The Northwestern Wildcats were, arguably, playing as bad as any team in the country coming into the 2014 Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis. They were averaging just over 59 points per game, which ranked nearly last in the NCAA, and had lost 7 of their last 8 games (7 in a row) coming down the stretch. Iowa on the other hand was averaging 78 points per game in Big Ten play this season. There wasn’t a person in the country, outside of the Northwestern locker room, that thought they had a chance of winning this first round matchup. Especially after losing JerShon Cobb to an injury for the remainder of the season. But remember, it is March, and luckily for the Wildcats the madness arrived early.
The 11-seed Wildcats (14-18, 6-12) were able to dictate the pace of the game from the get-go, and did just enough to hang around in the first half against 6-seed Iowa(20-12, 9-9). It was tied 31-31 heading into halftime at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Each possession, Northwestern moved the ball, took care of the ball, and took good shots that were usually within the last 10 seconds of the shot clock. They wanted to play the game in the 50’s and 60’s, and Iowa wanted it in the 70’s and 80’s. Northwestern was able to get their way, and executed their game-plan to near perfection in my opinion. Dave Sobolewski, Tre Demps, and senior leader Drew Crawford all hit big shots when Northwestern needed them the most down the stretch. Alex Olah, the 7-foot sophomore center, also hit some clutch free throws to seal the 67-62 victory. Demps tallied 20 points, 6 rebounds, and 5 assists to lead the Wildcats. Crawford added 15 points, 6 assists, and 4 rebounds, and Sobolewski added 10 key points including two huge second half three’s. Iowa’s first team All-Big Ten senior Roy Devyn Marble lead the Hawkeyes with 25 points in the losing effort. This was Iowa’s third loss in a row after dropping their final two regular season games. Northwestern only played 7 players in this game, and one of those 7 only played 2 minutes. They essentially won this game playing 6 guys. First year Northwestern head coach Chris Collins and his staff deserve a ton of credit for pulling off this upset.
No offense to the Wildcats whatsoever, but I believe the Spartans caught a break with them upsetting Iowa. Having played Iowa twice already this season and most recently 8 days ago, I thought that could be recipe for disaster for the Spartans. They have already beaten the Hawkeyes in Iowa City and in East Lansing. Regardless of talent, beating a team three times in a season is a difficult task. Unfortunately for the Spartans, that is still a task they have to tackle with the Wildcats. The Spartans defeated the Wildcats in their first meeting in Evanston 54-40, and in East Lansing 85-70.
The key to the game will be pushing the tempo and getting the Wildcats out of their slow-paced game-plan. The Spartans must dictate this tempo right from the beginning by getting out in transition and getting easy buckets. If the Spartans can do that, and take care of the basketball, then I believe they will be successful in this game. They should be fresh compared to the Wildcats who played the final game yesterday, and only played 7 players played for the Wildcats. Another reason why the Spartans needs to push the ball and pressure Wildcats defensively. I believe they can wear the Wildcats out, as I only expect them to play about 7 guys again today. It comes down to the Spartans playing up to their potential, and if they do that they will take care of business tonight.
The other Quarterfinal games in the Big Ten Tournament today are: (9) Illinois vs. (1) Michigan, (5) Ohio State vs. (4) Nebraska, and (7) Minnesota vs. (2) Wisconsin. The (11) Northwestern Wildcats and (3) Michigan State Spartans are the night cap game at approximately 9 pm on Big Ten Network. I expect all of the top seeds to advance except for Nebraska, as I believe Ohio State will advance in a close game. Go Green!