BLOOMINGTON -- Northwestern is not Wisconsin. It's important to make that distinction. The Badgers are a better team in almost every way, and their record reflects that. They lead the Big Ten with a 4-0 mark. The Wildcats are 2-3.
And yet …
Northwestern controls pace, as does Wisconsin. Its patient Princeton offense forces you to defend 30 to 35 seconds on every possession, as does Wisconsin. It prefers games in the 50s, although it can win with more, as does Wisconsin.
Why is this important?
The No. 2 Hoosiers (15-2) play at Northwestern (11-7) on Sunday. That's the same Northwestern team that upset No. 22 Illinois in Champaign Thursday night. It won 68-54 in the same arena where Ohio State got thrashed by 17.
The Hoosiers want to push the pace, run the break, and score without needing half-court efficiency. This will once again be a clash of styles, and whoever wins that likely wins the game.
The Wildcats once seemed poised to qualify for the NCAA tourney for the first time in school history. That could still happen, but they have a lot of work to do, in part because they've had major player losses to overcome.
The biggest is guard Drew Crawford, one of the Big Ten's best players, who had season-ending shoulder surgery in December. Another starter, JerShon Cobb, was suspended for the season for a violation of team policy.
Still, Northwestern also has an impressive win over Baylor, and is way past its old patsy days.
“We continue to push through the adversities we've been facing,” senior guard Reggie Hearn said. “We want to have as successful a year as possible.”
Losing Crawford -- he averaged 13.7 points and 4.6 rebounds in 10 games before playing with the injury became too much with the lingering right shoulder injury -- meant others had to pick up the production, and no Wildcat has done that better than Hearn, the former Snider standout. He averages a team-leading 14.1 points and 4.9 rebounds.
“Drew was hurting, he wasn't the same Drew we'd seen last year,” Hearn said, “but he was still averaging like 14 points and four to five rebounds. That was production the rest of us had to pick up the slack for. I put it on myself, all the guys did, to help fill the load.”
IU (3-1 in the Big Ten) has its own load to fill in the aftermath of Tuesday's loss to Wisconsin. The Hoosiers' vaunted offense, the nation's best at more than 87 points a game, took a big hit against the Badgers. Coach Tom Crean said lack of ball movement was a major concern.
“Somebody has to cut and move just to move the defense,” he said. “I'm concerned that we're not cutting enough right now -– back cutting, just reading situations.”
Improving that movement starts, and certainly doesn't end, with Victor Oladipo, Christian Watford and Will Sheehey, Crean added.
“Guys like Will, guys like Victor, guys like Christian -– those guys have to do a better job,” Crean said. “We just want to move and play. That's when we're the best, and we didn't do a great job of that (against Wisconsin).”
Depth is supposed to be one of IU's strengths, but the bench hasn't been productive the last two games. Against Minnesota and Wisconsin the bench scored a total of five points, and lacked the defensive energy to make a difference. That reflects the play of the two main players coming off the bench -– guard Remy Abell and Sheehey.
“I'm not as concerned about the lack of offensive from the bench as the lack of creating pace to the game with deflections, defense,” Crean said. “You need guys to come in and make plays.
“We've got to have more talk and more energy from Remy, and Will has got to get more involved. Will is an active, engaged player. He is the last guy we need, when the shot is not going, to not be at the place that he needs to be defensively. He's got to be way better than that.”