How To Watch & Listen
#14 Rutgers (15-17) v. #6 Northwestern (21-10)
Where: Verizon Center, Washington D.C.
Tip-off: Thursday, March 9th at approximately 9 pm ET (30 minutes after conclusion of Indiana v. Iowa)
Radio: WCTC 1450 AM & WOR 710 AM - Jerry Recco & Joe Boylan; WRSU 88.5 FM
KenPom Rankings: Rutgers #127; Northwestern #36
KenPom Prediction: Northwestern 66 Rutgers 59; Rutgers given a 24% chance to win
Series History: Northwestern leads all-time 8-1, including wins in all four previous meetings as members of the Big Ten.
B1G Tournament History: Rutgers is 1-2 and the first #14 seed to ever win a Big Ten Tournament game in the three seasons since the field expanded in 2014.
Notable Fact: These two programs currently hold the longest drought in making the NCAA Tournament for high major teams in college basketball. Rutgers last made it in 1991, while Northwestern never has in it’s program’s history.
The Wildcats are on the cusp of their first ever NCAA Tournament bid, after finishing the regular season with 21 wins and finishing sixth in the Big Ten. No Big Ten team has ever not made the big dance with more than 20 wins and better than a .500 record in conference play. Still, if you are Northwestern, the last thing you can do is rest on what you’ve done so far. Expect them to be ready to play tonight and motivated to secure their postseason status by making the Quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament. A loss tonight will probably not hurt their status for March Madness, but it’s certainly a risk they don’t want to take.
They are vulnerable, however. After starting the season with an 18-4 record and 7-2 in Big Ten play, they have lost 6 of 9 contests. They played Illinois twice since the start of February and lost both games. However, they have played better of late, beating Michigan by 2 points and losing to conference champion Purdue by 4 points on Sunday.
They are a very good defensive team, ranking 4th in the Big Ten and 31st in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency per KenPom. They hold their opponents to low shooting percentages and block shots at a high rate. On offense, they rarely turn the ball over and shoot a high percentage from the free throw line, making 75% in conference play, third best in the Big Ten. They do struggle from three-point range, with Rutgers only shooting a worse percentage behind the arc than the Wildcats. Overall, they are a disciplined team on both ends of the floor and are led by a strong core of sophomores and juniors who have developed well under head coach Chris Collins.
Bryant McIntosh - The 2nd team All-Big Ten point guard leads the team in scoring and assists with 14.6 points and 5.4 assists, respectively. He is also their best free throw shooter, making 87% on 96 attempts. He is an extension of Collins on the floor and keyed their comeback over Rutgers in their second meeting.
Scottie Lindsey - The 3rd team All-Big Ten wing is averaging 14.0 points, 4.0 rebounds, 2.4 assists, and 1.0 steals this season. He hasn’t fully hit his stride since returning from an injury in their last meeting against Rutgers, but he is certainly a dangerous player. He also shoots 85% from the free throw line.
Vic Law - He made the All-Big Ten Defensive team, but is also one of their best offensive players. He is third in scoring at 12.5 points, second in rebounding with 5.9 boards, and leads the team with 1.1 steals per contest. Law is also their best three-point shooter, making 38% from behind the arc. He also killed Rutgers from the charity stripe at the RAC, making 9 of 9 in their 9 point victory.
Dererk Pardon - He is their best big man who has been major trouble for Rutgers this season, as he has averaged 10 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 4.5 blocks in their two meetings. He averages 8.6 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 2.0 blocks on the season and shoots 61% from the floor.
Sanjay Lumpkin - The 5th year senior amazingly went scoreless in both meetings with Rutgers this season, but has been a solid contributor off the bench for them most of the year. He is averaging 6.3 points and 5.8 rebounds, while shooting 57% from the field.
Coach Pikiell’s Thoughts On Northwestern
“Terrific. I mean, coach Collins has done an unbelievable job. They have very good players. It’s a really difficult game, especially on half-a-day prep. But our guys will fight. Again, I like their team a lot. They’re playing with great chemistry. I watched them play a lot. They’re on a little bit of a mission. We’re trying to be on a mission ourselves. Expect to be a great game.”
Keys To The Game
This will be the third time these teams meet this season and it’s difficult to beat any opponent three times. While Rutgers lost by single digits in both meetings, they played much better the second time around. That is encouraging, considering the game was at Northwestern and a game the Wildcats had to have.
Rutgers struggled on the boards in their first meeting, but took control in the second game and need to do the same tonight. They were relentless last night against Ohio State and need a similar effort in this game. Their pursuit on the offensive glass was impressive and it led to a 22-6 edge in second chance points. We know Rutgers is offensively challenged, so they must be strong in this area to have a chance in this game.
While Rutgers has played reasonably well on defense against Northwestern, I think they will need to hold them below the 69 points they scored in both meetings previously. The 65 point mark has been a key barometer for Rutgers, as once they allow opponents to score more than that, their win probability decreases quickly.
Rutgers continues to be improved in taking care of the basketball and held a turnover edge in both matchups against Northwestern, which is impressive against such a fundamentally sound team. However, it must continue and, while they did a much better job in the second half against Ohio State, they were very sloppy last night in the first half. A lot of that had to do with nerves I think, but the crowd will also be much more lively tonight.
Poise is of the utmost importance tonight, as Rutgers will be playing on a stage they are not accustomed to. I actually think their game against Wisconsin at Madison Square Garden may have been a good thing in retrospect in helping to prepare them for this atmosophere. It is a neutral environment, but I expect a lot of Northwestern fans who are hungry for an NCAA Tournament berth.
It was apparent in the postgame that this team is focused and united in a singular purpose. They know they aren't respected much in the Big Ten and that is a huge motivating factor for this team. However, it will only carry them so far, as their best player must come through for them to have a chance tonight.
Corey Sanders has struggled for the most part from the field in his past, making just 8 of 38 field goal attempts for a poor 21%. He will have his hands full on the defensive end as well, which he has played very well on that end of the floor of late. If he can come out and get on a roll offensively, we all know he is capable of putting Rutgers on his back and carrying them to victory. However, Northwestern is too balanced for him to be able to do it alone.
It sounds like a cliche, but this team really does need contributions from every player to win against top competition. The bench was fantastic last night, but can they do so two nights in a row, after struggling for multiple Big Ten games this season? It’s a big question for this game.
Nigel Johnson needs to continue his hot hand from behind the arc, as he has made 15 of 28 attempts for 54% from three-point range in his past six games. That has been a huge development for this team.
Rutgers can’t afford a slow start like last night against Ohio State or they may fall into a hole they can’t climb out of. If they can come out with energy and purpose from the opening tip, they could give Northwestern a real battle. It’s a lot harder to respond after such an emotional win like last night, but this team has something to prove. The difference in this game is that their opponent has a lot to play for and will be fully invested in this game. Rutgers can win, but it will take their most complete effort of the season to do it. Last night was a great victory, but they need to shoot better tha 37% from the field and turn it over less than 13 times to beat a team the caliber of Northwestern.
On Monday, in the conference call ahead of the Big Ten Tournament, Pikiell had this to say when I asked about their recent improvement:
“We’ve just gotten better with our whole roster. I know our record doesn’t indicate that, but as you guys who follow us closely know, we’ve improved. We’ve improved and one of these days we are going to put it all together too in a game. Hopefully, our best basketball is yet to be played, Aaron.”
Let’s hope today is that day! Whatever happens, be proud of what this team has accomplished and a win tonight would be a major bonus. It has already been a successful season for the program in the early stages of the rebuilding process. The fact that Rutgers has a meaningful game to play in March is a huge step in the right direction. Maybe, just maybe, they will catch lightning in a bottle and shock the Big Ten for a second straight night. We can only hope!