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Mike Lopresti | | December 28, 2020

In the mercilessly deep Big Ten, here's how Northwestern has emerged as the surprise leader

College basketball rankings: Northwestern is legit, plus more Power 36 notes

Yeah, everyone knew the Big Ten was going to be brutal. Midwestern winter brutal.

We knew there were so many good teams, the rankings would look like a swarm of Big Ten bees. There are nine members in this week’s Associated Press top-25 — taking 36 percent of the spots. One more (Indiana) received votes.

We knew there were big scorers galore. Iowa’s Luka Garza, of course. He leads the nation with a 28.8 average. But keep going down the list. Minnesota’s Marcus Carr is third. Illinois’ Ayo Dosunmu is fourth. Rutgers’ Ron Harper Jr. is tied for seventh.

We knew the Big Ten was deep enough to be a beast against other leagues. The 69-14 record in non-conference play is the shiniest in the nation. Of those 14 losses, seven were by four or fewer points, or in overtime.

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We knew there were old faces in lots of places, which is one reason this is a vintage season. Wisconsin’s entire starting lineup is composed of seniors or redshirt seniors. The geezers don’t easily rattle. The Badgers haven’t made more than 11 turnovers in 27 consecutive games. Five of Michigan’s top seven scorers are seniors or graduate students. Rutgers’ top five scorers are all seniors or juniors. Same at Minnesota. Five of Michigan State’s top seven are juniors, seniors or grad students. Ditto Ohio State. Garza is a senior and the four other top Hawkeye scorers are no younger than third-year sophomores. Illinois’ Dosunmu is a junior.

In other words, Kentucky, this ain’t.

We knew there were good shooters outside. Minnesota’s Brandon Johnson owns the nation’s best 3-point shooting game so far, hitting eight of nine against Iowa. Garza, better known for making the ground shake inside, is 52.9 percent from the 3-point line.

And good shooters inside. Michigan 7-1 freshman Hunter Dickinson is making nearly 73 percent of his 2-point attempts. He’s missed 16 all season. Garza is over 65 percent.

And good shooters from the free-throw line. Michigan’s Isaiah Livers is 18-for-19 so far. Last season, he was 44-for-46, so out of 65 free throws the past two years, he’s missed three. Ohio State’s CJ Walker has tried 39 free throws this season. He has missed once. Teammate Duane Washington Jr. is 30-for-32.

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We knew there were passers. Michigan State is No. 1 in the nation, handing out 22.3 assists a game. Iowa is third. Of the Spartans’ 240 field goals so far, 180 of them — 75 percent — have come off assists.

We knew Iowa would be one of the nation’s best teams — even if the Hawkeyes did give up 102 points in one loss and 99 in another. We knew Wisconsin was solid, and Illinois would be a contender, and Rutgers was on the move, and Minnesota and Michigan had new transfer faces who would help. We knew Michigan State would need some work — clearly so after starting 0-2 in the league and allowing a very unTom Izzo-like 53 and 52 percent shooting. But we also know he’ll probably fix the problem.

We knew all that. But here’s one thing we didn’t know:

When Christmas was over, Northwestern would be leading the league.

Northwestern, the team picked in most predictions to finish last in the Big Ten.

Northwestern, who went 8-23 last season, including 3-17 in the conference.

Northwestern, who had not started 3-0 in Big Ten play in 53 years. But has now.

“We’re hungry,” sophomore guard Boo Buie was saying after the Wildcats slipped past Ohio State 71-70 Saturday, helped mightily by his go-ahead 3-pointer. “Everyone thinks we can’t play, so we’re just in the state of mind where we’re going to play our game and know our capabilities and just show the rest of the world what we can do.”

What they have done is start 6-1 on the season, and had a five-point lead against Pittsburgh not slipped away in the final 90 seconds, they’d be 7-0. They just won three Big Ten games in seven days, two of them against ranked Michigan State and Ohio State. No, this is not 2019-20.

“We’re not the same team,” said Miller Kopp, having just dropped 23 points on the Buckeyes.

“So much of it is mental,” mentioned coach Chris Collins. “The power of belief, the power of confidence.”

What’s going on in Evanston?

There’s balanced offense. Six players average between 15 and 8.3 points a game, so the heroics tend to get passed around. Buie had 30 in the Michigan State win, Chase Audige scored all of his 17 in the second half to lead the surge past Indiana, and Kopp came up big against Ohio State.

“We’re not worried,” Buie said, “about who’s getting the shots.”

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There’s defense that has limited opponents to 37.8 field goal shooting and under 28 percent from the 3-point line, and has been sturdy late in games. “Especially in the Big Ten, that’s where games are going to be won,” Kopp said. “So down the stretch, you have to know, if you don’t get stops, you’re not going to win.”

There is the ability to close out games, which is a U-turn from last season, when seven Northwestern defeats came by five or fewer points. The Wildcats were a kiddie corps then, starting mostly freshmen (including Buie) and sophomores. They learned at the school of Big Ten hard knocks, and had the bruises and bad record as souvenirs.

“It was a blessing in disguise looking back on it now, just because we’ve learned from those situations,” said Kopp, a junior. “You’re seeing it now. We’ve changed, we’ve made the most of them.”

So they whack Michigan State, for their first win over a top-5 team since 1979. Then they put away Indiana with a 24-13 closing run. Then they get past Ohio State with a 14-6 final push.

“These guys last year, they were a bunch of freshmen and young kids that did not know what it took to win in the Big Ten,” Collins said. “We threw them into the fire on purpose. We made the decision last year to go really young and to develop this core, with the hopes that over time they would get tougher, they would get better and they would get smarter in-game situations, and I think you’re seeing that happen.

“They’re not shaky, they’re not tight, they’re not nervous. They’re actually excited by them. They’re excited in the huddle when there’s four minutes to go and it’s tied.”

Northwestern has gone from no votes in the pre-season AP poll to No. 19 this week, but will soon get its biggest test yet. The Wildcats travel to Iowa City on Tuesday to look down the business end of Luke Garza. Matter of fact, they’re about to take a big gulp of what their conference is about this season; eight of their next nine games are against ranked opponents. But there seems little question this is a very good and capable team. As if the Big Ten needed any more of those.

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