Tonight at 5:30 PM CST, the Indiana Hoosiers (19-6, 7-6 Big-Ten) welcome the Northwestern Wildcats (15-9, 5-7 Big-Ten) to Bloomington.
After a rough stretch in the middle of the Big-Ten schedule, in which the Hoosiers lost four of five games, they seem to have gotten back on track by winning three of their last four.
More importantly, a win in tonight's game all but assures them a spot in the NCAA Tournament after a three-year absence—and would mark Tom Crean's first 20-win season as Indiana's head coach.
Meanwhile, following a fairly strong start to the season in their non-conference schedule, Northwestern is once again on the outside looking in when it comes to the tournament bubble. If they can find a way to scrape out a win tonight in Bloomington, their case would be made a lot stronger.
The Wildcats bolster one of the more efficient offenses in the Big-Ten, averaging 1.1 points per possession and an effective field-goal percentage of 54.2 percent. Unfortunately, they also rank dead last in the Big-Ten in that same category—giving up 1.06 points per possession.
Northwestern's offensive production rests mainly on the shoulders of two players: Senior forward John Shurna and junior wing Drew Crawford. Shurna leads the entire Big-Ten in scoring at 19.9 points per game, hitting on 48.1 percent of his shots from the field. His teammate Crawford comes in just behind him at 16.8 points per contest.
Like most other teams in the conference, Indiana has always struggled to guard Shurna. In fact, the overall concept of the Princeton offense that Northwestern runs has constantly given the Hoosiers' defense problems. The amount of off-the-ball screening and back-cuts has been a nightmare for an Indiana team that has constantly struggled on switches and help-side defense.
In the past, the Hoosiers have used a lot of their 2-3 zone against the Wildcats. You can expect to see more of that tonight, especially with Northwestern being one of the worst offensive rebounding teams in the entire country.
Indiana's zone defense left much to be desired early in the Big-Ten schedule, but it has improved and become more disciplined over the last couple of games—playing a large part in their win against Purdue in West Lafayette.
When they are in their man-to-man sets, Indiana may be best served putting their defensive stopper, Victor Oladipo on Drew Crawford. Despite Shurna being Northwestern's leading scorer, Crawford is the more athletic of the two—therefore he is stronger in his ability to get to the basket.
The biggest difference maker in this series over the last few years has been Northwestern's 6'11" center, Luka Mirkovic. Because of Indiana's lack of a true post presence before this season, Mirkovic was a world beater against the Hoosiers last year, scoring 20 points and grabbing 12 rebounds when the two teams met in Evanston. But with Cody Zeller in the picture this season, Indiana can finally stop making below-average post players look like Dwight Howard.
From an offensive standpoint, Indiana fans should hope their team's perimeter players have worn out the ball racks in Cook Hall this week. Northwestern is a team that has always struggled to defend the three-point line, and this season is no different. The Wildcats rank towards the bottom of this category again this season, allowing opponents to shoot nearly 37 percent from beyond the arc.
On top of that, Northwestern lacks overall height and depth in the post. They will have to send extra men to Cody Zeller the entire night, meaning that Jordan Hulls, Christian Watford and Matt Roth should have plenty of open looks from behind the three-point line. Expect Hulls and Roth, in particular, to have big offensive nights for the Hoosiers.
Northwestern is going to be playing like a desperate team Wednesday night, mainly because they are. Indiana has done a good job playing like the more desperate team in their last couple of games, even though that may not have been the case.
However, this game should worry Hoosier fans a little more than last week's game against Illinois, if for no other reason than the Wildcats' style of play has been a tough matchup for Indiana over the past couple of years.
It's still my recommendation that you are prepared with a bottle of your favorite celebratory beverage (Andre perhaps?); because a win in this game means that the Hoosiers are back where they belong in March—playing in the NCAA Tournament.
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