Men’s Basketball Roundtable: Writers preview Northwestern’s Big Ten Tournament run

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Men’s Basketball Roundtable: Writers preview Northwestern’s Big Ten Tournament run

Alex Olah tries to shake a defender down low. The senior is finally fully healthy after a stress fracture sidelined him earlier this season.

Alex Olah tries to shake a defender down low. The senior is finally fully healthy after a stress fracture sidelined him earlier this season.

Daily file photo by Lauren Duquette

Alex Olah tries to shake a defender down low. The senior is finally fully healthy after a stress fracture sidelined him earlier this season.

Daily file photo by Lauren Duquette

Daily file photo by Lauren Duquette

Alex Olah tries to shake a defender down low. The senior is finally fully healthy after a stress fracture sidelined him earlier this season.

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Men’s Basketball

After ending the season on a three-game winning streak and reaching 20 regular season wins for the first time in program history, Northwestern (20-11, 8-10 Big Ten) turns its focus to the Big Ten Tournament and a matchup with No. 8 seed Michigan (20-11, 10-8) on Thursday. The Daily’s men’s basketball reporters convened to discuss the tournament and what the Wildcats need to do to keep their postseason hopes alive.

1. How likely is NU to win its first Big Ten Tournament game against the Wolverines?

Ben Pope: Not likely. Admittedly, the Cats are entering this matchup at the perfect time. Since Michigan beat them 72-63 in Ann Arbor on Feb. 24, a game the Cats very well could have won, NU has won three in a row while the Wolverines have lost two straight.

Yet the odds are still not in the Cats’ favor. The team is 1-9 this season against teams above them in the Big Ten standings and has shown a startling inability to close strong in games against those teams. NU is also likely to face a massive disparity in points from the free-throw line — Michigan commits the sixth-fewest fouls per game out of all 346 Division I teams and the Cats rank dead last in the Big Ten in free throw percentage. The Wolverines rank fourth in free throw percentage and NU has endured plenty of foul trouble lately — meaning they’ll need to drastically out-score the Wolverines from the field.

Ultimately, I don’t think the Cats will be able to dominate the floor enough to do that.

Max Schuman: I like NU’s chances of advancing past Michigan. For the first time this conference season, the team feels like it has sustained momentum on its side, and even though its three wins to end the regular season came against teams near the bottom of the Big Ten, the Cats have been playing with more energy on defense and fluidity on offense as of late.

NU’s loss in Ann Arbor was close for much of the game and I think the Cats did a smart, and replicable, job forcing the 3-happy Wolverines into just a 4-of-15 showing from deep. There wasn’t much separating the two teams, and at a neutral site, I doubt Michigan will benefit from a huge free throw disparity like in the last matchup, giving NU a real shot to move on.

Garrett Jochnau: It’s a toss-up. The Cats should have won their first game against the Wolverines. On the road, they outplayed Michigan for the majority of that game and did so with sophomore guard Bryant McIntosh going 2-of-7 from the field. As coach Chris Collins outlined after the game, the Wolverines ultimately made the bigger plays down the stretch and slipped away with the win.

This time around, NU has momentum going in. The team has picked up momentum following three-straight victories to end the season, and after seeing senior guard Tre Demps and senior center Alex Olah explode in their final regular season game, there’s plenty of reason to believe that the increased stakes will have the seniors playing hard before their looming graduations.

Still, the Cats have struggled against top teams. There’s a reason Michigan managed to pull away with the win in their first meeting. But matchups between the two have been eerily even over the past two years, and while I’m hesitant to put NU’s odds of winning at an exact 50 percent, they aren’t much lower.

2. Who will be the Cats’ most important player in the Big Ten Tournament?

Schuman: Demps. The senior has been on a tear recently, scoring in double figures in each of NU’s last nine games, and earned his second consecutive All-Big Ten honorable mention recognition Monday. He’s regained his touch at the rim and from outside after slumping through the first half of conference play, and he’s found his rhythm as an initiator and facilitator on offense in recent weeks as well.

It’s well-known that guard play wins games in postseason college basketball, and in Demps, the Cats have one of the more seasoned and confident guards in the Big Ten right now. Against a Michigan team not known for its presence at the rim, Demps’ driving game could be a huge boost for NU’s offense.

Jochnau: McIntosh. Demps and Olah will be huge factors for the Cats. In what could be their final hurrah, the senior duo could very steal the spotlight. But McIntosh is the point guard, and to make a run in a conference tournament, a team’s leader has to be clicking. Regardless of how well the others are playing, that distinction will always be given to McIntosh.

The sophomore hasn’t been scoring at a high rate recently, but he’s distributing as well as ever and will need to orchestrate cleanly to offset any talent disadvantages. And, truthfully, he’s going to have to find his shot for NU to make any real noise.

The team’s best win of the season came Jan. 12 against Wisconsin, when McIntosh exploded down the stretch in what might have been his finest collegiate performance to date. For the Cats to experience any repeat magic, he’ll need to do the same.

Pope: Olah. After missing about three weeks earlier this season and looking far less capable than his former self for another three weeks, the senior big man’s reemergence as one of NU’s central contributors has occurred almost simultaneously with the team’s late-season surge. On Sunday against Nebraska, the 7-foot center not only led the team with 19 points and eight rebounds, but also made a tremendous different not reflected on the box score, controlling the Cornhuskers in the paint and producing from the post like never before.

Olah absolutely must continue his hot streak for NU to make any sort of run in the Big Ten Tournament. He gives the team a weapon that can differentiate it from their other conference foes — Michigan, for example, doesn’t have a single player on their roster within two inches or 25 pounds of Olah — and gives the Cats an opportunity to pull off an upset or two.

3. Barring a run to the conference title and an automatic NCAA Tournament berth, what does NU need to do at the Big Ten Tournament to secure a position in the NIT field?

Jochnau: Beat the Wolverines. Ever the optimist, I’m pegging them as an NIT team with a win over Michigan. Quite simply, the team did everything it was supposed to do this year. It beat the teams it was supposed to — excluding the Jan. 16 loss to Penn State — and lost to the Big Ten’s tourney-bound teams. Anything more would likely have them in contention to go dancing.

Another victory or two in winnable contests against Ohio State and the Wolverines in the regular season likely would have secured them a spot, but if the Cats can pull off a first-round upset, their power conference pedigree should put them on the right side of the NIT bubble.

Pope: Win its game against Michigan. Some projections currently have NU in the NIT mix, but the inevitability that more minor-conference regular-season champions will secure automatic bids in the coming days will require the team to rise a bit further in order to make the cut. Although the Cats’ strength of schedule and RPI are indeed very poor, the glossiness of their 20-11 record and status as a Big Ten team should make a good first impression on NIT bracket-makers, and the team has only one “bad” loss (to the Nittany Lions) to its name.

A much-needed quality win over the Wolverines could alone propel NU into the bottom seeds of the NIT.

Schuman: Make a run to the conference semifinals, at least. That would require the Cats to take down both Michigan and No. 10 Indiana, the Big Ten’s regular season champions, on consecutive days.

NU has suffered from playing its best basketball against the conference’s lesser teams while playing its worst basketball against the Big Ten’s elite squads, giving the Cats only one victory over a likely NCAA Tournament team (that home victory over the Badgers) this season and leaving the NIT selection committee with little idea how good NU really is. A win over the Wolverines likely won’t be a game-changer, as Michigan would almost certainly fall into the NIT with a loss, but following with an upset over the Hoosiers should give the Cats the signature victory they need to vault past the midtier power-conference flotsam and snag an NIT bid.

It won’t be easy, as a Jan. 23 blowout loss at Indiana showed, but crazier things happen every March.

Twitter: @GarrettJochnau

Twitter: @benpope111