Western takes the court again this Saturday, facing the Northwestern Wildcats at 3:00 Eastern (on the Big Ten Network). This will mark the end of a series of road games that began on November 24th for the Broncos. Last Sunday Western took down Pacific with an impressive offensive performance, winning 80-72. The Wildcats (6-4) are coming off a loss to Central Michigan on Wednesday night that they'd like to soon forget. We sat down with Henry over at SB Nation's Inside NU to break this one down:
Hustle Belt: While I always love seeing a MAC school take down a B1G team, I do sympathize that you lost to Central, who I really really really really hate. What is the most pressing concern after that loss, and how does head coach Chris Collins fix that problem in the short term?
Henry: There were A LOT of problems, but the most startling thing about Wednesday, to be completely honest, was the utter lack of effort. Last year's Northwestern team prided itself on competitiveness and defensive intensity, and those were big reasons it was able to beat the likes of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana and Iowa away from home. It was a pathetic offensive team, but its defense carried it through.
This year's squad isn't much better on offense, so if it's going to play defense like it did Wednesday, there will be big-time struggles. Now, effort and intensity are easily correctable, especially when a team has shown them in the past, but Northwestern will have to show up ready to play to even have a shot in the game against WMU.
HB: Let's assume Northwestern's D comes ready to play on Saturday. WMU's best offensive player right now is power forward Connar Tava. He scoring 16.1 points per game, moves fast off the dribble, but is big and strong enough to make space for himself below the hoop. What's the Wildcat's answer to that?
Henry: This is actually exactly the type of player Northwestern has struggled with this season -- 4/5s that can play inside and out. Northwestern's starter at the 4 is Sanjay Lumpkin, whose more natural position is small forward, and who is a good defender but not the greatest post defender. NU's starter at the 5 is Alex Olah, a 7-foot center who has really struggled to guard opponents on the perimeter. Lumpkin is the likely matchup for Tava, and Tava's best opportunity to take advantage of the matchup will be around the basket. If he has success there, Collins might turn to 6-8 freshman power forward Gavin Skelly off the bench. Skelly is NU's best post defender.
HB: Let's talk about NU's offense. Alex Olah, Tre Demps, and Bryant McIntosh are all averaging between 10 and 12 points per game. Which of those three has been the most valuable on offense so far?
Henry: It'd probably have to be McIntosh. He's the facilitator, and when he's not on the floor, or even when he's on the floor but the ball isn't in his hands, the offense often stalls. The freshman point guard hasn't been efficient, but he has certainly caught the eye. Olah should be Northwestern's best scorer though. He's a 7-footer who can score over both shoulders (though he prefers shooting over his left) and can knock down the 3-ball. His problem is that he's such an enigmatic and inconsistent player.
For example, in NU's game against Georgia Tech, Olah was awful in the first half. He was shooting air balls, and just looked totally out of it. But then in the second half, he was nearly unstoppable, and finished the game with 19 points on 7-11 shooting and 10 rebounds. If he could find some consistency, he'd be Northwestern's best player, and it wouldn't be all that close.
HB: Ok, time for a critical question. I know you're a major Premier League follower. What English Premier League side does this Northwestern team best equate to? Interpret as you will.
Henry: That's a tough one. Are they Aston Villa because they're decent defensively and work hard, but are offensively inept? Perhaps, but Northwestern doesn't have the history that Villa does. Maybe they're Hull, because, just as Hull are the only current Premier League club never to have won a major trophy, Northwestern is the only major conference team that has never reached the NCAA Tournament. Or maybe NU is Burnley, because both have small, old stadiums and both, based on talent, probably shouldn't be in the conference/division they're in. Or perhaps Stoke City, because a new coach has come in and tried to change the team's identity, but the results so far have been mixed. Anyway, if I had to choose one, I'd probably go with Hull -- though to be clear, Evanston is a much nicer place than that dreary town in the northeast of England.
HB: Final score prediction for the
Tigers, err, I mean Wildcats vs. Broncos match-up?
Henry: I'm actually going to take Northwestern by a hair. Last year's game actually came at a similar time in the season, and it was the first game that Northwestern really dug down defensively and played a complete game on that end of the floor. Collins wasn't happy after the CMU game, so I think he rips into his team on Thursday and Friday, and they come out firing on Saturday. It won't be 51-35 like last year, and Western Michigan actually might be the better team, but I'll go with NU 58, WMU 54.