Northwestern has famously never made the NCAA tournament. If Tuesday's dominating 87-77 win over Penn State is any indication, they'll feel very good about their chances to get over the hump. Don't let the ten-point spread fool you. The Wildcats jumped on the Nittany Lions right out of the gate and led comfortably from wire-to-wire to win their ninth-straight game. NU's Scottie Lindsey poured in a career-high 31 with five triples. Josh Reaves led the way for Penn State with 22 points in the losing effort.
Pat Chambers' club didn't do themselves any favors in their first Big Ten opener against a non-ranked team since 2011. Penn State's early season successes thus far have come in fast-paced, open games. Tuesday's game had plenty of possessions (74) but the Wildcats bottled the Lions in transition and actually outscored them 16-9 on the fast break. Penn State had little answer for their opponents in the half-court on either end; NU shot 55% from the field in the first half, and Penn State found themselves down 19 at halftime. Just as they've done a few times this season, the Lions won the second half by clamping down on the defensive end. But it was not enough to overcome an insurmountable deficit. With a trip to a not-so-Rutgersy-anymore Rutgers coming up this Sunday (2:30 p.m.), it is paramount for Penn State to put together that 40-minute effort before another 0-6 Big Ten start becomes a harrowing reality and Chambers' seat warmers get turned up.
Shooting is the great equalizer, and Northwestern has shooters. Lindsey's sweet stroke was on display all afternoon, and his teammates followed suit in the first half with some very un-Northwesternlike shot-making to blow the game open. Bryant McIntosh rediscovered some of his 2015-16 form with a rock solid 11-point, eight-assist and two-turnover performance. For the Wildcats to do this without the injured Dererk Pardon was very impressive and it won't be surprising at all to see this skilled and athletic team make a serious push for the Big Dance.
Don't be deceived by those numbers, either. Penn State made up some ground in garbage time, lessening the anguish of box score watchers. In reality the game was not competitive past the opening few minutes of the second half. PSU did get to the line often and held onto the ball, to be sure, but Northwestern matched or bettered those efforts when the game was still in limbo.
- Josh Reaves - Easily his best shooting performance as a college basketball player, and the player of the game for PSU. In fact, Reaves matched his 2015-16 season output with three triples on six attempts. He added four assists, four boards, three steals and two blocks.
- Shep Garner - The junior leader was virtually invisible. Penn State's freshmen needed he and Payton Banks to provide some composure and got little from either. Chambers will need more than eight points on 2-9 shooting from his best shooter in games like these.
- Mike Watkins - Active and effective, but still not involved enough on offense. You wonder if he's being asked do too much on defense between guarding opposing bigs and rotating on every screen. Players like this don't grow on trees.
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- Tony Carr - Still finding his legs. The effort and aggression you want from a Big Ten point guard is all there. The shot selection (5-13 FG, 1-4 3pt) and decision-making need improvement. Once/if he gets going, this will be a different team.
- Lamar Stevens - Stevens put in another yeoman's effort at the four and five. 12 points and four rebounds, no major mistakes.
- Payton Banks - What does he add if he's not making threes?
- Terrence Samuel - Playing in front of the first coach he committed to, Jim Calhoun (who was on the ESPN broadcast), T-Sam was aggressive and didn't make any mistakes. Your pretty standard T-Sam experience.
- Julian Moore - See Payton Banks, replace "threes" with "putback dunks".