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Wisconsin-Northwestern Preview: B5Q Grills Sippin' On Purple

The Badgers aren't flying under the radar anymore. They must avoid any missteps against Big Ten also-rans to keep their conference title hopes alive. Northwestern blogger Rodger Sherman joined us to explain UW's next challenge.

Reggie Hearn has been the lone bright spot for a snakebitten Northwestern program this year.
Reggie Hearn has been the lone bright spot for a snakebitten Northwestern program this year.

With an eye on Wisconsin's manageable closing schedule, talk of remote title-winning scenarios is heating up around Madison. After toughing out three consecutive overtime games, the No. 19 Badgers (18-8, 9-4 Big Ten) responded with a masterpiece against Ohio State last Sunday to creep back into Ken Pomeroy's top ten for the first time since the Marquette game.

All of this adds up to Wisconsin playing the unfamiliar role of Goliath. The Badgers have largely flown under the radar this season, as they've navigated through tremendous ups and downs. Now the danger of looking ahead to a rematch with Michigan State looms large. Four of UW's last five opponents happen to be the four worst teams in the league. The first test is in Evanston versus Northwestern on Wednesday night.

The Wildcats (13-13, 4-9) have struggled in Big Ten play, losing five of their last six. But who can blame them? They're playing with only half the team they thought they'd have when the season began. This is the same Northwestern program that has never received an NCAA tournament bid. That streak won't end this year either, much to the chagrin of guys like Rodger Sherman. Sherman operates Sippin' On Purple, which covers all things Northwestern for SB Nation, so he's more than qualified to explain the agony.

B5Q: Northwestern has had typical Northwestern luck again this season, particularly in the injury department. Give us a full infirmary report on exactly how depleted the Wildcats will be Wednesday night compared to what they had to start the season.

Sippin' On Purple: I covered Northwestern's hellish cartoon-anvil-falling-on-head mess of luck this year in this story, but let's summarize: first, starting shooting guard JerShon Cobb didn't get the grades he needed, and earned a year-long suspension. Whatevs. He's a good player, but he was going to be NU's third option offensively. Still got a shot at the tourney! Then, it was randomly revealed that Drew Crawford's shoulder wasn't in great shape, and that he'd get surgery on it ending his year, although he did get a medical redshirt. This was weird. He'd been playing with it, although not particularly effectively, and all of a sudden we're just finding out about this injury he's had for two seasons? Well, that sucked, because he was NU's leading scorer.

Somewhere along the line, three rotation/bench guys -- Sanjay Lumpkin, Chier Ajou, and Aaron Liberman -- had season-ending injuries too. I won't comment on their play, because all of them were freshmen, so I'm not even sure if any of them are good. But yeah, they're gone. I'm mainly bummed because not many basketball teams can hit the Indian/Sudanese/Jew trifecta. None of these injuries happened in games, so I'm not even sure these are real players.

And then, against Iowa, Jared Swopshire, a Louisville transfer and the best rebounder I've seen at Northwestern since I started following the team, had his knee go kerblooie, ending his college career. Alex Olah also got a concussion in that game. Wisconsin fans, be glad. Be glad this isn't your life. Be glad your basketball players sometimes walk down the street without meteorites smashing into their plantar fascii.

B5Q: Will center Alex Olah play against Wisconsin?

SOP: Probs. He played Sunday against Illinois, although he was not particularly effective.

B5Q: As someone who watches a lot of Northwestern basketball, what is it that you enjoy about the current configuration of the team as it has tried to pick up the pieces after the injuries to Drew Crawford and Jared Swopshire?

SOP: hahahahahahahahahaha, AAAAHAHAhahahahaha (gasps for air) HAHAHAHA

Seriously, this team has a lot of heart. I expected them to get absolutely lambasted on the road by Ohio State. Instead, they scrapped for everything and had a tie ballgame with about two minutes left. Then they got absolutely lambasted by Illinois at home, so there's that.

B5Q: It seems like senior Reggie Hearn has had a breakout year for the Cats, leading them in scoring (14.1 ppg) and ranking second in rebounding (4.5). What is Hearn's game like and what does he do best?

SOP: Reggie scores in nifty ways. He can't create for himself off the dribble, but if you get him the ball as he's moving towards the basket, he'll crane his body in some way that he'll finish, no matter the traffic. He also drills threes. It's crazy to think that just two years ago, Hearn was a walk-on scrounging for garbage time minutes. This year has been a disaster with all the injuries, but Northwestern fans will remember Hearn's ascent from a end-of-the-bench scrub to a never-say-die starter capable of carrying a team for a long time.

B5Q: I see that Northwestern is still terrible at rebounding, but is actually respectable on defense. Are these traditional flaws results of Bill Carmody's personal style or do they stem more from the recruiting limitations that he deals with at Northwestern?

SOP: Northwestern does play a 1-3-1 zone a lot, and like any zone, it's a tough one to rebound out of. But mainly, we're dealing with the fact that there isn't a lot of rebounding talent on the floor in the wake of the Swop injury. Alex Olah's the only player over 6-foot-8, and he has next to no leaping ability. His backup Michael Turner isn't just 215 pounds, he's also comically bad at getting into position. And beyond that, you're dealing with small forwards and guards. Carmody prefers guys who have offensive talent and a little bit of length to great rebounders, and with his best rebounders out, those traits are exaggerated.

B5Q: The Badgers last lost in Evanston back in 2009; both games between these teams were competitive in 2010 as well. Recently though, Wisconsin has put the hurt on the Wildcats several times. Has Carmody's momentum fizzled out completely or does he get a free pass this year?

SOP: That's a big debate amongst SOP commenters. Nobody - nobody - could get Northwestern to the tournament without three of their top five players. But crikey, y'all, this is getting on 15 years. How do you not have modestly competent backups in your system? Most likely he'll get a pass and be back next year. If he can't get to the tourney in Drew Crawford's final year of eligibility, there will be literally no argument he should remain.

B5Q: How optimistic were 'Cats fans about getting that very first NCAA bid entering this season?

SOP: I was pretty optimistic, until all the injuries. You've got to realize: the past few years, Northwestern was so. damn. close. NU went from scraping into the NIT five years ago to the past two years, when they lost multiple overtime/last-second games against ranked teams, when literally any one of those wins likely would have vaulted them into the tourney. Losing John Shurna was a big hit, but Carmody had nine new players: five freshmen, Swop as a transfer, Nikola Cerina from TCU, and a pair of freshmen who redshirted last year. I figured two or three would be Big Ten ready. Swop certainly was, and now he's hurt. With the rest, its a mixed bag, and by "mixed", I mean "generally crappy."

B5Q: As an outsider, I'm not sure I can put the agony in perspective, but the Northwestern "streak" seems to be approaching a Boston Red Sox level, minus the curse. How is there no curse legend yet?

SOP: Oh, y'all got no idea. It's the worst. There's a lot of curses out there we could hypothetically blame this on - the curse of hosting the first NCAA Tournament, the curse of Bill Carmody's Chamblis, the curse of Kevin Coble's trip to Hawaii - but I don't think we need to blame it on some phony mythology. Instead, we should focus on the very real mythology: that somewhere, perhaps in this universe, perhaps not, there's a ominscient, omnipresent higher power. Maybe he's the one you pray to, dear reader. Maybe he's whoever the balls Zoroastrians prayed to before they all died out. (Apologies to any Zoroastrian readers, if they in fact didn't die out.) The point is: whoever he, she, they, whatever, is, it HATES Northwestern basketball. It hates Northwestern basketball, and it hates everybody who loves Northwestern basketball, and it gets sadistic pleasure from the perpetual raising and dashing of hopes. Props to you, deity. I know you're there, and although I don't personally enjoy your work, I appreciate it as a friggin' masterpiece.

It takes a real man to admit undying love to Northwestern purple, so thanks Rodger. Follow him on Twitter @sippinonpurple.

Projected Starting Lineups

Wisconsin Pos. Northwestern
Jared Berggren, Sr. C / F Mike Turner, Fr.
Mike Bruesewitz, Sr. F Kale Abrahamson, Fr.
Ryan Evans, Sr. F / G Reggie Hearn, Sr.
Ben Brust, Jr. G Tre Demps, Fr.
Traevon Jackson, So. G David Sobolewski, So.

KenPom win probability: 81% (59-51 W) 56 possessions


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For more Wisconsin basketball coverage, follow Phil on Twitter @hoopsmarinara.