Northwestern will be appearing in a school record third consecutive post-season when they host Wisconsin-Milwaukee to open the NIT Wednesday night. The Wildcats dreams of winning the Big Ten Tournament and advancing the program’s first-ever NCAA Tournament ended against Ohio State Friday. Northwestern took Ohio State to overtime before losing 67-61, the Wildcats' second heartbreaking loss to Ohio State this season.
Shurna regains his stroke
After struggling in the first round win over Minnesota, Junior forward John Shurna seemed to regain his touch against the Buckeyes. Shurna scored 23 points, hit three of his six thre- point attempts and had five rebounds. The NU big three of Shurna, Michael “Juice” Thompson and Drew Crawford combined for 60. When those three are clicking on all cylinders, NU is tough to contend with.
Rebounding a Problem, Defense Steps Up
Rebounding and defense has been NU’s Achilles heel all season. The Buckeyes out-rebounded NU 41-24, including 17-5 on the offensive boards. Buckeye freshman forward Jared Sullinger did most of the damage. He finished the game with 18 rebounds, eight offensive.
The defense was vastly improved over the rest of the season. NU held Ohio State to 32.2 percent from the floor and the Buckeyes connected on just two of their 15 three point attempts.
The Juice is loose
Michael “Juice “Thompson is finishing his career strongly. Thompson has averaged 21.0 PPG over his last seven. He has also made 32 consecutive from the free throw line and is shooting 46.9 percent from three in those seven games.
Milwaukee enters the NIT for the first time since 2004. They advanced to the Sweet 16 in 2005 under current Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl.
The Panthers earned an automatic bid to the NIT after earning the Horizon league’s top seed in the conference tournament. They finished in a three-way regular season tie with Cleveland State and Butler.
Milwaukee has a big three similar to Northwestern—Anthony Hill, Tone Boyle and Tony Meier all average in double-figures for the Panthers. Hill is the star of the team, their leading scorer and rebounder. He puts up 15.5 PPG and 6.6 RPG.
Milwaukee enters the NIT having won 10 of their last 12 games.
The Panthers are a good matchup for Northwestern. They shoot only 35 percent on threes and just 43 percent from the floor. Their rebounding margin is just .8. Meier is the Panthers' best outside shooter, connecting on 43 percent of his three-point attempts.
Northwestern will likely look to run. Northwestern is 16-1 when they score 70 points this season and just 2-12 when they fail to hit 70. They almost pulled it off twice against Ohio State in a slowdown game, but fell just short. The Wildcats have also played extremely well at home, going 12-4. Their only losses were in league to NCAA Tournament participants, Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State and Wisconsin.
NU and Milwaukee both played Wisconsin this year with the Wildcats losing twice and Milwaukee once.
Getting off to a good start could be a key for NU. The Wildcats will be hosting their first post-season game 17 years to the day from the last one. If they get the crowd into it early, they can feed off the energy and get the offense going.
Despite the disappointment of not making their early season goal of making the NCAA Tournament, this is the first time in school history that Northwestern has made three straight post-seasons. If they make a run in the NIT, they can use it a springboard for next season. Thompson and Mike Capocci are the only Wildcat seniors that receive significant minutes.