ern finished its second road win this week by knocking off Minnesota. (Brian Ekart/Icon SMI)
So maybe Northwestern’s not as bad as everyone thought it was.
Since getting blown out at Iowa (93-67) on January 9, the Wildcats have gone 5-2 to move into fourth place in the Big Ten standings. Northwestern’s latest triumph took place on Saturday, when it edged Minnesota (15-7, 4-5 Big Ten), 55-54, at Williams Arena. Guards Drew Crawford and JerShon Cobb combined for 32 points while guard Tre Demps had 11 off the bench.
The Wildcats have developed into a tough, disciplined defensive team that mucks games up, forcing opponents into low-possession slugfests. It’s been working, and it worked again Saturday, as Minnesota – who had been averaging 1.101 points per possession in Big Ten play, good for fourth in the conference – managed shot 3-of-14 from three-point range and scored roughly 1.00 points per possession.
It took an above-average offensive performance for Northwestern, the worst offensive team in the Big Ten during conference play, to top the Gophers. The Wildcats did just enough, shooting 43.5 percent from the field and 38 percent from beyond the three-point arc. Demps drilled a three with under a minute to go to break a 52-52 tie.
On the surface, this looks like a bad loss for Minnesota, who fell at Nebraska less than a week ago. But maybe that’s the wrong approach. Northwestern has now won three consecutive conference road games for the first time since 1960. The Wildcats are a woeful offensive team; their 84.8 points per 100 possessions during conference play is far worse than Illinois’ eleventh-ranked offense, which has averaged 92.3.
No matter how putrid it is on offense, though, Northwestern has discovered an identity and committed to it. Scoring more efficiently would be nice, but the Wildcats don’t have the talent to be a good offensive team. Their defense has proven to be one of the better ones in the conference, and so far that’s been enough to get the Wildcats five conference wins – a number that would have seemed unfathomable as recently as a month ago.
The Wildcats have a good opportunity to extend their winning streak to three games next Saturday, when they host Nebraska. Coach Chris Collins has done an excellent job turning around a team that opened Big Ten play with three losses of at least 23 points. Northwestern hasn’t just exceeded expectations. It has played itself into fourth place of the most rigorous conference in the country.
It’s premature to suggest that Northwestern will make the NCAA Tournament this season. But bringing up the idea – however unrealistic – will no longer get you laughed out of a room. That’s progress.