Men’s basketball: Northwestern returns home for home stretch, Minnesota contest

Dan Ryan

Northwestern returns home to Welsh-Ryan Arena on Saturday after two tough road losses in the state of Indiana. The Wildcats have won only one road contest all year in the Big Ten, and the past week’s losses against Purdue and Indiana have done little to ease the concern about their ability to win away from Evanston.

Fortunately for the Cats, they will not have to leave their friendly confines as much during the stretch run of the season. Junior forward Drew Crawford said the support and comfort at home is big for NU.

“Our fan support has been unbelievable this year,” Crawford said. “It seems that it’s gotten better every year, and this year it’s been spectacular. The fans are really coming out for the game and being behind us and being loud. And at the same time, we shoot better at home. We’re more comfortable with our baskets that we practice on every day.”

The Cats have shot just less than three percentage points better in Big Ten games at home compared to their conference road games – 47.42 percent at home and 44.79 away. Given that NU has played three Big Ten games that have been decided by a possession or less, those three percentage points have made a big difference.

The Cats play three of their last five games at home the rest of the way, and those three contests happen to be NU’s toughest opponents left on the schedule. Minnesota, Michigan and Ohio State will all travel to Welsh-Ryan Arena in the coming weeks to face an NU squad that believes it has a huge competitive advantage at home.

“They’re both extremely important games, especially because it’s heading down to the end of the season,” Crawford said. “Every game is super important. We can’t have any mental lapses, and we have to go into each game with the right mindset and expecting to win and playing that way.”

First up on the slate for NU is Minnesota. Last time the Cats played the Golden Gophers, NU failed to register a point until senior center Davide Curletti made a layup with 12 minutes and 11 seconds remaining in the first half. At that point, Minnesota had already put up 11 points of its own, and the Golden Gophers went on to rout the Cats, 75-52.

Crawford said a hot start on Saturday would go a long way toward putting that showing in the rearview mirror.

“The main thing is play better offensively,” Crawford said. “Against Minnesota the first time, we really struggled offensively, especially in the beginning of the game. Defense actually wasn’t that bad to start the game off, but we just couldn’t put the ball in the basket. We just have to have a good shooting night and be aggressive offensively and take smart shots.”

The good news for the Cats is that the offense has picked up as of late. Prior to Wednesday’s 71-66 loss to Indiana, NU had put up 70 or more points in four straight contests, led primarily by strong showings from freshman guard Dave Sobolewski and junior guard Reggie Hearn who complemented senior forward John Shurna and Crawford’s consistently solid play.

With an NCAA Tournament bid potentially hanging in the balance, the continuation of NU’s strong play at home will need to continue.

“It’s extremely important because they’re home games,” Crawford said. “I was talking to Johnny yesterday, and we said that our competitive advantage at home has been great this year, so that’s something we have to uphold. We have to finish this season strong. Three out of our last five are at home, and we have to try to win all of them.”

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