Northwestern Wildcats at (7) Wisconsin Badgers (-8.5)
This year’s Northwestern Wildcats (18-6, 17-7 ATS) could be the one. Northwestern is the last power conference school to have never made the NCAA tournament. In a year with a hyper-soft bubble and a thoroughly mediocre Big Ten, the Wildcats are primed to pounce on a tourney berth and put an end to that notorious drought. This evening (6:30 PM ET), they can all but stamp their ticket to March Madness with a signature win in Madison over the no. 7 Wisconsin Badgers (21-3, 13-10 ATS) at the Kohl Center.
While there’s no denying that the Big Ten is in a down year, the Badgers are an elite team. Their only losses on the year are true road games at a Creighton team that still had Maurice Watson () and then-no. 20 Purdue, plus a neutral court setback to then-no. 4 UNC. Greg Gard relies on a stingy defense, ranked fourth nationally in points-per-game (60.2 PPG) and seventh in efficiency (per KenPom).
The offensive load is largely carried by three players: Ethan Happ (14.5 PPG), Nigel Hayes (13.6 PPG), and Mr. Clutch, Bronson Koenig (13.9 PPG). The only thing this team is really missing is depth, and an elite point guard who can work those guys open. Hayes, a 6’8 forward, leads the team in assists at 3.0 APG.
As Wisconsin’s resume shows, though, it takes another elite team to capitalize on their offensive deficiencies. Is Northwestern elite? That would be a stretch. Most of their losses are of the quality variety, but home setbacks to Minnesota and Illinois are reminiscent of years past. The 68-61 loss to the Illini – who are just 4-8 in conference play – is particularly worrisome, largely because it was their last game. What you do late in the season always seems to have a greater impact come Selection Sunday. If Northwestern can’t maintain its winning ways down the stretch, they’ll just be another Wildcat team that fell just short.
Don’t bank on this team collapsing. Before its current two-game skid (which also includes a loss at Purdue), Bryant McIntosh and company had won six straight, and it was no fluke. They’re 31st overall on KenPom and own solid wins over Dayton, Wake Forest, and Iowa. As long as McIntosh (13.5 PPG, 5.5 AGP) is running the point and Scottie Lindsey (15.4 PPG) is knocking down a few shots, they’re solid defense (64.6 PPG; 29th in adjusted efficiency) will keep them on track.
Even if they play up to their fullest potential today, though, Wisconsin is going to be too much to handle at home. They don’t have the bodies to contend with Happ and Hayes in the frontcourt, nor the shooters to keep pace when those two start filling the basket. The Badgers are just a bad matchup, and I see them steadily pulling away over 40 minutes.
Pick: Wisconsin -8.5
Photo credit: William Prost (flickr) [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/].