U to open with battle of big men

Michael Dougherty

Northwestern senior Evan Eschmeyer first walked into the Wildcats’ Welsh-Ryan Arena as a freshman in the fall of 1993. Meanwhile, Gophers center Joel Przybilla was just beginning eighth-grade classes in Monticello.
Eschmeyer was one of three Big Ten players (along with Penn State’s Dan Earl and Iowa’s Jess Settles) who petitioned the NCAA in the offseason and were granted a sixth-year of eligibility due to medical hardships.
The 6-foot-11 center is older than both Stephon Marbury and Kevin Garnett of the Timberwolves. He’s also one of the top centers in the country, and leads the Wildcats (7-3, 0-1 in the Big Ten) into Williams Arena for Wednesday night’s matchup.
Eschmeyer is averaging 19.7 points and 8.9 rebounds per game, and will present Przybilla with the toughest test of his short career.
“Number one, we just hope (Przybilla) doesn’t get hurt in the basketball game playing against a six-year veteran with experience like Eschmeyer has,” Gophers coach Clem Haskins said.
No. 16 Minnesota (9-1) will be opening the Big Ten portion of its schedule against the Wildcats thanks to the postponement of Saturday’s game with Purdue.
The Gophers are 18-1 against the Wildcats in the 90s, with the only Northwestern win coming last Jan. 7 in Evanston, Ill., when Eschmeyer had 31 points and 14 rebounds.
But this Northwestern squad is not the same pushover it has been in the past. Haskins said this is the best Wildcats team he has seen in his 13-year tenure at Minnesota.
Second-year Wildcats coach Kevin O’Neill said he knows Eschmeyer is a barometer for his young team, which starts two freshmen (guard David Newman and forward Tavaras Hardy), a sophomore (guard Sean Wink) and a senior (guard Julian Bonner).
O’Neill said there are advantages and disadvantages of relying on a dominating senior to lead a young team.
“The bad part for Esch is [that] he gets way too much attention,” O’Neill said. “Anybody who saw the Iowa game saw that they double teamed him before he got the ball. They really doubled down on him and beat on him, rotating guys down, and that’s the downside for him.
“But the upside for us is that he does give some confidence to the younger guys and he helps get their feet wet.”
Haskins said the key to stopping Eschmeyer defensively will be to play great team defense — relying not just on Przybilla, but also on sophomores Antoine Broxsie and Kyle Sanden.
Przybilla, meanwhile, said Haskins has pointed out some of the veteran tricks Eschmeyer performs under the basket while watching him on film, particularly the indiscreet elbows to the back and side and the infamous clutching of the jersey.
“Coach (Haskins) told me Eschmeyer will get away with some of the calls because he’s a six-year senior, and not to let him get into my head,” Przybilla said. “Eschmeyer worked in an NBA camp in the offseason with some of the best NBA players, so he knows what he’s doing. It’s going to be a tough challenge for me.”
While the Eschmeyer-Przybilla matchup has everyone talking, O’Neill said the freshman is the least of his worries.
Despite the fact that he called Przybilla “as good a big-man prospect as I’ve seen in a long time”, O’Neill said it’s Quincy Lewis and Kevin Clark who are giving him matchup fits.
“Lewis is one of the two or three premier players in our league, and I think he and Clark are much improved over last year,” O’Neill said. “I think if anything their team has gotten better because Quincy has become the focal point.”
Haskins said he hopes Lewis (the leading scorer in the Big Ten with a 22.3 points-per-game average) will take on an even larger part of the offensive load at the expense of the offensively-challenged Miles Tarver.
“Quincy is such a nice guy that he doesn’t always want to shoot right away,” Haskins said. “He wants to get other people involved, and I’ve said to him a hundred times, `You can not turn down those looks.’
“We play through Quincy Lewis, so he’s got to take all his shots — and all of Miles’ shots — for us to win basketball games.”