, freshman guard Boo Buie (21.6 MPG, 10.8 PPG) is out indefinitely, and senior forward AJ Turner (20.6 MPG, 3.7 PPG) is day-to-day.
KenPom’s rating system has Northwestern #108 in the country, with the #125 offense and the #113 defense. They play at a pretty slow tempo; Indiana plays a little faster, but expect the matchup to go at a deliberate pace. Northwestern protects the ball as well as anyone in the country; their turnover rate of 16.6% ranks in the top-30 in Division I. The Wildcats also don’t force many turnovers. The team that is sloppier with the ball will likely end up on the losing side.
How to Watch
|Who||Northwestern Wildcats vs. Indiana Hoosiers|
|When||Wednesday, January 8, 2020 7 p.m. ET|
|Where||Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall — Bloomington, Indiana|
|Tickets||Find the Lowest Ticket Prices on SeatGeek|
|Listen||IU Radio Network|
|Spread||IU -12.5, O/U 139|
Getting to Know the Wildcats
Going through a season of transition, Northwestern currently owns a 5-8 (0-3 B1G) record and a 4-game losing streak. The Wildcats are the only team without a conference victory. Sophomore Miller Kopp leads the team in scoring and three-point shooting, with 12.7 PPG and 42.4%, respectively. Kopp’s 3-point percentage is good for 5th in the conference (min. 50 attempts). Coach Collins has had to rely on the Houston native more and more as the season has progressed. Kopp has played 36, 39, then the full 40 minutes in Northwestern’s last three games.
Freshman guard Boo Buie (pronounced BOO-E) and senior forward A.J. Turner are injury doubts for Wednesday’s contest. Buie, a 3-star PG from Albany, NY, ranks 3rd among Big Ten freshman in points per game (10.8) and dropped 26 in a home loss to Michigan State on December 18. Turner, more likely to play against IU than Buie, transferred from Boston College in 2017 and has over 100 games of NCAA experience. He played 71 of 80 possible minutes against IU last season and scored 17 points between the two games.
Senior guard Pat Spencer might have the most unique background story in college basketball. A four-year lacrosse superstar at Loyola University Maryland, Spencer won the Tewaaraton Award, which honors the most outstanding player in the country (lacrosse equivalent of the Heisman). Spencer was named an All-American all four years, and set an NCAA record in assists (236).
In the last year alone, Archers LC selected Spencer with the 1st pick in the first ever Premier League Lacrosse Draft, Chesapeake picked him in the Major League Lacrosse Draft, and Philadelphia took him in the National Lacrosse League Draft. Spencer set those professional opportunities aside to play Division I basketball for a season in the Big Ten, a challenge he is more than capable of achieving. In his brief stint with the Wildcats so far, Spencer, a 6’3″ guard, has averaged 10.2 PPG, even scoring 22 and dishing 8 assists in Northwestern’s last tilt against Minnesota. Expect him to start against IU on Wednesday. You can read more about Spencer in this SI profile from July.
Forwards Ryan Young and Pete Nance round out the most potent threats on the Northwestern roster. Young, a 6’10” redshirt freshman center, can stake the claim as one of three freshman Big Ten bigs averaging 10 points and 7 rebounds per game. The other two are future NBA players Trayce Jackson-Davis (Indiana) and Kofi Cockburn (Illinois). Fun fact: Young was born in Montreal and holds dual citizenship of Canada and the United States. Nance, a sophomore who was the highest-rated basketball recruit in Northwestern history, averages 9.6 PPG and 6.7 RPG this season.
His father, Larry, had a 13-season career in the NBA, and older brother, Larry Jr., currently plays for the Cleveland Cavaliers and signed a $45 million contract extension in Oct. 2018. Returning to Pete, he has remarkable athleticism and has incorporated the 3-point shot into his arsenal. In games against Purdue and MSU last month, Nance averaged 14 PPG, 6.5 RPG, and went 4-for-13 beyond the arc. Strangely, Nance has not attempted a free throw in eight straight games after shooting 17 in the first four contests.
Projected Starting Lineups
|Northwestern Wildcats||Indiana Hoosiers|
|G: #12 Pat Spencer||G: #1 Al Durham|
|F: #31 Robbie Beran||G: #11 Devonte Green|
|F: #10 Miller Kopp||F: #3 Justin Smith|
|F: #22 Pete Nance||F: #4 Trayce Jackson-Davis|
|C: #15 Ryan Young||C: #50 Joey Brunk|
What to Watch For
1. Can Indiana get its offense back on track?
After a horrible trip to Maryland, Indiana gets a nicely-timed opportunity at home to “get right” against the current bottom-feeder in the Big Ten. On Saturday, IU recorded a paltry .881 PPP against the Terrapins, far from their season average. IU’s offense has connected on 30.7% of their three-point attempts, and has the lowest assist-to-turnover ratio in the Big Ten.
On Sunday, Minnesota recorded a healthy 1.207 PPP against the Wildcats, who, as mentioned earlier, did not have a number of key players. Assuming about 70 possessions in a game, IU should reach at least 80 points against the Wildcats.
Diving deeper, Indiana will want to get its frontcourt plenty of touches against Northwestern. Jackson-Davis scored a season-low seven points against Maryland on Saturday, and IU shot a putrid 11-for-30 in the paint. Hartford, a team from the America East, connected on 20-of-28 two-point attempts in their upset win in Evanston on Dec. 29.
2. Will Indiana’s upperclassmen please stand up?
In this, Archie Miller’s third season at Indiana, he has had five players that have been in Bloomington for his entire tenure: De’Ron Davis, Devonte Green, Al Durham, Justin Smith, and Race Thompson. The guards, Durham and Green, have shot 19-for-50 (38%) in three Big Ten games this year. The forwards, Davis, Smith, and Thompson, have made 12-of-27 (44%) free throws in those same three matchups.
In Miller’s multi-faceted offensive system, as well as the “Packline” defense, IU needs its experienced and battle-tested players to serve as guides and motivators for the newcomers, such as Jackson-Davis, Franklin, and Brunk. Indiana has suffered prolonged mental lapses in each of their last six games. In a brutal Big Ten, players like Durham, Smith, and Green need to act as steadying forces both on and off the court to prevent those from happening, starting Wednesday night.
3. Free throws are…free
One area where the Wildcats have a distinct advantage over Indiana going into Big Ten game #4 is at the charity stripe. Northwestern makes over 76% of their free throws, good for 2nd in the Big Ten (after Wisconsin). Specifically, Kopp and Nance each make about 88% of their attempts, over 7 out of 8, on average. On the other hand, while IU gets to the free throw line frequently, they make a mere 68.7% and an alarming 56.2% in their last three games.
One interesting battle in this game will be seeing how often IU does get to the line. While the game is at Assembly Hall, where IU shoots nearly 30 free throws per game, Northwestern only allows about 15 per contest, one of the best marks in the country. Taking free throws, and making them, will be a key to victory for the Hoosiers in this one.
4. Depth makes the difference
Northwestern will enter Wednesday’s game shorthanded, with at least one and potentially three key players missing the contest with injuries. On Sunday at Minnesota, Chris Collins played only seven players, one of whom, Jared Jones, played just seven minutes. On the flip side, Archie Miller normally gives eleven scholarship players time on the court, all of whom average over nine minutes per game.
Against the Wildcats, especially with the game in Bloomington, Miller will want to see the “strength in numbers” that he has constantly mentioned this season. Furthermore, if IU is able to get one or two Wildcats into foul trouble, the Hoosiers could really pull away in this one.
Featured Image: Northwestern Athletics