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The Northwestern Wildcats come to town on Wednesday in the first conference matchup for the teams this season.  Utilizing the scary 1-3-1 zone that has given the Gophers so much trouble over the past couple season and throwing weapons like John Shurna and Michael Thompson at you, the Wildcats are no team to look past.  With the news that Al Nolen might be out for the season, this game becomes critical for the team to show that it still has the talent to get it done on the court at home.

From The Barn caught up with John Templon of Chicago College Basketball to answer a few questions about Northwestern and what’s been going on with them this year.  Be sure to check out our answers to John’s questions at his blog.  Go Gophers!

FTB: Like Minnesota, Northwestern was faced with a brutal start to their conference schedule, facing three of four ranked teams on the road.  However, the Wildcats have yet to pull off a win against anyone in the upper tier of the NCAA.  What kind of Northwestern squad do you have this year compared to the past couple?

JT: Northwestern fans thought that this squad was going to be an NCAA Tournament-caliber one, but unfortunately the results just haven’t been there. While Northwestern has shown the ability to pound lower level competition and has done a good job avoiding the bad losses that have plagued the team in the past, the Wildcats just haven’t shown up against some of the elite teams that they’ve played. Double-digit losses to St. John’s, Purdue, Illinois and Wisconsin shows that this team still has a lot of work to do in order to be an elite team. It seems that the offense, which is once again one of the best in the nation, disappears against stronger defensive teams.

Of course, this team is probably the most talented in Northwestern history and it is playing a more fun style of basketball. This team looks for opportunities in transition and wants to push the ball on occasion. Also, they can rebound somewhat passably. That was a big weakness in the past, but especially on the defensive end it appears to have become a major focus. Those are steps in the right direction at least.

FTB: The Gophers and Wildcats split the season series last year in two extremely close matchups and the Northwestern 1-3-1 zone gave Minnesota huge fits.  What have teams done this year to break down that complicated zone?  The Gophers have yet to figure it out.

JT: The 1-3-1 gives up open shots in the corners and at the free throw line. Those are the two places to attack it, after some excellent passing. The teams that excel against it are the ones that have a lot of shooters that can knock down open shots and good passing big men. This is partially why Wisconsin always wrecks the 1-3-1, as it did again on Sunday at Welsh-Ryan Arena in a 78-46 victory. It doesn’t hurt to have a big man that can force the ball into the basket inside as well. While typically help is coming to surround that guy, if he has a quick move to the basket, or is an efficient passer, he’ll be able to get an easy basket over the smaller guard underneath or kick it back out for an open shot. JaJuan Johnson had a lot of success setting up E’Twaun Moore in the Purdue game.

FTB: Northwestern has a pretty strong 2011 recruiting class coming in.  What’s the feeling like in Evanston looking towards the next 2-3 years?

JT: The team is definitely on the up trend and I think fans realize that. Still, it’s hard to sell the casual fan on the narrative that the team is improving without that tournament berth. Still, more talent has come to Northwestern over the past few season. JerShon Cobb is probably the best player Northwestern has ever recruited coming out of high school. It took him a little while to adjust, but he’s scoring in double-figures in Big Ten play and has become a guy that can grab a rebound and push the tempo or create his own shot off the dribble. Northwestern doesn’t have many of those types of players, so it’s good to see him doing it.

Bill Carmody’s recent two-year extension shows that the athletic department at Northwestern understands that he’s beginning to build a solid program and I think is recognizing him for the hard work he’s put in over the past 10 years. Carmody does have his flaws, and the move wasn’t too well received amongst the fan base, but I personally think that it’s good for continuity and recruiting. All of the major contributors but point guard Juice Thompson will be back again next season to try this one more time, so there’s positive feelings on the horizon.

In terms of the incoming recruiting class, I’ve heard very good things about Mike Turner, a 6’8 power forward from right here in Chicago. He seems a bit raw, but he’s also got a lot of upside and a different body from the big men you typically see in Evanston. The other two recruits are guards intended to hopefully help fill Thompson’s role. Tre Demps is slightly higher regarded by scouting services, but David Sobolewski is having a strong senior season for Benet Academy. The fact that players like Sobolewski and Turner are coming to Northwestern continues a good trend of local kids deciding to commit. Like Drew Crawford before them, these are two players from nearby that should be able to help the team early on in their careers.

FTB: The Wildcats had trouble with Illinois and Purdue but have stayed tight with Michigan State.  What went right in the games against the Spartans to keep it close that didn’t happen against Illinois and Purdue?

JT: Not to knock Michigan State, but I don’t think the Spartans are at quite the same level offensively as Illinois or Purdue. The offensive talent that the Illini have really just rocked Northwestern’s world early in that game. Against Purdue it was the scoring of E’Twaun Moore. If you can knock down open jump shots you’re going to have a good game against Northwestern. That’s basically what Illinois did, scoring 88 points in 73 possessions with an 80.7 effective field goal percentage. Northwestern won’t force too many turnovers either, so the only way the Wildcats get empty trips is by forcing a missed shot and grabbing a rebound. It makes it really tough for this team to play from behind as well. If you get up on the Wildcats early they’re in trouble.

FTB: A lot of Gopher fans tend to look at Northwestern on the conference schedule as “should-win” or “will-win” games (though, some of us know better).  What do you say to rival opponents who take the liberty of looking past the Wildcats?

JT: At this point looking past Northwestern is just silly. While this team has slipped up a couple times, they’ve also shown that when they’re on they’re a very good team. You don’t blow out teams, even bad Big Ten teams, without having some talent. If John Shurna gets into a rhythm offensively and this team gets out and runs a bit they can be deadly. Also, this is a team that loves to play with a lead and knock down open threes as you’re scrambling to get back into it. You have to be ready from opening tip and go for the jugular right then. That’s what the teams that have dominated Northwestern have done. Otherwise you’re going to be in for a grind.

FTB: What are your thoughts on the new 68-team March Madness field?

JT: Well, to be honest, I was relieved that they didn’t go to 96 teams or something as ridiculous. This seems like a nice compromise. Of course, it seems like this season is one of the weakest bubbles in history, and so it seems a bit ill-timed, to say the least. Then again, if it helps Northwestern sneak into the NCAA Tournament, well, that’s great. I’ve always loved the play-in games, because I think they showcased March Madness for the purists. Now that those bubble battles are going to be played out on the court instead of on the television and on the internet in the court of public opinion is awesome as well. I’m sure Illinois and Virginia Tech would’ve loved to have their shot last season and yeah, if that’s what gets Northwestern into the NCAA’s instead of in the NIT, then sure, it’s a great idea.

FTB: Honestly, is this the year that Northwestern finally gets to go dancing?

JT: All that said, no. I don’t think it is. The Wildcats played one of the softest non-conference schedules you’ll ever see. The only legitimate competition was against St. John’s at Madison Square Garden in the finals of the Holiday Festival. Northwestern lost that game and thus far hasn’t been able to pull off any monumental upsets in conference play. A lot of people were looking forward to the Wisconsin game hoping that’d be the game that pushed them over the top. I know some people think 20 wins in the magic number for an NCAA Tournament berth, but the real number is at least 21 because of the terrible non-conference schedule. Wins over SIU- Edwardsville and Arkansas-Pine Bluff don’t count for anything as far as the committee is concerned. Maybe my answer will change the next time we talk if Northwestern can beat the Gophers, Ohio State or Illinois, but that just doesn’t seem very likely at the moment.

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