In Thursday’s Big Ten Tournament nightcap, Northwestern put people to bed early. The sixth-seeded Wildcats pounded the 14th-seeded Scarlet Knights, going on a 31-0 run midway through the first half and cruising to an 83-61 win. The win all but wraps up an NCAA Tournament berth for the Wildcats, the first in program history.
Let's see what we learned from the game.
What We Learned
1. Northwestern will play in the NCAA Tournament.
Everyone put the Wildcats in the NCAA Tournament after their buzzer-beating win over Michigan on March 1. But that was a bit premature for a team that limped to the regular-season finish line, not always looking like a tournament-worthy team as they lost six of their last nine games. Therefore, the Wildcats had plenty of pressure on Thursday night, needing to avoid being upset by a Rutgers team that would have been a black mark on Northwestern’s NCAA Tournament resume.
Northwestern came out and punched their NCAA Tournament ticket with authority. The Wildcats got it done on the scoreboard and easily passing the eye test, playing smooth, efficient basketball on both ends of the floor. While the Wildcats will be making program history when the ball is tipped in the NCAA Tournament, they still have plenty to do this week.
Northwestern will take on third-seeded Maryland in Friday’s quarterfinals, a team that earned a 74-64 win at Northwestern on Feb. 15. A loss to a good Maryland team won’t impact Northwestern’s NCAA Tournament bid, but the Wildcats could do wonders for their seeding if they can make a deep run in the Big Ten Tournament.
Winning four games in four days won’t be easy by any means, but Thursday’s blowout win should allowed the Wildcats to get some rest heading into the quarterfinals.
2. It’s possible to go on a 31-0 run.
Northwestern put the dagger in early on Thursday, going on a 31-0 run to put Rutgers away. Trailing 9-6 after three minutes of play, the Wildcats took control when Vic Law hit a jumper at the 16:47 mark of the first half. But the run really began on the defensive end, as both teams were held scoreless until Bryant McIntosh scored to give the Wildcats a 10-9 lead with 14:29 to play.
The rout was on from there. The Wildcats were hitting 3-pointers, throwing alley-oops, tipping rebounds to each other for assists and doing just about anything they wanted offensively. While everything was falling for Northwestern, Rutgers was having a difficult time even getting shots off on the other end. The Wildcats eventually opened up a 37-9 leading, holding the Scarlet Knights scoreless for 11:06 before Nigel Johnson ended the run with a 3-pointer at the 6:02 mark.
3. Wildcats thrive with balance.
Northwestern’s starters were the driving force of the run and combined to score 67 points on the night, shooting 69.4 percent (25-for-36) from the field. Law was crucial to the fast start, as he personally outscored the Scarlet Knights 12-9 midway through the first half. The 6-foot-7 sophomore finished the night with 16 points, five rebounds and four assists.
But it wasn’t Law or any one Wildcat that made the difference. Northwestern is at its best when they are moving the ball around and making the defense move. That was evident on Thursday, as all five starters scored at least nine points. Scottie Lindsey finished with 16 points and four assists, while Dererk Pardon chipped in 13 points and eight rebounds on 5-of-6 shooting, McIntosh added 13 points and three assists, and Sanjay Lumpkin had nine points.
The Wildcats shot 60.0 percent (30-for-50) from the field as a team, and their 83 points were the most they have scored since an 89-54 win over Iowa on Jan. 15. The defenses will obviously be better in the rest of the games Northwestern plays this season, but the Wildcats should be able to hold their own if they play the pretty brand of basketball that the Wildcats played on Thursday night.
4. It’s hard to bounce back
At this point of the season, it’s easy to see when a team is checked out. That’s not Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights may have been overmatched, and they may have been tired after Wednesday night’s upset win over Ohio State, but it wasn’t a lack of effort. After being on the wrong end of a 31-0 run, the Scarlet Knights regained their footing and closed the first half on a 15-5 run to get within 42-24 at halftime. They kept the deficit around 16 points early in the second half before it really got out of hand as their season came to a close.
Outside of the difference in talent, Rutgers was also a victim of playing back-to-back games. The two teams that won games on Wednesday both had trouble on Thursday. Along with Rutgers’ blowout loss, 13th-seeded Penn State also had a tough time. The Nittany Lions found themselves in a 42-27 halftime deficit against fifth-seeded Michigan State and looked exhausted in a 78-51 loss.
Fatigue can be evident on the boards, where Rutgers typically thrives. It wasn’t there for the Scarlet Knights on Thursday, as they were outrebounded 33-19 by the Wildcats. Those type of energy plays were also lacking for Penn State, who was outrebounded 44-29 in the loss to Michigan State.
Both of those games showed how hard it is to win a title in this format. Earning those byes are huge. The more you can eliminate playing back-to-backs, the better chance you’ll have of advancing. The team that wins the Big Ten Tournament is going to be the team that can win in a number of ways and can best navigate the pitfalls of playing every day.
While Thursday’s win was anticipated, it was still a big step for a Northwestern program that has failed to take a step forward in the past. It allowed the Wildcats to ensure an NCAA Tournament berth, which will enable them to play a bit more care-free as they take the floor against Maryland on Friday.
It was an ugly end of the season for Rutgers, but Thursday was kind of a cherry on top for the Scarlet Knights, who won their first-ever Big Ten Tournament game on Wednesday. With just one senior on the roster in the little-used Khalil Batie, the Scarlet Knights should be able to grow from their experience this week.