With a 70-65 win over the Wisconsin Badgers, the Northwestern Wildcats notched their third win of the Big Ten season to improve to 15-3 (3-2 B1G) on the year. Bryant McIntosh led all scorers with 28 points and added 5 assists in perhaps his best overall game of the season, while Nigel Hayes scored 17 for Wisconsin in a valiant effort. Here's what we learned from this conference showdown.
1. Northwestern finally has a quality win
The biggest knock on the Wildcats this whole season has been their weak strength of schedule. Prior to entering conference play, NU's best win was likely against Virginia Tech, who is ranked 127th in the KenPom listings. Their first two Big Ten wins over Nebraska and Minnesota also came against teams that are subpar in the conference. While Wisconsin is by no means the team they were last year, they are ranked 66th in KenPom and will be a quality win that the committee can look at come March. This may not be a "hang your hat" type victory, but its as close to a signature win as the Cats have had all season.
2. Wisconsin keeps losing close games
Unfortunately for new head coach Greg Gard, the trend of dropping close games has continued. Looking at the Badgers' schedule, their six most recent losses have come by an average of 3.0 PPG. This includes one-point losses to Milwaukee and Indiana, as well a two point loss to Marquette. Without a clear "closer" like Frank Kaminsky or Sam Dekker to run the offense, Wisconsin has really struggled to remain in games late. Hayes has been a solid threat, but without dangerous scoring options outside of Bronson Koenig and Ethan Happ, he's not been getting much help. The Badgers will need to find that extra "umph" as they traverse this conference season if they want a shot at the NCAA tournament. However as of right now, they are teetering towards the NIT.
3. Is Bryant McIntosh the Big Ten's most improved player?
As a sophomore, McIntosh seems to have developed the ability to take over games. In a matchup where his team needed him most, McIntosh played 37 minutes and accounted for 41% of the Wildcats' points. This stellar performance comes just days after a seven-point outing against Minnesota in which he had 11 assists. This demonstrates his ability to fit the mold of what his team needs him to be. Currently, he is on pace to break Northwestern's single-season assists record of 157. He has already logged 128 on the year and leads the Big Ten with 7.1 APG. As of now, McIntosh is arguable playing like a top-three point guard in the conference behind Melo Trimble and Yogi Ferrell. In fact, Trimble may be the only point guard that has been definitively better. For the Wildcats, McIntosh will need to continue to be the go-to guy, at least until Alex Olah returns to the lineup. But at least for now. he's the centerpiece that could drive Northwestern to their first NCAA tournament appearance.