The Wildcats are finally back.
Northwestern makes its regular season debut at home Tuesday against Texas Southern following last week’s breezy 70-46 exhibition win over UChicago. The opponent will likely be a bit tougher this time around.
Texas Southern (0-1), coming off an 81-63 loss to Boise State on Sunday, look for an early-season upset over a Northwestern team that handed them a 30-point defeat in 2011. The Tigers return their leading scorer in senior guard Omar Strong, and junior guard Raymond Penn who notched 25 against Boise State. They take the court under new head coach Mike Davis, who is certainly no stranger to the Big Ten.
Davis was the head coach at Indiana for six years beginning in 2000 as legendary coach Bob Knight’s successor, going 115-79 before resigning. He spent the past six seasons at UAB building a record of 122-72, but was fired after last season’s 15-16 finish. Davis’ fresh start at Texas Southern is clouded by history, as the program serves a two-year postseason ban with scholarship reductions due to violations committed by former head coach Tony Harvey.
That aside, Davis brings experience to the bench the Tigers have never had before, and will have his team fully prepared for head coach Bill Carmody’s squad. Though Northwestern boasts an obvious talent advantage against their opponents from the SWAC, there are still several things worth watching for.
The Cats will utilize their size against Texas Southern, whose tallest player stands 6-foot-9. The Tigers were outrebounded 40 to 22 against Boise State, and this is a chance for Northwestern to start flexing its newfound muscle on the boards. Height alone doesn’t always do the job, but it should help NU out significantly.
Freshman Alex Olah had a solid debut on the offensive end against UChicago, but struggled a bit defensively. His development on that side of the ball is crucial to Northwestern’s hopes, and he’ll have several chances to take a step forward before the schedule gets tougher.
Redshirt freshman Mike Turner will spell Olah and provide a more mobile option on the defensive end. His ability to compensate for Olah’s slow feet could be key for NU all year, particularly versus athletic teams. We should get our first good look at the under-the-radar Turner, who played only eight minutes before suffering a minor injury against UChicago.
Also worth keeping an eye on is Carmody’s guard usage. Pencil in sophomore Dave Sobolewski for significant minutes at point guard, but beyond that, how Carmody will rotate senior Reggie Hearn and his reserves, redshirt freshman Tre Demps and senior Alex Marcotullio appears fluid.
Demps played terrific last week, and if he stays consistent his bench scoring will be key for Northwestern all season. Both Hearn and Marcotullio brought the ball up during the exhibition, and it will be interesting to see if a backup point guard emerges or if Carmody stays with a committee approach. All three guards will get to make their case for significant minutes down the stretch, and these first couple weeks are often crucial in solidifying players’ usage.
Tuesday is just the first step on a long road for the Cats, but every non-conference win helps. Avoiding bad losses as they did last year can only help their résumé come March. Expect Northwestern to do just that against Texas Southern.
Follow on Twitter: @Jeremy_Woo