USA TODAY Sports
Northwestern faces a road test against a Penn State team that, like Northwestern, lost its best player for the year. A win says a lot about Northwestern's chances for the rest of the year.
It's not a must-win game. Must-win games aren't really a thing at this point in the year. But realistically, Northwestern's game against Penn State Thursday night is huge, because it can tell us so damn much about this Northwestern team. I'll explain.
Are they good?: Look: not really. Kenpom 171. You wanna talk about season-ending injuries? Sure, Northwestern had one, and that's a bummer. But Penn State was looking at a team that wasn't supposed to be very good with Tim Frazier, who was more important for their offense than Drew Crawford was for Northwestern, if that's possible. Then, uh, no more Frazier.
Now, they're D.J. Newbill, a prayer and a dream. They have a pair of okay wins - Bucknell's a great mid-major thanks to Mike Muscala, and Providence in overtime's nothing to scoff at - but other than that, they've looked quite, quite bad.
What are they good at: Per Kenpom, just one thing: defensive rebounding. No. 2 in the country at it percentage-wise. I find this really weird, because nobody on their roster stands out as a great rebounder.
What are they bad at: The lot. They only have one competent shooter, freshman forward Brandon Taylor. They're one of the worst teams in the country at committing fouls - a 48.4 FTA/FGA, so, you can expect to take like 30 free throws a game. Perhaps that explains the defensive rebounding thing - you get positioning off of those. They also give up a lot of threes - 42.8 of opposing shots are threes, and Northwestern can hit them.
So why is this game so super-important for Northwestern?: We've now had five games without Drew Crawford: two against bad teams, wins. Two against world-beaters, wins. One against Stanford, which NU almost pulled out somehow.
But can this team win conference games without Drew Crawford? If so, they have a shot. Losing, even losing big to Michigan and Minnesota is no embarrassment. Those are top ten teams, by anybody's standards. Hell, Michigan's definitely a top five team.
But Northwestern needs to get the wins like this - on the road, against a team that isn't really good but could still beat them - if they want to go dancing. It's not impossible, but the positives need to start showing, and they need to start showing now.
How does NU win?: I don't particularly like the matchup to be honest. Their weakness is fouling: Northwestern has been comically bad at shooting free throws. But their lack of shooting is a great trait considering NU's defense. I hope Reggie Hearn is healthy enough to stick DJ Newbill, because that's a matchup you need to win. I don't think Northwestern needs to burn, but they might anyway to maintain the rhythm they'll try to set for the rest of Big Ten play.
Of course, the key is making shots. Don't try to force things inside, right now NU doesn't have it. But Dave Sobolewski Kale Abrahamson, Tre Demps, and Alex Marcotullio - oh, goodness, Alex Marcotullio - need to hit shots. It sounds dumb, but they need the buckets to win this game, and the don't need to win this game, but they kinda need to win this game.