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Haven't We Met Before? Northwestern Preview

TV: BIG TEN NETWORK (Tom Hart and Greg Kelser)

For the third consecutive season, MSU will finish its games against the Wildcats before the end of January.  Indeed, the first game was only 11 days ago, so doing the scouting report here is as simple as copy and pasting KJ's excellent version from January 2nd:

John Shurna can fill it up from just about anywhere on the court.  Michael Thompson plays point guard about as efficiently as the position can be played.  Drew Crawford does a multitude of things with a distinctly-non-traditional-for-a-Wildcat explosiveness.  Luka Mirkovic is the guy no one wants to guard in the pick-up game because he scraps for every rebound and loose ball.  Alex Marcotullio has replaced Nash as the defensively-oriented shooting guard who doesn't shoot the ball all that much.  Traditional player stats are here. [ . . . ]

Strategically, the gameplan against a Bill Carmody team is pretty simple--although executing it isn't always so simple.  From my preview of the first match-up between the two teams last season:

Going into any game against Northwestern, you know what you have to do to win: make smart passes, knock down 3-pointers, and get out on 3-point shooters (without giving up easy baskets on back cuts).  Basically, Bill Carmody forces you to beat his team at its own game.  (Just as the Wildcats take a lot of 3-pointers and record assists on a high percentage of made fields goals, they force their opponents to do the same.)

Carmody will no doubt throw the 1-3-1 out against MSU on defense for most/all of the game and hope for some combination of turnover or long-distance shooting issues from the Spartans.  Hopefully, it doesn't take as long for shots to start dropping as it did against Minnesota's 2-3 zone on Friday.  I'll go with Korie Lucious as the key player for MSU; the combination of long-distance shooting and creative passing he brings to the table when he's making smart decisions would be very handy, taking some pressure off the Lucas/Summers/Green triumvirate to make the offense go on every possession.

The other historic key against the Wildcats is to take advantage of their weakness on the boards, although rebounding is actually a relative strength on defense for Northwestern this season.  The active work on the boards displayed by Delvon Roe in the last two games should be a major asset.

As we know, the first matchup was 37 minutes of excellent Spartan play and 3 minutes of near-disaster.  That dichotomy is reflected in the four factors analysis, where MSU shot the ball reasonably well but not great (53.3% eFG), rebounded well (41.2% OR%), but turned the ball over far too often (22.2% TO%).  There also was the little matter of free throw opportunities: Northwestern shot 24 free throws, and MSU shot only 5 (and 3 of those 5 attempts were misses on the front end of 1-and-1 opportunities near the end of the game.)  MSU did a much, much better job of getting to the line against Wisconsin (47.2% FT rate) and hopefully will be able to carry some of that momentum forward against the Wildcats.  And, you know, hit some of those free throws, too.

More, after the jump.

Since the MSU game, Northwestern has:

  • been blown out at Illinois in a game where they barely showed up in the first half.  The Illini led by 22 at halftime and cruised to a 88-63 win.  The Wildcats shot poorly, rebounded terribly, and didn't make it to the free throw line.  But they turned it around to . . .
  • beat Indiana convincingly in Evanston, 93-81.  The Wildcats shot the ball well (57.9% eFG), but the game was blown open by the sheer number of opportunities NU had, and converted, from the line.  They went a whopping 27 for 38 from the line.  Jon Shurna scored 24, Luka Mirkovic had 20.  The NU defense wasn't great (51.7% eFG and 81 points for Indiana) but the offense more than made up for it.  Finally, they . . .
  • went on the road and once again shot the lights out (64.5% eFG) in a 90-71 win at Iowa.  NU was led by a highly balanced scoring attack (4 players in double digits, none over 20) and suprisingly good rebounding (43.8% OR%).  Ten minutes into the game, NU led 30-11, and never really looked back.
  • Oh, and after 10 years and no NCAA tournament appearances, Bill Carmody was handed a 3 year extension, a move which makes the repeated extensions for Rick Comley look positively brilliant by comparison.

Carmody deployed the 1-3-1 very seldom in the game two weeks ago, but MSU wilted against that defense during the end of the game.  It's certain that Izzo, Montgomery & Co. have spent quite a bit of time and effort in the past few days drilling the team to handle that defense more effectively (i.e., turning the ball over less frequently).  But ultimately, beating the 1-3-1 requires hitting the perimeter shots which that defense allows.  That's certainly a facet wherein MSU has struggled this season, but the clutch outside shots against the Badgers may give the team some additional confidence going forward. 

Nonetheless, it's a home game, and Tom Izzo has lost only once to Northwestern at the Breslin Center.  kenpom sees this as a 75-67 MSU win.  It'd be foolish to be too confident heading into this one, as the last game was agonizingly close and NU has topped 90 points in both of its last two games.  Still, one hopes that the Wisconsin game was a "turn-the-corner" effort for the Spartans -- and even if it wasn't, this is still a game that MSU should win.

See you at 1pm in the game thread.