Sequel offers NU hope

Glenn Kasses

The Wildcats got their first Big Ten win in early February, but they almost didn’t have to wait that long.

On Jan. 13, Northwestern traveled to Penn State and led for most of the way, even holding an eight-point halftime edge. But early second-half foul trouble – especially for Winston Blake, who led the team with 17 points – allowed the Nittany Lions to climb back from 14 points down and win 73-66.

And now – for the first time this season – NU has a rematch with a team it nearly beat. The Lions (16-7, 6-6 Big Ten) will visit the Cats at 7 p.m. today at Welsh-Ryan Arena, hoping to inch closer to an NCAA tournament bid.

A loss to NU (9-17, 1-12) would deal a severe blow to Penn State’s tournament hopes. NU perplexed the Penn State defense in the last meeting, finding backdoor layups throughout the entire first half. The Cats also shot 51 percent for the game.

“We came out really intense, really aggressive,” Blake said. “We beat them down the court almost every single time, and I think that’s what we have to do.

“We play better as a team when we push the ball up the court. Even if we don’t get a layup off the fast break, we get into our offense really quickly and we get the defense trying to think and move like we want them to.”

The Cats had three players – Blake, Ben Johnson and Tavaras Hardy – in double figures in the first game, but they weren’t the only contributors.

NU coach Bill Carmody said the first half against Penn State was one of the strongest offensive halves the team has played this season. He also thought the Cats were at their best against the Lions when Johnson and Jason Burke were playing together at guard – even though both have played forward for most of the year.

“Coach has been playing me at guard a little bit more toward the end of the season,” said Burke, who has seen his minutes dramatically increase in the second half of the season. “I’ve played guard all my life. I’m comfortable in the backcourt, and I think he’s trying to put me in there a little more, especially when (guards) Collier (Drayton) and Jitim (Young) get in foul trouble.”

Carmody is happy to have Burke enter the regular rotation, especially because he is only the eighth player on the roster to receive consistent playing time. With eight players, the Cats – though they are regarded as dangerously thin – are on par with most opponents.

“We’re playing eight guys. People think that’s thin,” Carmody said. “But no one’s playing more than eight or nine guys.

“Right now, you have your team and your rotation, and (Burke’s) in it, so he’s going to get some minutes.”

And if Burke can provide quality minutes – especially with Blake and Drayton battling injuries – the Cats may have enough depth to stay with Penn State.

Only six Lions played more than five minutes in the first meeting, and Penn State’s depth and size may be closer to NU’s than any other Big Ten team.

NU players said that if they can remain under control and avoid the foul trouble that was their downfall the first time around, they’ll be in good position to get win No. 10, which would double last season’s overall win total.

“We have to be sound defensively,” Blake said. “That’s been our problem – in the beginning of second halves, we’ve gotten into foul trouble right away. That’s kind of killed our momentum. We just have to slow down and make sure we play smart.”