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Game 15: Northwestern Preview

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Two teams that have predictably struggled against top-tier opposition face off to prove which team has more without their all-conference performer.

Marilyn Indahl-USA TODAY Sports
Who: Northwestern Wildcats (9-6, 0-2)
When: Thursday 8:00PM
Where: Bryce Jordan Center

Penn State and Northwestern are not so different. Both teams were considered plausible candidates to reach some form of postseason tournament in a loaded conference. Both teams lost their consensus best player to season-ending injuries early during the non-conference slate. And now, both teams are struggling to find their way in the best conference in America. So it's fitting that the first win for one of these teams will come against its B1G doppelganger.

This was supposed to be the year for Northwestern, the year they finally broke their duck and made it into the NCAA Tournament. Sure, John Shurna graduated from last year's supposed-to-be-the-year team, a team that beat Penn State twice in the same season for the first time since Jan Jagla and Marlon Smith were leading the Lions. But third team all-B1G performer Drew Crawford (16.1 ppg last season) returned alongside a solid supporting cast, including senior Reggie Hearn, junior JerShon Cobb, Louisville graduate transfer Jared Swopshire, and point guard Dave Sobolewski, who, if you recall, torched Penn State for a then-career best 20 points in only his second conference game.

Alas, even the best laid plans of mice and Bill Carmody often always go awry. Cobb was suspended for the entire 2012-13 season for a violation of team rules, and 10 games into the season Crawford was shut down after he was diagnosed with a torn labrum. Northwestern's bubble hopes were well alive with a record of 7-3, which included an impressive win at Baylor just 10 days before it was announced the Wildcats would be without their top player for the remainder of the year. Carmody and crew were forced to press on, but it's looking like they'll be joining Penn State on the "wait til next year" brigade near the bottom of the conference table.

Northwestern has struggled against their first two Big Ten opponents, but considering those opponents were #2 Michigan and #10 Minnesota, it's hard to gauge where this team really is without Crawford. Hearn has filled the role of leading scorer effectively thus far, averaging 14.2 ppg on 52% shooting and 42% from three. Sobolewski is good for 10 points and four assists a game while setting the table for Carmody's Princeton offense, which as a team is difficult to turn over. The Wildcats only turn it over on 17.6% of their possessions.

Penn State has had as much success as Northwestern in conference play thus far, which is to say none at all. Indiana schooled the Nits in just about every facet of the game on Monday night, so the team's confidence may be an issue. Pat Chambers gave his men the "day off" on Tuesday, keeping the Lions away from the court in favor of an extended film session.

On the court, PSU will have to focus on getting to the free throw line more often than they have over the past two games. As seen against Indiana, they struggle to keep up offensively in high-tempo games; doubling their free throw attempt total through two B1G contests (12) should result in a much more efficient attack. Keeping Brandon Taylor out of foul trouble and on the floor will be key--the freshman is too important of a cog to only play 13 minutes like he did against Indiana.

D.J. Newbill could face some issues against Northwestern's famed 1-3-1 zone that piles pressure on ball handlers in the halfcourt, so it'll be up to guys like Taylor and Jermaine Marshall to find the gaps on the perimeter (especially near he corners) and knock down threes. Sasa Borovnjak might have another difficult matchup against skilled freshman center Alex Olah. The 7-footer has slotted right into Carmody's system, posting a 1.6:1 A/TO ratio in addition to averaging seven points and four rebounds.

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