Indiana will look to rebound from a surprising home loss to Wisconsin on Sunday afternoon in Evanston as the No. 2 Hoosiers meet Northwestern. Dating back to last season, Indiana will be looking for its fourth straight road win in league play.
The game will be broadcast on Big Ten network at 1 p.m. with Gus Johnson and Mike Kelley on the call.
If Indiana’s loss to Wisconsin taught us anything, it’s this: Don’t ever take anything for granted in this season’s Big Ten. The Hoosiers were favored by more than 10 points going into Tuesday’s game with the Badgers. Hours later, Wisconsin waltzed out of Assembly Hall in first place.
With four days to prepare, Indiana will travel to Welsh-Ryan Arena, which has often been a home away from home for the Hoosiers, to take on a Northwestern team coming off a 14-point win over Illinois in Champaign. That followed a 20-point Wildcat loss at home to Iowa and a 16-point win at Penn State.
It’s hard to pin down which Northwestern team will show up on Sunday. Will it be the team that just won back-to-back Big Ten games on the road? Or the one that is 2-6 over its last eight home games?
Northwestern’s hopes for a first NCAA Tournament appearance, albeit slim, were dealt a significant blow in mid-December when senior forward Drew Crawford was lost for the season after suffering a torn right labrum. Crawford was a potential all-Big Ten player and more importantly, an experienced veteran that Bill Carmody could rely upon. Northwestern was also without leading scorer Reggie Hearn (ankle) for games against Brown and Michigan, but he’s now healthy and will be one of the focal points for the IU defense on Sunday.
With a 59.9 effective field goal percentage and a 65.4 percent free throw rate, Hearn (pictured) is one of the Big Ten’s more efficient and effective guards. He’s particularly dangerous on threes, where he’s connecting on 41 percent of his attempts. Hearn, a senior, can also be disruptive defensively, as he leads the Wildcats with 22 steals. He’s joined in the backcourt by sophomore Dave Sobolewski, the only other Wildcat scoring in double figures. Sobolewski’s assist rate (29.4 percent) is fourth in the Big Ten and he’s connecting on close to 42 percent of his 3-point attempts.
The majority of the backcourt bench minutes will be played by freshman Tre Demps and senior Alex Marcotullio. Demps is coming off a 10-point, four rebound performance in Champaign and is shooting nearly as well on threes (37.2 percent) as he is on twos (41.0 percent). Marcotullio isn’t much of an offensive threat, but takes care of the ball like you’d expect a senior would.
The frontcourt situation is still very much a work in progress after the loss of Crawford. Seven-foot freshman Alex Olah is the anchor and has provided decent defensive rebounding production and has 20 blocks, but isn’t much of a threat to score. Senior Jared Swopshire, a transfer from Louisville, is the team’s third leading scorer (9.1) and leading rebounder (5.9). Kale Abrahamson, another freshman, is the third frontcourt starter. He has size at 6-foot-8, but is mostly a perimeter threat.
Northwestern hasn’t really deviated from what’s long been their plan of attack under Bill Carmody: A controlled pace of just under 63 possessions per game thus far in Big Ten play, a low turnover percentage (17.4), a heavy emphasis on the 3-point shot (37.2 of their FGA attempts are threes) and no offensive rebounding presence (27.8 OR%, 294th nationally).
As I wrote in this very space prior to the Wisconsin game, Indiana must attempt to dictate pace and do so early. Northwestern is going to attempt to go deep into possessions and force the Hoosiers to defend for all 35 seconds, but that objective could be disrupted if IU is able to get a lead early and force the Wildcats to play at their pace. It didn’t happen against Wisconsin, but figures to be a far more attainable task against Northwestern.
Northwestern isn’t particularly adept at creating turnovers (20.8 defensive turnover percentage), cleaning up the defensive glass (33.1 DR%) or guarding the 3-point line. Obviously Carmody must be concerned about stopping Indiana from raining threes, but Northwestern has allowed an offensive rebounding percentage of more than 40 five times this season. All five instances resulted in a loss.
WHAT IT COMES DOWN TO
Northwestern has been woeful at home this season, losing six of its last eight games at Welsh-Ryan Arena. It’s not fair to call any game in January a must win, but this is a game Indiana needs to win if Big Ten title aspirations are to stay intact.
Pomeroy likes Indiana to win fairly comfortably, 74-61, and gives Indiana an 88% chance of winning its 3rd Big Ten road game of the season. With Penn State coming to Bloomington on Wednesday, this a chance for the Hoosiers to start some positive momentum and then come back home and get ready for the Nittany Lions and a CBS showdown with Michigan State.