Sam Schumacher/The Daily Northwestern
After surviving a late push by Fairfield on Wednesday night, Northwestern will look to carry that momentum into Friday’s home contest against Columbia.
Despite their record, the Wildcats (2-0) have encountered various challenges thus far. As it prepares to host the Lions, (1-1) the team is aware that the trial ahead will be its most difficult to date.
“Everybody’s going to be thinking about what we have in Kansas City,” coach Chris Collins said after Wednesday’s game, referencing Monday’s upcoming contest against ACC powerhouse North Carolina. “But really, when the schedule came out, I knew this game on Friday … was going to be a huge test for us.”
The Cats will enter the matchup on limited rest and with just one day off to address the issues that arose in their seven-point victory over Fairfield.
Freshman forward Aaron Falzon spearheaded a perimeter shooting clinic in the opening half while the team struggled to get the ball inside. But Fairfield climbed back with an 18-4 run in the second half to keep NU’s starters on the floor.
“Teams are going to make runs,” sophomore guard Bryant McIntosh said after keeping NU on top down the stretch. “This was a game of runs. We just have to fight. The game is never over.”
Through two games, the Cats have seen two players truly dominate. In their opener, senior center Alex Olah, who scored 21 points, was the focal point of the team’s offense. Against a team with limited size, seemingly every possession ended with the ball in the post.
But the team struggled to funnel it to Olah against Fairfield, and McIntosh — who finished with 20 points, including 14 in his masterful second half — put the team on his back.
The sophomore will be key on Friday, with Columbia’s 7-foot-1 starting center Conor Voss threatening to take away Olah’s size advantage.
To further intensify McIntosh’s upcoming burden, he’ll match up against Maodo Lo, one of the top mid-major point guards in college basketball.
“(Columbia is) a team that most likely will be in the NCAA tournament,” Collins said. “They have a kid who many people feel is the best player in the Ivy League since Jeremy Lin.”
Junior forward Sanjay Lumpkin also recognized Lo when addressing areas that need improvement.
Lumpkin mentioned the team’s need to tighten its defense against the pick and roll, which Fairfield executed well and which Columbia also threatens with Lo leading the charge.
“Our defense and toughness has to get better before Friday,” he said. “They’ve got a great guard.”
However, that’s not to suggest that NU will be an underdog against Columbia. The Cats are undefeated, have seen great play from Falzon, Olah and McIntosh, and showed great resilience twice — rebounding from a rough start in the opener against UMass Lowell to win handily and then fighting off Fairfield’s run on Wednesday.
On top of that, senior guard Tre Demps has yet to emerge this season and will add a new layer to NU’s offense when he does.
“We’ve got to get Tre going,” Collins said. “And hopefully Friday will be the night for him to break out.”
But when Columbia takes the Cats’ home floor, nothing will come easy.
To win, NU is going to have to prove itself as the fringe tournament team that many predicted it to be before the season.
“The team coming in here is a high-level team, and one that we’re going to have to play really well to beat,” Collins said.