Hickey: Northwestern is going dancing, and Purdue has a clear Achilles' heel
Good for Northwestern.
That’s what needs to be said first after the Wildcats upset Purdue on Super Bowl Sunday for the program’s first win over a No. 1 team.
It’s no surprise the Cats were previously 0-18 in these situations against the nation’s top-ranked team. Northwestern’s basketball history is the spottiest in Big Ten history. From 1985-98, Northwestern never won more than 5 Big Ten games. And the 5 wins happened only once. There were a pair of 1-win seasons, a winless season, and 7 occasions in which the Wildcats finished 2-16 in the B1G.
Northwestern didn’t reach the NCAA Tournament until 2017, which is an extra indignity when you consider that the first Final Four was hosted on Northwestern’s campus in 1939.
So for those who like to quibble over who and who isn’t allowed to storm the court after a big win, there is zero debate that Northwestern students earned that right.
Barring a nightmarish meltdown, the Wildcats are heading back to the NCAA Tournament for the second time. Looking at Northwestern’s schedule, simply going 2-5 or better the rest of the way will almost certainly get the job done.
And even that is a borderline disrespectful breakdown of what lies ahead for Northwestern. This team is in position to do the absolute unthinkable — win the Big Ten.
The Cats are 2 games behind Purdue for first place and now own the tiebreaker over the Boilermakers. Indiana is tied with Northwestern for second place in the B1G, but the Wildcats own that tiebreaker as well. With another win over the Hoosiers in Evanston on Wednesday, Northwestern solidifies itself as the team best positioned to challenge Purdue for the title.
Reality says a title run is unlikely. Northwestern is far too offensively challenged, ranking 306th nationally in effective field goal percentage according to KenPom. But the Cats are good enough defensively to give a headache to any team they run into this March. That much was made clear Sunday.
Another thing was proven as well: Purdue’s backcourt is extremely vulnerable. And that is precisely the worst place for an Achilles heel in the postseason.
Purdue is prone to pressure
The formula for beating the Boilers has been evident since Rutgers became the first to do it on Jan. 11.
Simply harass Purdue’s freshman backcourt into turning the ball over.
Replicating it is another matter. But the teams who are able to do so are capable of upsetting Purdue.
It is easier said than done. Northwestern is 32nd nationally in forced turnover percentage, yet could only get the Boilermakers to cough it up 3 times in the first half Sunday.
That changed when the Wildcats pushed their pressure past the half-court line in the second half. Purdue had 13 second-half turnovers. The backcourt of Braden Smith and Fletcher Loyer combined for 5 of them, while Zach Edey tied his season high with 6.
This is the commonality of all 3 Purdue losses. Rutgers, Indiana and Northwestern have all turned the Boilermakers over on at least 20% of their offensive possessions.
That alone doesn’t guarantee a win over Purdue. There are 5 other teams who turned the Boilers over at least 20% of the time, but had nothing to show for it.
So why did those teams fail where Northwestern and Indiana succeeded? Because the Wildcats and Hoosiers found another vulnerability.
A surprising weakness
With the 7-4 Edey anchoring the paint, attacking the hoop seems like a folly. You’d think the key to beating the Boilers would be getting hot from outside.
That’s not the case. Penn State, which hit a season-high 11 3-pointers against Purdue, lost by 20. Northwestern was a brutal 4 of 22 (18.2%) from 3-point range. But the Wildcats excelled inside the arc, hitting 55.3% of their 2-point attempts.
That follows the pattern of Indiana, which scored on 55.9% of its 2-point attempts. The Hoosiers, like the Wildcats, made just 4 3-pointers against Purdue. But they were able to make headway inside.
Fastbreak points are a part of that equation. The Cats and Hoosiers each scored 12 points in transition. But it’s not the entire equation. Purdue is now 5th in the B1G and 65th nationally in 2-point defense. Not terrible, but certainly exploitable.
From a glass half-full perspective, this is the time of year when it’s best for these problems to be exposed. Matt Painter has a month to make things better before it truly matters.
But fans of a team that hasn’t reached the Final Four since 1980 may have a hard time coming around to that perspective. The disastrous seeds of another early Tournament exit may be germinating.
All of it brings us to a very unexpected spot in mid-February.
Northwestern fans, who were quite prepared to move on from Chris Collins last offseason, are now the happiest in the Big Ten. And Purdue fans, who have been on top of the hill all season, now must fight off a familiar old feeling.