In a not so distant past, the Northwestern Wildcats had won three in a row to start conference play, found themselves in sole possession of first place, and fluff pieces like this one were written, singing the praises of a program that was “back” to its great height of exactly one NCAA appearance in its entire history.
Fast forward a couple of weeks, and Northwestern has lost six conference games in a row, none by fewer than 10 points, and it’s starting to look like the first few games were the anomaly that you would expect from a young team still trying to find themselves.
To be fair to the Wildcats*, every loss in Big Ten play has come against a team currently ranked in the AP poll, and a top 50 Kenpom team. However, it’s the manner that they’ve lost every game that makes it seem like the Wildcats took advantage of a cushy start to conference play, and now they need to find wins quickly.
All that said, this is not a game Penn State, losers of five themselves, needs to overlook. The Wildcats play just as fast as the Nittany Lions (69.6 Adj. Tempo to Penn State’s 69.2), and can drop a ton of points on their opponents if the shots are falling. If the Nittany Lions want to make it two in a row, they’re going to need to ensure they play with the same kind of focus they did on Thursday, lest they find themselves with reliving flashbacks of the disastrous outing at the end of last season.
Scouting the Opposition
Miller Kopp is the only player on the Wildcats with a three-point shooting percentage over 40% this season. Yet, as a team, Northwestern is shooting 37% from beyond the arc, and in the three Big Ten games they did win, they shot easily stayed within their average. In their six losses since, they’ve averaged 30.9% from beyond the arc, only going above that number twice, and shooting below 30% three times.
The Wildcats do have size, with Boo Buie being the only player to get significant minutes on the team shorter than 6-foot-4, which we all know has been the Nittany Lions’ Achilles Heel to date. Pete Nance and Ryan Young, both standing at 6-foot-10, get the majority of the minutes inside, and they don’t usually miss when the ball makes it to the paint. In the case of Nance, he can stretch the defense by stepping outside and shooting at a 32% clip from three.
What to Watch For
Northwestern is quite similar to Penn State in so far as they lie and die by the three, so if the Nittany Lions can stop them from making as many threes as they want to make, there’s a chance that this game gets out of hand quickly.
However, Northwestern has the kind of size that’s given Penn State trouble in the past, and the Wildcats’ inside-outside strategy could prove dangerous for the Nittany Lions if they don’t build on a relatively foul-free outing against Rutgers.
In Madden-esque fashion, the key for this game is a simple as “run Norhwestern off the three point line and don’t let them eat you alive in the paint.” That of course is easier said than done.
The last time these two teams played the Nittany Lions couldn’t stop Northwestern. With basically the same rosters meeting again, can the outcome be different? I’ll say it is, since the Nittany Lions have tasted victory more recently. Penn State 78, Northwestern 70.
*Don’t ever be fair to the Wildcats