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Wisconsin vs. Northwestern preview: B5Q grills Inside NU

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It feels like change is afoot in year three of the Chris Collins regime at Northwestern. We asked Henry Bushnell how important Tuesday's game against the Badgers is for the Wildcats.

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For the first time since 2009, Wisconsin is looking up at Northwestern in the Big Ten conference standings. Despite making a serious run at Purdue, Indiana and Maryland, the Badgers (9-8, 1-3 Big Ten) and their disjointed offense has left them in serious jeopardy of falling to .500 with a loss at Northwestern (14-3, 2-2) on Tuesday night.

On the bright side, Wisconsin's improving defense has held each of the previously-mentioned Top 50 offenses to under the magical one point-per-possession threshold. Though at the same time, UW's offensive rebounding has suffered. No coincidence.

Northwestern is coming off a 77-52 statement beatdown of Minnesota on Saturday in which it hit 11-of-25 three-pointers. Led by sophomore Bryant McIntosh, the Wildcats are eager to reverse their recent history against the Badgers, to whom they've lost nine of their last 10. Henry Bushnell of Inside NU gives us the scoop on Northwestern.

B5Q: Northwestern has definitely been tested by a few of the best teams in college hoops (North Carolina and Maryland), yet emerged with a formidable record heading into Tuesday's game with Wisconsin. Considering Northwestern's troubles versus Wisconsin and its loss to Ohio State at home the other day, wouldn't a win over the Badgers be the best of NU's season? What have been the highlights so far?

Inside NU (Henry): It absolutely would be Northwestern's best win. NU played the 340th best non-conference schedule in the country — also known as Carolina and a bunch of cupcakes — and its best wins so far are (KenPom) 111th-ranked Nebraska and 123rd-ranked Virginia Tech (by 2 points in OT). Northwestern is definitely better this year than it was last year, but doesn't yet have the wins to prove that definitively. So Tuesday is huge.

B5Q: Bryant McIntosh continues to mature at point guard and looks like a true go-to player for the Wildcats this year. Describe where he's made the biggest improvements and what situations he excels in when he's on the court.

INU: McIntosh is great in pick-and-roll. He's always been a great passer, but with a year of college under his belt, he's been reading the game even better. He's great at manipulating defenses with his eyes and with ball fakes. He's also become a more confident and more efficient scorer. He told me earlier this year that he feels "old," even in just his second season, because of all the valuable experience he got as a freshman. Because of that experience, he's been excellent running the team.

B5Q: How well do you think Northwestern's big men will match up with Wisconsin's front court considering seven-foot senior Alex Olah is still out with a foot injury?

INU: Olah is probably doubtful, which is a worry for Northwestern. Freshman Dererk Pardon exploded in his second game of the year against Nebraska (NU burned his redshirt after Olah's injury) for 28 points and 12 rebounds, and he's been decent since. Graduate transfer Joey van Zegeren is a good rim protector and rebounder. The problem will be on the offensive end though. Neither van Zegeren nor Pardon is a back-to-the-basket post threat, which really hurts Northwestern's offense because teams don't have to send doubles to the post and can instead focus on shutting down NU's perimeter threats.

B5Q: What has been the key to the Wildcats' defensive turnaround compared to last season, particularly on the perimeter?

INU: I'm not ready to call it a turnaround just yet. The big takeaway so far is that the 2-3 zone has evolved, and because NU's players feel more comfortable in it, Collins can do more with it in terms of X's and O's. Northwestern has played a ton of bad teams though, so it's still too early to pass judgement.

B5Q: One of Wisconsin's persistent weaknesses this season has been defending the three-point line and Northwestern relies heavily on scoring from long distance. How has the emergence of 6'8" freshman Aaron Falzon (39% on 3s) opened up the offense? Between Falzon and Nathan Taphorn, Chris Collins now has the luxury of some long-range bombers with size.

INU: That's the biggest worry for Wisconsin in this game. Maryland and Ohio State shut down Northwestern's offense by extending their halfcourt defenses and suffocating NU's shooters. That's not really Wisconsin's defensive blueprint though. They've always tried to force teams to take jumpshots, which could play right into NU's hands. Minnesota lost track of Falzon several times, and he made the Gophers pay. Wisconsin will have to make sure to stay with him at all times.

B5Q: Care to make a prediction on the final score?

INU: I think it'll be a close game either way. I'm going to take Wisconsin in a nail-bitter, 66-65.

Agreed, this tilt looks like a true toss-up. Thank you to Henry for helping out again. Find more from him on Twitter @HenryBushnell and @insidenu. Enjoy the game.

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