Bryant McIntosh #30 of the Northwestern Wildcats celebrates with teammates after defeating the Vanderbilt Commodores during the first round of the 2017 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament at Vivint Smart Home Arena on March 16, 2017 in Salt Lake City, Utah.
After all of the pomp and circumstance of their first ever NCAA tournament game on Thursday, things will only be getting tougher for Northwestern on Saturday afternoon as the Wildcats take on top-seeded Gonzaga in Salt Lake City.
Thursday’s tournament opener looked to be a piece of cake for the Wildcats, but a late Vanderbilt comeback put a shock into Chris Collins’ team. Fortunately an ill-advised foul by the Commodores enabled Northwestern to escape, but their relief was short-lived as attention turned to facing off against Gonzaga in the second round of the tournament.
Odds-makers aren’t exactly bullish on Northwestern’s chances, as they are 11 point underdogs against the top-seeded Bulldogs. Gonzaga has lost just one game all season, and they’ll be looking to punch a ticket into the Sweet Sixteen for the third consecutive season and eighth time in school history.
Despite the long odds, Northwestern is used to going into tough battles and coming out on the correct side of the ledger. One of their biggest victories of the season came against a formidable foe in a hostile environment, as they went into Wisconsin and pulled off a much-ballyhooed upset against the top-ten ranked Badgers during Big Ten action this season.
Collins will be hoping that his team will carry that kind of attitude into Saturday’s game, and they’ll need some big performances out of key players to help carry the day. In his first NCAA tournament game, Bryant McIntosh made the most of the national stage, scoring 25 points and hauling down four rebounds in the victory over Vanderbilt.
Derek Pardon also had a strong game for the Wildcats, playing a team-high 37 minutes while scoring 14 points and hauling down 11 rebounds to lead the team in that category.
Even if those players have good games, Saturday’s game is still going to be a huge test. Gonzaga has five players that averaged double figures in points this season, with Nigel Williams-Goss leading the way with 16.6 points and 5.8 rebounds per game. Williams-Goss also averages 4.8 assists and 1.7 steals per game, meaning that he can feed the ball to teammates at one end of the floor after stealing the ball away at the other end.
In addition to Williams-Goss’ exploits, the Bulldogs also have a pair of seven-footers that are going to give the Wildcats’ interior defense fits. Przemek Kranowski averages 12.5 points and nearly six rebounds per game, and Zach Collins averages similar numbers in only 17 minutes per contest, meaning that at any given time the Bulldogs can put out a huge center to really cause matchup issues for an undersized Northwestern squad.
If Northwestern is going to win the game, they’re going to have to mimic at least part of the formula that BYU used in handing Gonzaga their only loss of the season. The Wildcats may not have the same size that the Bulldogs have, but they are capable of playing a physical game in the paint, and if they can contest for rebounds early and often in the game, then they should at least have a shot of neutralizing that mismatch.
Add to the mix the need for guys like McIntosh and Vic Law (who only had two points in the win over Vanderbilt) to step up and contribute on both ends of the floor, and there are a lot of things that will have to fall correctly for Northwestern to win, but for a team that has been defying expectations all season long, Saturday could be a great chance to make a big statement to the rest of the NCAA field.
Published 51 minutes ago