The Daily Northwestern

Men’s Basketball: Northwestern hoping to replicate last year’s monumental win in Madison

Bryant McIntosh drives to the hoop. The senior said the team will play with a greater stretch of urgency for the final stretch of the season.

Bryant McIntosh drives to the hoop. The senior said the team will play with a greater stretch of urgency for the final stretch of the season.

Daily file photo by Colin Boyle

Daily file photo by Colin Boyle

Bryant McIntosh drives to the hoop. The senior said the team will play with a greater stretch of urgency for the final stretch of the season.

Ben Pope, Managing Editor

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Men’s Basketball

Sanjay Lumpkin’s breakaway slam dunk, which sealed Northwestern’s emphatic road win over then-No. 7 Wisconsin, reverberated last February around the college basketball universe as a verification of the Wildcats’ legitimacy.

This year’s meeting between NU (13-10, 4-6 Big Ten) and the Badgers (10-13, 3-7) will carry significantly less weight outside of Madison and Evanston. Both teams are surprisingly floundering in the bottom half of the conference standings and in need of miracle runs to get back into NCAA Tournament consideration.

But the Cats, at least, still have not given up hope — as was clear during interviews Wednesday prior to the team’s departure for Wisconsin — and are hoping to use Thursday’s matchup to propel a February surge.

“You’re going to see some teams emerge here in the last eight games and some teams fall back, and we hope to be one of those teams that emerges,” coach Chris Collins said. “I like the attitude of our guys, I think our confidence is in a pretty good spot and I’m excited about the opportunity tomorrow to play Wisconsin and get a chance to get a quality road win.”

Seven Big Ten teams have received tournament bids each of the past three seasons, but ESPN currently projects just four to make it this spring. That means there’s plenty of room for another team to make a run, and the Cats do, after all, sit just half of a game out of sixth in the conference standings.

In the meantime, the team is treating each regular season game like it’s already the tournament, senior guard Bryant McIntosh said.

“You have to play with a little bit of desperation,” he said. “Everything that’s happened this year, we can’t go back and change it as bad as we want to. We’ve put ourselves in this position, so now we just have to focus one game at a time.”

Collins said he planned to hark back to last year’s upset victory in Wisconsin in his pregame speech Thursday night, but that he’s been primarily focused on strategic changes recently, such as getting to the rim more. The Cats have the third-highest 3-pointer attempt rate — and thus third-lowest 2-pointer attempt rate — and third-fewest free throw attempts in the conference.

“It’s been a weakness of ours, and especially (for) our perimeter guys … Scottie and Bryant,” Collins said. “It’s something that we’re continuously working on: trying to be physical, getting to the basket, being smart enough to create contact and find ways to get to the free-throw line.”

The Badgers make the perfect opponent to implement this strategy against: Opponents have taken 70.6 percent of their field goals from 2-point range this year against Wisconsin, the eighth-highest rate in the country, and converted on more than half those attempts.

That’s in spite of the presence of All-American center Ethan Happ, who entered the season as a national player of the year candidate and currently ranks sixth in the conference in scoring. Beyond Happ, though, the Badgers are extremely young and raw — a problem only amplified by the fact that veteran guard D’Mitrik Trice has been out since a December foot surgery.

Collins nevertheless noted that Wisconsin is “not a just a team — they’re a program,” and junior center Dererk Pardon made it clear the Cats aren’t taking their northerly rivals lightly despite the off-year.

“I feel like they’re still a good team,” Pardon said. “They’re very desperate at this point trying to get wins, just like we are. We have to bring our A-game.”

Twitter: @benpope111