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What To Watch For: Indiana opens Big Ten play against Northwestern

Indiana’s nonconference schedule was difficult. Most college basketball teams did not spend their shortened nonconference slate with five neutral site or away games against high-major opponents.

Indiana did just that and is now set for an even tougher task: 20 Big Ten games for the rest of the regular season.

Indiana will start that gauntlet of a stretch with Northwestern at home this Wednesday.

The narrative is always that the Big Ten is “so good” or “so challenging this year” but this season may seem like it has an extra edge of competitiveness.

As of Dec. 20, half of the conference’s teams are ranked in the top 25, with two teams in the top five. Even for those that aren’t ranked, the depth is very strong. Battling that challenge from December to March is a tall task for the Hoosiers and it starts this week.

Jerome Hunter looks to pass against Northwestern in last year’s game. (Kurt Spitler/HN)

A new Northwestern

Northwestern is a perfect example of the depth this season and should make for a very challenging first Big Ten game.

Many overlooked the Wildcats going into this season as they finished dead last in the conference a season ago. They stomped out any doubts about them this year through five games, though.

Northwestern is 4-1 and got a very impressive win last Sunday. The Wildcats not only beat, but dominated, No. 4 Michigan State, 79-65, in Evanston.

The signature win has opened some people’s eyes and Indiana will look to end Northwestern’s momentum.

Last season, Indiana and Northwestern only played one time and Northwestern really challenged the Hoosiers in Assembly Hall. Northwestern led for the majority of the game before Indiana went on a late run down the stretch to win, 66-62.

This year’s Northwestern group does not have any seniors, but there is no shortage of experience from a slew of juniors and sophomores.

The Wildcats’ usual starting lineup consists of:

  • Boo Buie, guard, sophomore, 6-foot-2
  • Chase Audige, guard, redshirt sophomore, 6-foot-4
  • Miller Kopp, forward, junior, 6-foot-7
  • Robbie Beran, forward, sophomore, 6-foot-9
  • Pete Nance, forward, junior, 6-foot-10

Shooting galore

Buie went off for 30 points to lead Northwestern over Michigan State and is the team’s scoring leader with 15.2 points per game. Audige, Kopp and Nance are all double-digit scorers, too.

Shooting the ball and filling up the basket are Northwestern’s main strengths as a team, putting up a collective 90.2 points per contest.

Granted, that stat might be a little inflated because they’ve played a few low-major teams who have really struggled. Northwestern scored 92 and 111 points, respectively, against Arkansas Pine-Bluff and Chicago State. They also scored 100 against Division II Quincy.

When playing high-major opponents the Wildcats scored 70 at Pittsburgh and then 79 points at home vs Michigan State.

Regardless of if the numbers are a bit inflated, the Wildcats can certainly shoot the ball from 3-point range very well. As a team, Northwestern has a 3-point field goal percentage of 43.5%. They have seven players who shoot from deep at a ridiculous 47% mark and four that are above 50%, too.

These numbers will very likely decrease as they play more Big Ten competition but in their games against Pittsburgh and Michigan State they were 34% and 47%, respectively, from beyond the arc as a team.

Indiana has held opponents to 27.5% from 3-point range, so keeping Northwestern around this mark will be a key priority for the Hoosiers.

Not only will Indiana’s guards be on high alert for guarding the perimeter, but Northwestern’s offense will challenge Indiana’s Trayce Jackson-Davis and Race Thompson, too.

Not often have Indiana’s post players had to extend to the perimeter on defense, but Northwestern’s starting power forward and center in Nance and Beran both shoot above 40% from the 3-point line.

The two will be are a lot to handle down low, too. Nance is particularly tough, nearly averaging a double-double with 11 points and eight rebounds per game.

Likely a competitive game

Should Indiana’s defense keep Northwestern in check with a limited shooting day, Indiana will be in good shape. Against high-major opponents, the Wildcats defense allows 68 points per game, right in the ballpark of a normal day for Indiana offensively.

Indiana and Northwestern has been a competitive series over the past few years, with the past three matchups being decided by an average of just four points per meeting.

With the two teams each entering with momentum, it should be another fun and competitive game.

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