Northwestern returned from its Christmas break and played then-No. 2 Michigan – a 94-66 loss.
The night before classes started, the Wildcats traveled to top-10 Minnesota, and lost again.
After splitting games against Penn State and Iowa, NU is preparing for three consecutive games against ranked opponents, beginning at Illinois on Thursday.
The Cats are victims of a brutal Big Ten. Already plagued by injuries, NU is trotting out inexperienced players against the best competition in the country. Still, they refuse to complain.
“I see a lot of opportunities to get big wins,” senior guard Reggie Hearn said.
In recent games, the team’s young core – which includes Kale Abrahamson – has seen increased minutes. On Sunday, NU leaned on redshirt freshman Mike Turner, who gave the team a strong performance in the losing effort.
Sophomore guard Dave Sobolewski viewed the difficult schedule as a sort of positive. In future seasons, they will be more prepared to face elite competition.
“It gives us an opportunity to play the top teams in the country,” Sobolewski said. “It gives our freshmen a lot of experience against top teams.”
Although coach Bill Carmody noted the tendency for coaches to glorify their respective conferences each year, he said the Big Ten is going through a special season.
“There’s an awful lot of evidence that it’s a terrific year for the conference,” Carmody said.
But the team enters this game with reason to be confident.
Last season, NU visited Champaign and pulled out a 74-70 victory using just six players. It initiated the Illini’s stunning downfall. They dropped their next five games and eight of their last nine, which led to Bruce Weber’s dismissal.
This year, Illinois has certainly improved. Despite losing their last two games, the Illini sit at No. 23 in the AP Poll. They own quality victories over Ohio State and Gonzaga, and Brandon Paul has emerged as one of the best guards in the country. Hearn credited the coaches for solid preparation as the team faces another road challenge.
“Once again, the coaches have done a good job of presenting a game plan for us to follow,” Hearn said. “As long as we execute that game plan, I think we’ll have success."
One of the keys to victory for NU involves shutting down Paul, who averages 18.1 points per game. The senior has found success under new coach John Groce. Carmody said he was hardly surprised.
“I’ve loved that kid since he was a sophomore in high school,” Carmody said. “He’s smart. He’s athletic. He’s shooting the ball very well now. He’s always been able to get by his guy, but now he seems much more potent in the half-court.”
No doubt, the team has to regain its offensive rhythm. The Wildcats stumbled in the Iowa game, shooting just 29 percent from the field. They also made just 5 of 26 three-point attempts.
But for Sobolewski, the team’s defensive lapses are no longer acceptable. After poor second-half efforts against Minnesota and Iowa, the Wildcats look to shore up their defense in a game they hope to steal.
“If they score 80 or more points, we have no chance to win,” Sobolewski said. “Our focus is on the defensive end.”
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