Even though Wisconsin has won by an average of 29 points in its last three trips to Welsh-Ryan Arena, memories of last year's upset loss to Northwestern at the Kohl Center is still pretty fresh. Unless you were one of the lucky ones to successfully erase those images from your brain.
For the rest of us, a solid outing by the Badgers (13-1, 1-0 big Ten) Sunday evening could go a long way toward easing that pain. Wisconsin will be shooting for its first conference road win against the Wildcats (10-4, 1-0) in a season where none should be taken for granted.
Northwestern held Rutgers to 47 points in its Big Ten opener and figures to slow the game down a bit, given their struggles on offense. Chris Collins will feature some new faces that Badger fans are going to see plenty more of in the years to come. I asked Inside NU editor Henry Bushnell about the changeover in personnel at Northwestern, as well as a few other topics, in another round of Q&A.
B5Q: All things considered, Northwestern emerged from the non-conference season with less embarrassing losses than most of our Big Ten brethren. In fact, it was early back-to-back wins -- squeaking past North Florida by two and Elon (by one in overtime) -- that raised the most concern. What was the team struggling with at that time in November? Have the issues been correctable or have those same problems resurfaced in the team's losses?
Inside NU (Henry): The big problem this year has been a mostly stagnant offense, just as it was last year. The Wildcats don’t get many open looks within the natural flow of their offense, and instead rely heavily on individuals to make plays. They’ve gone to a lot of pick-and-roll this year with freshman point guard Bryant McIntosh, but it hasn’t made the offense significantly better. Against Rutgers on Tuesday, NU went over 10 second-half minutes without scoring a single point.
B5Q: When you include the football season, it's been a long time since something went right for Wisconsin against Northwestern. The Wildcats provided one or the more shocking upsets in recent memory when they beat the Badgers at the Kohl Center for the first time -- and soundly at that. Describe briefly what that win meant at the time.
INU: To be honest, the Northwestern fan base was just as surprised as the Wisconsin fan base. It was actually part of a stretch during which NU won five out of seven games, and that stretch allowed Collins and Northwestern to salvage something from a season that for the most part wasn’t successful. Those five wins, punctuated by the one in Madison, obscured any long-term worries that last season might have given rise to.
B5Q: Without Drew Crawford around, what could Chris Collins have bottled from that night last January to try again on Sunday at your place?
INU: Collins will undoubtedly try to cook something up in his and his team’s preparation for this game, but I think last year was more of a fluke than anything. Wisconsin play one of its worst games of the season, and Northwestern played its best. As you mentioned, Crawford was unconscious. It’s going to take a similarly ridiculous individual effort or two to pull off another upset.
B5Q: Northwestern's strong suit is defense, but it hasn't seen an offense like Wisconsin's yet. What do the Wildcats do well on the defensive end and what is the biggest adjustment they will have to make against the Badgers?
INU: Their biggest strength is versatility. They have a number of players like Vic Law or Sanjay Lumpkin who can match up with various types of players, and that allows them to switch on the perimeter and cut of lanes to the rim. Alex Olah is also a sneaky-good rim protector. The problem for NU will be that Kaminsky will pull Olah away from the basket, and whenever an opposing big man has presented NU with that dilemma this year, Collins hasn’t had an answer. It’ll interesting to see what he comes up with for Sunday.
B5Q: Northwestern has a very nice freshman class, which bodes well for the future. With the emergence of first-year guard Bryant McIntosh, who is averaging 11.7 ppg, who is propelling the Cats' offense right now -- the more-efficient McIntosh or junior chucker Tre Demps (11.8 ppg)?
INU: It’s indisputably McIntosh. He’s the only one who can consistently facilitate for himself and others. And if you watch him, you’d have no way of telling that he is a freshman.
B5Q: Fifth-year senior JerShon Cobb is already at it again. He just returned from missing five games with various injuries, which brings his career total to 32 missed games in his career -- a minimum of seven each season. Add that to a year-long suspension in 2012-13, and Cobb just doesn't seem to be very reliable. Did any of the freshmen play well enough to eat into Cobb's minutes now that he's back? How much of a difference maker can Cobb be?
INU: Because of the recurring injuries, Collins has said that he understands that Cobb has his limitations. His body has been breaking down, and Collins says that he’ll essentially be day-to-day the rest of the season. I wouldn’t expect Cobb to average any more than 15 minutes per game the rest of the year. He can still get hot and be one of the better scorers on the team, but his days as a major contributor have come and gone. It’s a really unfortunate situation for a player that had a lot of potential.
B5Q: For several years under Bill Carmody there was annual buzz about Northwestern maybe being able to get that first NCAA bid. But the Cats always fell short. Now with a pretty fresh coaching transition, that talk has faded away. How much does that stigma or the burden of getting NU over the hump weigh on each group that start a new season for Northwestern?
INU: I’m not sure that’s a factor. You could just as easily say that Northwestern players don’t have to deal with expectations like players at other programs do. I’m not sure anybody is really expecting an NCAA berth this year either, so I don’t think that’s an issue.
B5Q: I just wanted to add that I'm looking forward to watching Alex Olah again. I think he's underrated.
INU: Olah’s big problem is consistency. Sometimes he’s awesome. Other times he’s timid and nearly invisible. During the offseason I wrote a long feature on him detailing how his improvement last year was all about confidence, but this season, it seems his confidence has wavered. On Tuesday against Rutgers, he didn’t even attempt a single two-point field goal.
Thanks to Henry for helping out today. For more Northwestern knowledge, you can find him on Twitter @HenryBushnell or @InsideNU.
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