NU faces kindred spirit

Glenn Kasses

The Big Ten gives its men’s basketball teams only one day off during the conference season, a day that many teams use to secure a weeklong layoff.

The Wildcats are getting no such break, though.

Northwestern will meet its Mid-American Conference counterpart in Buffalo at 7 p.m. today at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

The Bulls (2-14, 0-9 MAC) have suffered through a terrible season, one that has looked a lot like last season’s 3-20 campaign.

And the Cats (7-13, 0-8 Big Ten) are suffering a similar conference fate, following last year’s 5-25 season.

The teams have plenty of differences between them, but losing basketball certainly binds the two squads, which have never met before.

“We’re both losing a lot of games — that’s a distinct similarity,” said NU assistant coach Mitch Henderson. “They’re probably hungry for a win, like us.”

The link between the teams goes beyond losses, though. In a recent Big Ten game, the Cats only dressed nine players, a far cry from the 13 who started the year. In its last game, Buffalo dressed only eight, and one didn’t even see the floor.

Buffalo has also been spotting opponents a big rebounding edge, as its frontline players — who stand 6-foot-8, 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-4 — haven’t been able to compete with bigger teams. NU’s center and forwards measure in at 6-foot-7, 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-2, causing similar problems on the glass.

Buffalo and NU aren’t identical teams — not by a long shot. Cats point guard Collier Drayton said the Bulls will play a standard 2-3 zone, a defense rarely seen in the Big Ten.

But the Bulls haven’t exactly thrived in the zone, allowing more than 77 points a game. As a result, the Cats — who have seen some zone this year to counter their backdoor cuts — are looking at this game as a golden opportunity to improve on offensive sets used only against a zone.

“We’re just going to have to cut a little bit more than we’ve been doing against the zone,” sophomore forward Jason Burke said. “We’ve been a little stagnant in our zone offense in the past.”

Zone defenses normally encourage teams to take the outside shot, and NU’s not shy at the arc.

The Cats tied a school record Saturday with 31 three-point attempts — a mark they set earlier this year against Evansville.

“We’ve been shooting a lot of threes, but hopefully we’ll make a lot more in this game,” Burke said. “There will be a little more three-point shooting, but also a few midrange jumpers to get in open spaces and penetrate a little bit.”

Buffalo has struggled this season, but in no way will this game be a cinch for NU. The Bulls hung tough with North Carolina earlier this season and have shown an ability to stay in most of their games, even if they haven’t been winning. And that theme — hanging around, but never winning — is a familiar one to the Cats.

“They’re a capable team,” Drayton said. “It’s just that there are a lot of close games that they’ve lost, just like we have.”