As Vanderbilt’s NCAA tournament matchup with Northwestern nears, Daily Northwestern sports editor Garrett Jochnau joined the Vanderbilt Hustler assistant sports editor Cutler Klein to discuss the Wildcats and their magical season, as they’re appearing in the Big Dance for the first time ever.
Cutler Klein: Northwestern is going to the NCAA tournament for the first time. What is different about this team that put them over the top?
Garrett Jochnau: Two things: First, this team had far more scoring options than last year’s squad. Once again, Bryant McIntosh did Bryant McIntosh things. However, he was joined by a breakout campaign from Scottie Lindsey and the return of Vic Law, and while both eventually cooled down — Law in the form of a horrific February shooting slump — they kept the Cats afloat when McIntosh struggled and consumed some of the defense’s focus.
Second, the defense was worlds better — and that starts with Law. He was All-Defensive Big Ten for good reason; there’s likely no wing defender as skilled and versatile in the conference. After an amoeba zone-man hybrid last year that looked clunky, the Cats locked in this year. Lindsey added a layer of athleticism to the starting lineup and Sanjay Lumpkin again provided grit. When NU’s offense faltered, the defense was there to keep the Cats rolling.
CK: What has the hype been like surrounding this team in Evanston this season?
GJ: It’s been incredible. With each win came a growing sense that this year was the year. By the end, Welsh-Ryan Arena was packed, and its final two games saw a court storming and an atmosphere the CBS crew raved about afterward. People are excited to be a part of history, and the Cats gave them that opportunity this year.
CK: Vanderbilt has had success this season because they are a strong three-point shooting team. Has Northwestern been strong defending the three-ball?
GJ: On and off. Again, Law is incredible, and Lindsey’s impact was evident in the team’s struggles during his late extended absence. But when opponents funnel the ball inside and play in-and-out ball, the Cats can slip up. Dererk Pardon has tremendous instincts but is undersized, and the team actively looks to avoid him getting beat by true centers in the paint. Against teams like Purdue, that exploited that matchup and then found shooters when the defense collapsed, NU was beat along the perimeter.
CK: What are Northwestern’s two biggest strengths and two biggest weaknesses?
GJ: Defense is a strength, as discussed. The Cats also seem to game plan well; rarely, if ever, do they seem unprepared for opponents. That much was evident in the close losses to Notre Dame and Butler in non-conference play, and even against the Big Ten’s brass, NU was ready. When they’re beat, it’s a matter of execution, not prep.
As far as weaknesses, the Cats go on extended scoring droughts and struggle to get good looks. This manifests in an over-reliance on bad three-point looks and an inability to get fast-break buckets. Those stretches can often doom them. The other would probably be NU’s short bench. The Cats lost Aaron Falzon, a starter last year, to injury this year and are reluctant to use their freshmen consistently. Gavin Skelly and Nate Taphorn have found consistent roles, but the starters shoulder the burden on this team.
CK: Fill in the blank: Northwestern wins if ________, and Vanderbilt wins if _________.
GJ: Northwestern wins if Bryant McIntosh shines in the national spotlight.
Vanderbilt wins if he posts the inefficient shooting duds that characterized his early campaign.
CK: Prediction for the game?
GJ: 74-66 NU.