At this time last year — heck, at this time last month — the thought of Northwestern contending for a Big Ten Conference title seemed downright laughable.
Guess who might be cackling at this time next month?
The 21st-ranked Wildcats took full advantage of a three-game homestand, upsetting then-No. 1 Purdue, holding off then-No. 14 Indiana and then blitzing Iowa 80-60 on Sunday to wind up in the Top 25 for the first time this season.
And Northwestern also used that stretch to vault into contention for a Big Ten championship. The Wildcats (20-7, 11-5) are just 1 1/2 games behind Purdue and have put themselves in position for a double-bye at the conference tournament.
They can take another step in that direction Thursday night when they aim for a season sweep of instate rival Illinois in Champaign, Ill.
Northwestern has hung its hat on defense. Former Southern Illinois coach Chris Lowery was hired as an assistant with instructions to fix the defense. He’s done that and more, transforming the team into an attacking unit that forces turnovers while protecting the rim.
The rout of Iowa was the Wildcats at their best. They hassled the Hawkeyes into 15 turnovers and 42.6 percent shooting while canning 49.1 percent from the field, including 10 of 20 from the 3-point line.
Guard Boo Buie played at an All-Big Ten level with 23 points and eight assists, while Ty Berry added 16 points.
“This isn’t luck. It can’t be luck at this point,” Buie said.
Per kenpom.com, Northwestern’s defense ranks in the top 40 nationally in effective field goal percentage (47.6) and turnover rate (21.9). Its block rate of 13.9 ranks 16th. It’s adding up to the program’s second-ever NCAA Tournament bid, barring a late collapse.
Illinois (18-9, 9-7) avoided the dreaded bad loss Monday night, toppling struggling Minnesota 78-69 in a makeup game at home behind 22 points from Matthew Mayer and a 10-point, 11-rebound double-double from RJ Melendez.
Playing their second straight game without leading scorer Terrence Shannon Jr. (concussion), the Fighting Illini overcame 12 missed free throws by converting 48.2 percent from the field, including 10 3-pointers.
Melendez’s contributions were vital. It was just his third double-figure output in the last 18 games, a slump that might have hit bottom when he clanked a wide-open 3-pointer Saturday at Indiana that would have forced overtime.
“These guys have had my back every day,” Melendez said of his teammates. “It’s all toughness. This process has been a little hard, but having my teammates and coach trust in me is big time.”
The status of Shannon (17.0 ppg) for Thursday night isn’t yet known. If he’s not available, the offense will probably center on Mayer, who followed up a 24-point outing at Indiana with another big performance against the struggling Golden Gophers.
The Wildcats took a 73-60 win over Illinois on Jan. 4 in Evanston, Ill., largely because of the foul line. Northwestern made 32 of 40 at the stripe while the Illini hit just 6 of 10.
–Field Level Media