Surprising Wildcats offer men’s hoops tough competition

by Jabari Ritchie

Wednesday’s opponent for Minnesota’s men’s basketball team has gone 33 years without a .500 record in the Big Ten and are near the conference floor again this season.

But Minnesota co-captain Dusty Rychart says his team’s game at Northwestern (13-9, 4-6 Big Ten) could be “one our most challenging games this year.”

After the streaking Gophers dominated Indiana and Ohio State, two teams ahead of them in the Big Ten standings, and knocked off Iowa on the road last Saturday, the Wildcats wouldn’t appear threatening. But Northwestern’s slow-tempo style of play, solid outside shooting and strong defense has surprised several teams this season.

“We’ve got our hands full, we know that,” coach Dan Monson said. “We’re not by any means playing good enough to just line up and beat people. We’ve got to be at the top of our game.”

The Wildcats, who could win five Big Ten games for just the third time since 1984 with a win, are on a three-game home winning streak and have only lost two conference games by more than 10 points.

“They’re definitely a team to be reckoned with and not be taken for granted,” Rychart said. “They’ve improved a lot since last year, they’ve got a lot of confidence going into this game and they want to knock us off because we’re one of the top teams in the conference.”

Northwestern boasts the top scoring defense in the Big Ten, allowing an average of 58.5 points per game. None of the Wildcats’ opponents have scored over 77 points.

On the other hand, Minnesota (14-7, 7-3) has the Big Ten’s second-highest scoring offense. The Gophers, who average nearly 78 points, have scored at least 86 points in each of their last four games.

“I don’t think it’s possible to get them to play in our style, because they’re so organized, structured and well-coached,” said Rychart, who is averaging 13.5 points and 7.2 rebounds a game. “Obviously what we want them to do is hurry up and run, but it’s going to be a difficult task for us.”

While Northwestern is off to one of its best starts in recent years, the Wildcats are coming off their worst loss of the season – a 73-44 setback at Wisconsin.

“It’s the first time we’ve laid an egg this year, so it was a surprise,” said Northwestern coach Bill Carmody, whose team had a 3-13 conference record last season. “Last year we did that in probably half the games we played.”

Northwestern turned the ball over 15 times against the Badgers after averaging fewer than six turnovers per game during a three-game stretch that included home wins over Wisconsin and Michigan State and a one-point loss at Ohio State.

To overcome the Wildcats’ slow tempo, the Gophers might need to force steals. Each of the four times Northwestern has given up 70 points, it has turned the ball over at least 15 times. The Wildcats lost the ball 24 times while allowing a season-high 77 points in a loss at Arizona State last December.

“They need to stay patient and not get too overly aggressive or try to do things that would let Northwestern take advantage of them,” said former Wildcat guard Ben Johnson, who transferred to Minnesota before the season began. Johnson is a Gophers redshirt this year. “We need to do things that we do best, execute and not worry about Northwestern.”

Jabari Ritchie covers men’s basketball and welcomes comments at [email protected]