To say that Northwestern’s NCAA Tournament chances have taken a slight beating in the past two weeks would be optimistic. Back-to-back 20-plus point losses against middle-of-the-pack Big Ten teams don’t look good on any team’s resume.
For the Wildcats, however, the problem is more where, rather than how, they’re losing – NU has played four Big Ten road games this season and has lost all four contests, often by impressive margins.
Against Wisconsin and Minnesota last week, senior forward Davide Curletti chalked the poor showings up to a lack of energy from the Cats.
“We noticed we didn’t bring as much intensity,” Curletti said. “Both were away games, but at the same time, we noticed we weren’t going quite as hard and weren’t quite as energized as the coaching staff wanted us to be and as much as we expected from ourselves.”
NU trailed Wisconsin by just two at halftime before losing 77-57 last Wednesday and got blown out by Minnesota 75-52 on Sunday after not scoring in nearly the first eight minutes of the game.
“There’s really not many positives to take out of these few games,” freshman guard Dave Sobolewski added. “We played one good half at Wisconsin and played an awful second half. And then Minnesota you just have to forget about.”
Whether or not intensity is the problem, it’s clear that one exists. The Cats have won only three conference road games in the past two-and-a-half seasons.
“The away games are always harder, but at the same time we need those away wins to help our tournament chances and our resume,” Curletti said. “The past three years that I’ve been here, we haven’t had many road wins, so that’s what we’re really trying to establish as both a program, and us seniors are trying to accomplish before the season’s over.”
And in Curletti’s senior year, the road to the Tournament lies on the road for NU. In order to break even in Big Ten play – the assumed magic record to make the Big Dance in a year full of conference parity – the Cats will need good showings, and more importantly wins in their final five road games. The team has had opportunities to turn things around in hostile territory this season but failed to take advantage of those chances.
“It has been something that’s been bothering us,” Curletti said. “Last year we might have only had one win (on the road). This year, we played Creighton tight, Ohio State was tough there, Michigan and Minnesota, those were games where we could have had them.”
Fortunately for NU, the team will have an opportunity to build some momentum for the stretch run, as the Cats’ next two games are at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
“It’ll be nice to play in front of our home fans, definitely,” Sobolewski said. “That’ll definitely be good for us – to play for our crowd – because we came out really flat against Minnesota.”
Purdue is first up on the slate for NU. Led by senior Robbie Hummel, the Boilermakers come to play the Cats fresh off back-to-back losses of their own. Curletti, however, said he wasn’t discounting Purdue.
“They always play tight defense and really hard man-to-man pressure,” Curletti said. “Finishing our cuts is something extremely important for us to do against a team like Purdue. If we do get bumped, we need to finish our layup, get that and-one play. But we also need to match their intensity, their physicality.”
For Sobolewski, the gameplan was a little simpler.
“They’re just a good all-around team,” Sobolewski said. “They have good inside and outside players, so we’re going to have to play a good all-around game to beat them.”