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Wisconsin vs. Northwestern Preview: B5Q grills Sippin' On Purple

The new year brings us an opportunity to chat with our Big Ten blogging brethren to preview tonight's conference opener with Northwestern in Evanston, Ill. Tip off is set for 6 p.m. CT with coverage on ESPN2.

David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Happy New Year everyone! Welcome back to cheering for the best Wisconsin team on campus: the Badger men's basketball team.

Wisconsin (13-0) has won 10 straight Big Ten openers and will shoot for its 11th in a row on the road tonight at Northwestern. The Wildcats (7-6) have returned many players from last year's injury-decimated roster, but have struggled to get going under new coach Chris Collins this season. Northwestern has fallen in all four meetings with Top 100 opponents so far.

The Badgers have historically torn up Northwestern's 1-3-1 zone (and most zone defenses for that matter), so one thing the Wildcats do appear to have going in their favor is less reliance on a zone, as Rodger Sherman of Sippin' On Purple explains below. Tre Demps and JerShon Cobb also give the Wildcats a couple of decent guards off the bench.

B5Q: So, Friday's home loss to DePaul ... not a fun way to lose to a crosstown opponent I imagine. Dave Sobolewski nails a go-ahead 3-pointer, but then gets pretty much abused by Billy Garrett Jr. down low, who got open for a wild, buzzer-beating lay-in. Is that considered a rivalry on any level? Is Illinois simply the alpha and omega of Northwestern hoop rivals?

Sippin' On Purple: Ehh, it's not a rivalry, probably, but it is really disappointing. Basically, Northwestern and DePaul used to play somewhat annually, and NU generally got beaten because we're Northwestern and they had decent players from time to time (Quentin Richardson, Wilson Chandler, etc.). Then, my freshman year, Northwestern destroyed them by nearly 30, and all of a sudden, DePaul wasn't particularly interested in playing Northwestern ... and then DePaul had the worst four- or five-season stretch of any team in a major conference, while NU had arguably the best four- or five-season stretch in school history. Then they restarted the series again this year, and we lost. We missed out on crappy DePaul. Hopefully the teams keep playing every year, because, come on: major conference opponents on the same train line. But I don't foresee animosity. For what it's worth, I used to go to a bar near DePaul almost every Friday for a good open bar deal and was not the only Wildcat to do so, so I have plenty of fondness in my heart.

B5Q: Looking at the statistics, the Wildcats are much improved on defense but pretty rotten on offense. How much of that is based on this year's personnel and how much is a new style Northwestern wants under rookie head coach Chris Collins?

SOP: Pretty heavy dose of BOTH here. Northwestern's roster is kinda somewhat devoid of talent, because it's the same players that used to play for Bill Carmody. But Carmody used to use rarely seen techniques -- very slow, methodical play in the Princeton offense, the 1-3-1 defense -- that helped NU stay close despite talent disparities if teams didn't study up.

Collins is coaching for the future, and the five-man class he has coming next year is the best in school history. But tactically, he plays very boring offense and mainly man defense. And with this group of guys, that's gonna get torn up a bunch.

As for the defensive improvement: it's been surprising and nice and although Kenpom makes it seem HUGE, I don't see it holding up at its current level throughout Big Ten play. I would pin a lot of it on two wings, JerShon Cobb and Sanjay Lumpkin, that the Wildcats didn't have last year.

B5Q: Senior Drew Crawford has already missed time with back spasms this year after redshirting last year due to season-ending shoulder surgery. Is Crawford playing at the same level as he was before the shoulder injury? Do you worry about nagging injuries with Crawford because of the way he plays?

SOP: Not the way he plays, but he has been dealing with dings and bruises all through the last two seasons, and it's really disappointing. Kid is a really, really talented offensive player -- he could've been a contributor on any team in the Big Ten, not just Northwestern -- and for the past two seasons, he's been asked to shoulder nearly the entire load of Northwestern's offense. Unfortunately, his body hasn't always been there, and even when it has, it's clear that NU doesn't have anybody else to help out, so he's putting in monstrous work with little reward in the win-loss column. 16.4 points and 7.5 boards this year. Northwestern fans will permanently respect him for coming back to NU this season for his fifth year after last year's redshirt, even though NU's roster clearly wasn't going to be much and he had offers from schools like Mizzou and Marquette. Kid's a warrior and hopefully gets paid money to play someplace next year.

B5Q: I'm a little curious about Sobolewski. He was a high school teammate of Frank Kaminsky, so from following Frank, I had heard a lot of good things about Sobo coming in. I totally expected him to be one of those annoying characters that sneaks up on you and kills a couple Big Ten teams every year. But I haven't seen it yet and his shooting numbers keep getting worse. Is he truly regressing or is he bringing valuable intangibles to the table?

SOP: His plummet into the earth's crust and significantly below has been impressive. Sobo at his peak always had his flaws -- he's shrimpy and ineffective defensively, and every one of his forays into the paint would end with him getting blocked and landing on his face or perhaps, if he's lucky and the refs were generous, drawing a foul. But he hit shots and was the LEADERSHIP POINT GUARD in Carmody's Princeton offense -- a set that didn't really require a spectacular point guard, but hey.

Even those things have vanished. Before a shot in the waning seconds last Friday, Sobolewski had gone 1-for-31 from three. That's hilariously bad. And his turnovers have jumped to the point where he's nearly giving the ball up as often as he's creating buckets -- 3.4 assists per game, 2.6 turnovers.

So we're left with an undersized, poor shooting point guard who gives up a ton defensively and is prone to turnovers. Right now his No. 1 basketball skill is flopping. But NU doesn't really have another capable guard guard. The other option would be playing walk-on wing James Montgomery III, who has started to see some minutes over Sobo -- he actually got a scholarship before the year in a viral video, but, the point remains the same: NU genuinely has no other option, but still might be better off playing somebody else.

B5Q: Beyond Crawford and Sobolewski, the Wildcats are young. Which, if any, of the youngsters give you the most hope about the direction of the program?

SOP: I really like Lumpkin -- LUMPKIN -- but the talent is in Collins' first recruiting class. Vic Law was a legitimate four-star get from the Chicago area, and the surrounding parts are supposedly not bad either.

B5Q: Is there any matchup you see that the Wildcasts can take advantage of to stay competitive at home against the Badgers?

SOP: No.

B5Q: What's your prediction for how the Wildcats will fare overall in the Big Ten this season? Do you have a pick for league champion?

SOP: Kenpom seems to indicate the Wildcats are significantly worse than all 11 teams they'll have to play against, but they'll have five games against the only-a-lot-better-but-not-millions-of-times-better trio of Purdue, Nebraska, and Penn State. But it's gonna be brutal. Crawford is the only player right now who would demand minutes on an average Big Ten team, with a few others -- Cobb, center Alex Olah, maybe Sanjay Lumpkin -- capable of contributing spot minutes or something. There's no way to piece together 40 minutes of something resembling a Big Ten basketball team. But I think it's hard to go 0-18, so I think the Wildcats will grab a win or two.

I waver back and forth between you guys and Ohio State, but right now I'm siding with death, taxes, and Bo Ryan. I'm just generally hype as hell for this conference, because there's so much murder going on.

That's one way to put it. Leave it to a Northwestern Wildcat to bring some street cred to our Q&A. Thanks again to Rodger, the site manager over at Sippin' On Purple for helping us out today. You can find him on Twitter @rodger_sherman as well.

Projected Starting Lineups

Wisconsin Pos. Northwestern
Frank Kaminsky, Jr. F/C Alex Olah, So.
Sam Dekker, So. F Sanjay Lumpkin, Fr.
Josh Gasser, Jr. G/F Drew Crawford, Sr.
Ben Brust, Sr. G James Montgomery, Sr.
Traevon Jackson, Jr. G Dave Sobolewski, Jr.

KenPom win probability: 81% (63-56 W) 60 possessions


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