The Big Ten tournament starts tomorrow, and as usual Northwestern is playing in the opening round, taking on Indiana for the third time this season. Tip-off is at approximately 3:55 central time (25 minutes after the Iowa-Michigan game), and can be seen on ESPN2 with Brent Musberger and Steve Lavin on the call.
Going into conference play, many NU fans thought there would be post-season implications on the line in today's game; unfortunately no one thought the 'Cats would find themselves on the wrong side of the NIT bubble. According to this site, Northwestern is well short of the NIT right now, so there is work to do. Of course, the Holy Grail of the NCAA tournament is still possible, but it seems like a such a pipe dream at this point that it isn't even worth discussing. Instead, let's break down Indiana. The teams split the season series, with Northwestern winning easily at home in early February and Indiana winning on their floor in overtime on Saturday. The Hoosiers came into last Saturday's game on an 11 game losing streak, but certainly didn't look like a 10-20 team, as they had very little trouble scoring, and used a 2-3 zone to slow down the NU offense.
For Northwestern to win tomorrow, Bill Carmody is going to have to make some adjustments on defense. In the first half on Saturday, he went with a passive match-up zone that was highly ineffective. In a lengthy but insightful post, Welsh-Ryan Ramblings pointed out the big problem with this defense, namely that NU defenders don't fight through screens and instead just switch men. All Indiana had to do was just have one of their big men set a ball screen for slashing guard Verdell Jones, causing NU to switch and leaving Jones matched up with a bigger, slower defender and the Indiana big man (usually Derek Elston or Bobby Capobianco) matched up a much smaller defender. So it's easy to see why that didn't work. In the second half, Carmody switched to the 1-3-1 trap, and while it did force some turnovers, once Indiana got into their sets they had no trouble getting good looks, mostly by freshman 3-point specialist Jordan Hulls who hit 8 of his 12 3-point attempts. And when Indiana actually missed, the extended 1-3-1 left Northwestern too far from the basket to box out, allowing 17 offensive rebounds.
So clearly, changes need to be made. I'm certainly not a basketball genius (as seen by my losing record against the spread picking Big Ten games), but here's what I'd do. Instead of these weird zone defenses that are no longer fooling opposing coaches, I'd simply play man to man defense, starting with putting All-Big Ten defensive team member Jeremy Nash on Verdell Jones; Nash is quick enough and long enough to at least slow Jones down. I'd then put Michael Thompson on Jordan Hulls. Hulls isn't much more than a spot-up perimeter shooter, and that will keep Thompson out of foul trouble as he won't have to worry about Hulls driving by him. I'd then put Drew Crawford on Indiana's forward Christian Watford. This is the worst match-up for NU because Crawford has been hampered by injury and is giving up 5 inches, but I don't see an alternative, and Crawford should at least be able to keep Watford from driving past him. Watford shoots under 40% from the field, so I'd make him beat me with mid-range jump shots. Then you put John Shurna on improving freshman Derek Elston. Elston had a solid game last time with 17 points, but I recall him getting rejected by Shurna on a drive attempt, so Shurna should be able to slow him down. That leaves Luka Mirkovic on whoever Indiana rolls out there at center, which will likely be a combination of Tom Pritchard and Bobby Capobianco, and neither of those guys are great scorers. I don't see too many holes in that defensive strategy, at the very least it has to be better than what NU used last time.
In the last meeting, Northwestern got huge games from John Shurna and Michael Thompson, but very little from the rest of the roster. That was a big contrast from the first meeting when all 5 NU starters were in double figures. Tomorrow, someone else is going to have to step up, because it's very unlikely Shurna and Thompson will combine for 56 points again. Crawford is playing hurt and thus can't be counted on to do too much, and Mirkovic has been so bad away from home that I don't expect much out of him either, so Jeremy Nash will have to provide a lot more on offense. On Saturday he really struggled, shooting just 1 for 10 and missing several lay-ups, so hopefully he has some pride and bounces back strong. I'd also like to see Alex Marcotullio return to the form he showed in November, as he should get plenty of good looks from three against the Hoosier zone. I also hope he's been working on right-handed lay-ups.
Looking at the line for this game, I was surprised to see that Northwestern is an 8 point favorite. Indiana has a bit of an advantage playing so close to home in Indianapolis, and NU has done nothing in the last month for me to want to give that many points. On paper there's no reason Northwestern should lose, but there was no reason to think they'd get blown out by Iowa and Penn State either.
Northwestern 73, Indiana 70
I expect a high scoring game, but I think Northwestern will pull it off; after all they were a missed lay-up away from winning in Bloomington on Saturday. However, the smart money isn't anywhere near NU -8. Teasing Indiana +8 with the over 134 is highly tempting though if you're looking for action, in fact, that's my official pick for this game. For those unfamiliar with a teaser, it mean you're betting on 2 different things, and both have to win for you to win. However, you get 4 extra points for your trouble, so for me to win on this pick Indiana has to lose by less than 12 points and 130 or more points need to be scored.
I'll be back tomorrow morning for picks of the other Big Ten tournament games (and they'll be against the spread, none of this weak straight up picking like every other Big Ten SB Nation blog is doing), and I'll open up the game thread a bit early so we can talk about the other tournament games. See you then, hopefully we can do it all again on Friday.