Northwestern basketball preview: Minnesota

(Photo Credit: Ann Heisenfelt/Associate Press)

Northwestern defeated Minnesota, 55-54, their last meeting. Drew Crawford scored 17 points for the Wildcats. (Photo Credit: Ann Heisenfelt/Associate Press)

EVANSTON, Ill. – The Northwestern Wildcats (12-13, 5-7 Big Ten) will host the Minnesota Golden Gophers (16-9, 5-7 Big Ten) Sunday 5 p.m. at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

Both teams are coming off conference losses Thursday to No. 9 Michigan State and No. 21 Wisconsin, respectively. The former snapped the Wildcat’s three-game road winning streak, as well as knocked them down to 7th in the Big Ten standings.

They share that spot with the Gophers, whose 13 turnovers against Wisconsin resulted in a 78-70 loss. Minnesota is now 1-4 since beating Wisconsin Jan.26.

One of those losses came against Northwestern, who sneaked away with a one-point win, 55-54, at Minnesota Feb. 1.

Drew Crawford led all scorers that game with 17 points as the Wildcats won their third straight Big Ten road win for the first time in 54 years, according to the Big Ten Network.

However, Gophers guard Andre Hollins sat out with an ankle injury sustained a few games before, and the team certainly missed his presence. Here are some keys to the rematch.

GUARD SCORING

It will be interesting to see how the Wildcats match up against a guard-heavy Minnesota squad. Drew Crawford is arguably the best player on either team and is likely to have a performance consistent with his season stats. The Wildcats’ biggest variable is sixth man Tre Demps, who has emerged as the team’s most clutch shooter in the last few weeks. However, Demps’ late-game heroics mask his poor shooting percentage of just 39.4 from the floor. Minnesota’s Hollins brothers—Andre and Austin—account for about 35 percent of the team’s offensive production. Andre is coming off a 22-point game and figures to lead the Gophers in scoring once again.

REBOUNDING

Both teams are fairly even in terms of rebounding, but that does not say very much. Minnesota averages 35.7 rebounds a game while Northwestern averages 33.7. While neither comes close to the Big Ten’s best rebounding teams, Iowa and Indiana, the Gophers have the edge in this department. The Wildcats, however, rank in the bottom third of the conference. Minnesota also averages about four more offensive rebounds per game than Northwestern, so they will be looking for second-chance opportunities against a Wildcat defense that actually does a good job of limiting opponents’ scoring to 63.7 points per game.

ALEX OLAH’S PRESENCE

While the Northwestern center has made strides this season, he is far from who the Wildcat’s hoped he would be before the season started. Olah is matching up against the similarly-sized Elliott Eliason. This should come as a relief to Olah after being dominated by Michigan State’s Adreian Payne last game. Payne exploded for 20 points and 14 rebounds in Thursday’s 85-70 victory over the Wildcats. Though there are few players in the Big Ten as versatile as Payne, that game highlighted a major area of concern for the Wildcats—Olah just does not produce much on offense or defense. He is a single-digit scorer and rebounder and, despite being the team’s starting center, he does not lead the team in boards. Northwestern basketball is becoming synonymous with defense and one has to wonder when, if at all, Olah will become a force down low. With some very average performances behind him, it is worth keeping an eye on Olah’s impact on this game.

PREDICTION:

The Wildcats will continue to play the stout defense that has kept them competitive in the Big Ten this year, but their offensive woes will ultimately be their undoing. Crawford and JerShon Cobb should have fairly solid games but without consistent help from the rest of the team, Northwestern will fail to break 60 points. The Wildcats fall to the Gophers, 66-54.