Men’s Basketball: Northwestern faces young Purdue team in return to Welsh-Ryan

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Daily file photo by Meghan White

Sophomore guard Dave Sobolewski drives to the hoop. The Wildcats square off against Purdue this weekend.

Ava Wallace, Assistant Sports Editor

In its first home game in six days Saturday morning, it looks as if Northwestern will meet its match.

Not to say the Wildcats have not faced tough opponents recently, but the lineup similarities between NU (12-10, 3-6 Big Ten) and the team’s next opponent, Purdue, (11-10, 4-4) are striking.

Firstly, the Boilermakers may be the only other team in the conference as young as the Cats: Purdue has three freshman starters; NU starts three underclassmen.

Center A.J. Hammons is one of the three freshmen and has become one of Purdue’s most important players this season. Hammons, who scored a career-high 30 points in his team’s loss to Indiana on Wednesday, is the Boilermaker’s second-highest scorer with 12.5 points per game and leads the Big Ten in shots blocked with 2.1 per game.

Physically, Hammons is freshman center Alex Olah’s counterpart. The two centers both stand at 7 feet tall and play a crucial part in their team’s defense – Hammons leads his team in rebounds by a 30-rebound margin.

Like Hammons, Olah is coming off of his season’s signature game. The freshman led the Cats in their loss to No. 1 Michigan on Wednesday with 10 points, a game he attributes to his newfound aggressiveness.

Olah said his first-half performance against the Wolverines was lacking — he only recorded 2 points — but halftime marked a change.

“I wasn’t so aggressive on my roll, rolling back under the basket,” Olah said of his first half at Ann Arbor. “At halftime, coach said I have to roll hard, and so I did that, and you can see the difference. I have to do that every game now.”

Olah will need to maintain his aggressive mentality against Purdue, which he called “beatable, but really tough.” Sophomore guard Dave Sobolewski agreed and also emphasized the importance of Saturday’s homecoming.

“It’ll be good to go home,” Sobolewski said. “Purdue’s a good team, they’re really tough, really well disciplined. It’s going to be a dog fight. We have to come ready play. We’ve lost two in a row here and just have to find a way to get back on the winning track.”

Sobolewski also mentioned another similarity between the Cats and Boilermakers.

Like NU, Purdue has had to deal with an influx of new players after the loss of Robbie Hummel and Lewis Jackson, two of the Boilermakers’ most critical offensive players who graduated last year. 

Instead of relying on veteran leadership, however, as NU has done this season, Purdue relies on Hammons and a pair of brothers.

Guards Terone and Ronnie Johnson, the latter being another of the Boilermaker’s three starting freshmen, account for 33.2 percent of Purdue’s scoring and 47.4 percent of its assists. Terone averages 13.1 points per game, and younger brother Ronnie comes in with 9.4 per game.

Purdue won four of its last five contests in Evanston. When the teams met last year at Welsh-Ryan, it was Hummel who hit a jumper with 9 seconds left in the game to send Purdue to a 58-56 victory. Terone led the team with 14 points. 

So far this year, the two teams are scoring about the same — Purdue at 65.8 points per game while NU averages 63.4.

The Cats’ best asset, the defense that held Michigan to 23.5 percent shooting from the field in the second half Wednesday, will be up against the efficient offense that Hammons, Terone and senior guard D.J. Byrd generate. Byrd, Purdue’s starting five’s lone senior, leads the Big Ten in 3-pointers. He shoots 43.1 percent from behind the arc and averages 11.2 points per game overall. 

Byrd said NU’s defense will force his team to change its usual game plan.

“There are some things that we normally do that go out the window in this game,” Byrd said. “(NU is) really good at getting the ball in the high post, working off back cuts and players screens … so it’s a little different than any other team in the Big Ten.”

In talking about the Cats’ uncommon defense, Byrd echoed what coach Bill Carmody and senior guard Reggie Hearn have been saying since November in regards to NU’s less-experienced players. 

“For our younger guys, it’s just important to pay attention,” Byrd said.

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