By: Jeremy Frank
On Saturday, the Northwestern Wildcats (6-9 overall, 3-8 Big Ten) will come into Mackey Arena to take on the Purdue Boilermakers (12-7 overall, 7-5 Big Ten), hoping to end a lengthy losing skid. Purdue will look to get back on track after dropping two of three without their best shooter.
When and how to watch:
Big Ten Network – 4:30 PM ET on Saturday, February 6
KenPom: Purdue 72 – Northwestern 64
Bart Torvik: Purdue 71 – Northwestern 65
Vegas Line: Purdue -8 | O/U 136
About the Wildcats:
In a Big Ten season full of oddities, Northwestern might be the team that epitomizes that the most. Having not opened the season until December, the Wildcats only got in three non-conference games against Division 1 opponents. They destroyed two of the worst teams in college basketball in Chicago State and Arkansas Pine Bluff (who are a combined 3-23 with only one program still playing) before blowing a 14-point lead in the Big Ten-ACC challenge to a mediocre Pittsburgh team. Northwestern closed out their non-con with a blowout against DII Quincy College.
With so many even-matched teams in the Big Ten, the only thing most college basketball writers could seemingly agree on was that Northwestern and Nebraska would finish at the bottom of it. After wins versus Michigan State (#4 at the time), at Indiana (which is never easy), and versus Ohio State (#23 at the time, currently #7), the Wildcats had started to prove the naysayers wrong. The ‘Cats were 3-0 in the hardest conference in the country with 3 résumé wins. Northwestern was the 19th best team in the nation according to the AP voters.
Northwestern never continued proving the pundits wrong, with a combination of regression and a difficult schedule resulting in eight straight losses putting them at 3-8 where they sit today. As of the writing of this piece, the Cats are sandwiched between 3-7 Penn State and 2-7 Michigan State at 12th place in the Big Ten, with a dormant Nebraska squad being 0-5 in 14th.
According to KenPom, Northwestern’s schedule ranks second place nationally in terms of difficulty with only Penn State ahead of them.
Inside Scoring… the Wildcats are one of five teams shooting about 50% from 2 in Big Ten play. The other four? Michigan, Ohio State, Illinois, Iowa. (Purdue is close at 49.5%)
Forcing Turnovers… 17.3% of opposing possessions have resulted in turnovers in conference play. That is the third highest mark in the conference behind Rutgers and Penn State. (Purdue is at 15.6%)
Rebounding… NU is worst in Big Ten play with a 17.3% offensive rebound rate and fifth worst with a 71.3% defensive rebound rate. (Purdue is at 31.8% and 75.1%, respectively)
Defense… Northwestern has the lowest block rate in conference (4.5% and only 16 blocks in 11 conference games). They allow opponents to shoot 48% from the field (second worst in B1G) with an effective field goal percentage of 55% (worst in B1G).
Projected Northwestern Lineup:
PG Boo Buie (6’2”, 180 lbs)
9.9 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 4.5 APG
One of the best overall playmakers in the conference (29.6% assist rate, 39% from 3), Buie’s inconsistency has prevented him from taking a major leap after a stellar freshman season. The Albany native scored 30 in NU’s win against Michigan State but has been held scoreless as many times as he’s reached double digits during Northwestern’s eight game losing streak (twice apiece).
SG Chase Audige (6’4”, 200 lbs)
12.1 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 1.6 APG
Audige sat out last season after transferring from William & Mary. The guard reminds me a bit of Jaden Ivey; he takes a shot nearly every 2 minutes, can get to the rim, and is capable but inconsistent from deep. He put up 25 on 11-23 shooting (1-7 from 3) against Ohio State and hit four threes on both Iowa and Wisconsin. He’s a tad under 30% from 3 for the season but he is a shot taker and can be a shot maker on any given night.
SF/PF Miller Kopp (6’7”, 215 lbs)
13.7 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 1.3 APG
In a league that runs a lot of 3-guard lineups, Kopp is probably one of the few true small forwards in the conference. He gets minutes at both the 3 and the 4 but will likely be starting at the 3. The junior is surprisingly close to being a quiet 50/40/90, shooting 48% from the field, 42% from 3, and 88% from the line. Kopp has scored in double figures in all but four of the Wildcats’ contests. He’s one of the best in the country at avoiding getting called for fouls and will almost certainly play at least 30 minutes against the Boilermakers.
PF Robbie Beran (6’9”, 215 lbs)
5.8 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 1.5 APG
Beran starts for the Wildcats at the four and plays about 20 minutes per game. He takes more shots from 3 than from 2 which could provide issues to a Purdue team who sometimes has issues guarding stretch 4’s. However, over his last 5 games he is 1-12 from 3 and only has scored 11 points. The pessimistic fan in me is confident he’ll surpass that scoring mark on 4-5 from deep against Purdue. He’s a 31% three point shooter on the year.
C/PF Pete Nance (6’10”, 225 lbs)
11.5 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 1.9 APG
Nance is the son of former NBA player Larry Nance and by the transitive property is also the brother of current NBA player Larry Nance Jr. Nance, like many of his teammates, is a capable shooter but isn’t outstanding at 29% from 3. He’s great at bringing down defensive rebounds (second best DRB percentage in the conference at 27%), but doesn’t do much on the offensive block. He makes about 60% from his baskets taken from inside the arc.
G Anthony Gaines (4 PPG, 5 RPG in 21 MPG)
C Ryan Young (8 PPG in 17 MPG)
G Ty Berry (5.5 PPG, 39% 3PT in 15 MPG)
PG Ryan Greer (3 PPG, 2 APG in 14 MPG)
Projected Purdue Lineup:
PG/SG Eric Hunter Jr.
Hunter has taken a step down offensively from his sophomore season after returning from injury this year. He’s down from 46% to 40% on 2s and 36% to 28% on 3s. The Indianapolis native hasn’t scored in double figures in four straight games. However, Hunter has stepped up big time on the defensive end, notably locking down Minnesota star Marcus Carr. Purdue has been able to win despite Hunter’s regression on offense, so any improvements they can get out of him going forward would help move the team to the next level.
SG Sasha Stefanovic
Stefanovic looks to return after missing three straight games due to COVID-19. His absence left Purdue one-dimensional at times when the Boilers didn’t have many options from deep. Even when he isn’t scoring, the Crown Point native attracts so much attention from the defense, in turn getting his teammates better looks. Stefanovic is one of the best shooters in the country at 46% from 3, and in his most recent games showed flashes of an inside/midrange game making a career high four two-pointers against Ohio State. I’m not 100% confident what Stefanovic’s role will be in his first game back due to limited practice time, but if Painter thinks he is game-ready, my bet is Stefanovic starts and Ivey moves back to the bench. Sasha also hit the game-winning three in Evanston last year.
Wing G Brandon Newman
Inconsistency has been the name of the game for the redshirt freshman. To say that Newman is averaging 9.5 points per game over his last four is intentionally misleading; he scored 0, 6, 29, and 3 in the four games. When he’s on, he looks like an NBA player who can score at all three levels and has solid length and athleticism for what would be a 2-guard in the league. When he’s not, he’s usually not looking for his shot at all and in turn doesn’t add much to the offense. Newman is great at getting in the passing lane and has a weird talent in blocking threes, but is prone to a few defensive lapses per game. His future in the B10 is promising, as his tools and frame allow him to have a great ceiling defensively and consistency likely to come with more playing time. It’s just a matter of how long it’ll take to turn good freshman Brandon Newman to All Big Ten player Brandon Newman.
PF Mason Gillis
Gillis has been a solid addition for the Boilermakers after graduating Grady Eifert and Evan Boudreaux in consecutive seasons. As a freshman, he’s very similar to Eifert as a senior with his hustle giving Purdue an extra possession or two seemingly every game. Purdue hasn’t gotten (or needed) much scoring from the 4 besides off of Trevion Williams flashy passes to a guy under the basket, but Gillis has been a good rebounder, capable shooter, and overall solid glue-guy for Purdue.
C Trevion Williams
As one of the most relied-on players in the country, Williams is obviously a major key into Purdue’s success. Coming off one of his best personal games of the season (23 PTS, 11 REB, 9-12 FG, 5-6 FT), Williams will be met with another challenge in Northwestern who have capable shooters from 1 to 5. He spent a lot of time on the perimeter against Maryland due to aggressive switches, and was forced to guard smaller guys for a lot of the game. He has scored in double figures in every game since Miami and is one of the best bigs in a conference with a ton of good bigs.
Photo Credit: Mark Elsner
Combo G Jaden Ivey – Ivey has scored in double figures in three of his last four and during Stefanovic’s absence, has stepped into a bigger role where he seems to be Purdue’s second option after Trevion Williams. He’s really struggled from deep (8 for 43), but has been exceptional driving and taking guys off the dribble and has the confidence of an All-American. He may start this game if Stefanovic isn’t ready, but it’s also worth noting that Ivey appeared to injure both of his wrists against Maryland and was holding one of them during the last defensive possession of the game.
PF Aaron Wheeler – Wheeler has been pretty disappointing this season even as the backup 4. His height and athleticism will always grant him minutes, but his jumper hasn’t improved from last year (22% from 3 both years) and has really only gotten better from the field thanks to Trevion Williams’ playmaking. He’s made some bad turnovers and struggles guarding stretch 4’s (either not closing out enough on a shot or falling for pump fakes). Like always, he shows flashes (like the last few possessions versus Ohio State), but he’s going to need to be more than a rebounder to get him more minutes.
PG Isaiah Thompson – Thompson has been extremely efficient off the bench for Purdue this season. He’s shooting 44% from three and has only turned the ball over 6 times after turning it over 5 times in one game against Clemson’s swarming defense. He’s averaged 25 minutes per game over the last pair of games and scored 11 points on just 3 field goal attempts in those two. He’s a terrific role player as a backup point guard, not forcing any shots when he’s guarded but making them when he’s not.
C Zach Edey – Edey’s non-conference success hasn’t quite carried over into conference season. The 7’4” center is shooting just 44% from the field and 60% from the line versus Big Ten competition and hasn’t scored more than eight points after doing so six times in non-con. Fortunately for Purdue, Trevion Williams has been so good that as long as he isn’t in foul trouble, is good for 30+ minutes per game. Edey has shown some signs of growth: he’s fouling and turning the ball over significantly less in conference play than he did in non-con.
G Ethan Morton – Morton has played a bit more with Stefanovic out but will likely see his role go back to the one TV timeout stretch he had once Sasha is back. Morton did hit a three against Maryland and in my opinion was pretty solid on the defensive end.
Purdue is the clear favorite hosting a struggling Northwestern team, but Northwestern’s ability to stretch the floor with most of their guys could be scary for the Boilermakers. Purdue’s opponents take nearly half of their shots from three; if a couple of Wildcats get hot from downtown, Purdue will have a hard time winning solely due to their defensive “style”. On the other side of things, Northwestern has allowed opponents to shoot 40% from three in six of their last eight, but since going 11-for-18 from deep against Indiana, the Boilermakers have made just 25-of-96. Both teams are quite young and Purdue has a clear talent and depth advantage, but this game will likely come down to the 3-point line and if Purdue can make open shots and hope Northwestern misses their’s (that is, unless Purdue figures out a way to contest more threes).
Bonus Fun Fact
33.4% of Purdue’s points have come from the center position, the highest mark in all of college basketball.
Saturday Prop Bets
Which is More: Ethan Morton Minutes played or Aaron Wheeler Points?
Which is More: Jaden Ivey Dunks or Ivey Blocks?
Who will be the game’s leading scorer: Trevion Williams or the Field?
Purdue wins 67-55
Wheeler Points > Morton Minutes
Ivey Dunks > Ivey Blocks
Field leads game in scoring
About Jeremy Frank
Jeremy is a sophomore at Purdue studying data science. He also runs @MLBRandomStats on Twitter and authored a pair of books about baseball stats. Jeremy is from Buffalo Grove, Illinois and is a lifelong Purdue fan.