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January 22, 2009

Northwestern Scored the Night’s Biggest Upset

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 1:06 pm

Seen purely on paper, Virginia Tech winning at number 1-ranked Wake Forest 78-71 last night was arguably the evening’s biggest upset. Blessed with a preposterously long and athletic front line, the Deacons were the nation’s last undefeated team, a pinnacle they’d reached in part by suffocating opposing offenses. Conversely the Hokies entered this game with the memory of having been shut down completely by Duke in a humiliating 69-44 thrashing. Seth Greenberg‘s team didn’t figure to be the squad that would out-Wake Wake, but that is precisely what they did: Virginia Tech made their twos and went to the line 25 more times than the home team. That qualifies, surely, as a major upset.

But Northwestern? Winning at Michigan State, 70-63? In upset terms, that’s well beyond “major.” That’s shocking.

Yes, I realize that MSU entered the evening a smidge overrated. When his Spartans are winning, Tom Izzo of course always says his team is overrated, but this time he had a case. Looking at conference play only, State started the week as statistically the least impressive first-place team of any major conference. They were fortunate to be 5-0 and, again, to his credit Izzo was saying so.

Still, being a hair less impressive than your record doesn’t mean you’re set up to lose at home to Northwestern, a team that before last night had won four of its last 27 Big Ten road games. If the Wildcats can win in East Lansing (granted on an evening when Raymar Morgan was rendered totally ineffective by flu-like symptoms), those rumors you’ve heard about a newly robust non-Indiana Big Ten may just be accurate. I pledge not to overstate the importance of one victory–indeed, its shock value would be lessened if it had been in any way foreseeable–but the drift of the Big Ten season clearly suggests that the entirety of the league’s non-Hoosier membership really might be more equal than previously thought. After all, Iowa beat Wisconsin in OT in Iowa City last night. Not to mention how everyone’s all lovey-dovey about Florida State these days and Northwestern beat the Seminoles with ease, remember?

Kevin Coble has rightly garnered most of the applause this morning with his 31-point performance, and yet it is NU’s defense that explains their strange new respectability. (Yes, 2-4 in-conference is indeed respectable in Evanston.) The Wildcat D has gone from historically bad in 2008 to merely pretty bad in 2009. Whether it’s due to greater familiarity with Bill Carmody‘s 1-3-1 or simply better execution, Northwestern’s interior FG defense has taken a great leap forward. (Good thing–their perimeter FG defense is shaky.)

My older brother’s a Northwestern graduate and before every season he asks me if this might finally be the year that his beloved Wildcats are at least decent. Well, listen up, Rob! I don’t want to go overboard here and, to be honest, your ‘Cats could well lose their next game (at Michigan). But Northwestern is, at long last, decent.   

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