Evanston, IL (SportsNetwork.com) - Big Ten Conference action continues in earnest on Sunday night, as the Northwestern Wildcats play host to the fourth- ranked Wisconsin Badgers.
Wisconsin earned its 12th straight conference-opening win with an 89-72 victory over visiting Penn State on New Year's Eve. The Badgers have won six in a row to lay claim to a 13-1 overall record, which includes a 3-0 mark in true road games. The team's only setback came in an 80-70 final at home versus Duke as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge back on Dec. 3.
Northwestern is playing its Big Ten home opener tonight, this coming after the team won at league newcomer Rutgers on Dec. 30, 51-47, to improve to 10-4 overall and 1-0 in conference. The Wildcats have won four in a row since a three-week span (Nov. 26-Dec. 17) in which they lost four of five. NU has won three consecutive home games to move to 7-2 in Evanston this season.
Wisconsin owns a 112-62 lead in the all-time series with Northwestern, but the Wildcats earned their first-ever win at the Kohl Center and put the brakes on a seven-game series losing streak by beating the Badgers on their home floor last season, 65-56. UW has won the last four, and six of the last seven meetings in Evanston.
In their recent win over Penn State, the Badgers set a new Kohl Center record for field goal efficiency by shooting a sizzling 63.8 percent from the floor. It was their best effort overall since hitting 64.6 percent against Illinois State on Nov. 18, 1997. Nigel Hayes led the way with 21 points, while Frank Kaminsky finished with 18 points and 14 rebounds, Sam Dekker had 17 points and Traevon Jackson 16 for the winning side. Wisconsin missed its first six shots from 3-point range, but wound up making six of its last seven. Another key factor in the win, was the Badgers stellar 23-of-28 performance at the foul line. The Nittany Lions finished at 53.7 percent field goal efficiency, while getting 24 points from their bench compared to only nine for the home team.
The Penn State game notwithstanding, Wisconsin has performed well at both ends of the court this season, scoring 74.6 ppg while permitting only 53.8 ppg. The Badgers boast three double-digit scorers in Kaminsky (16.6 ppg, 8.4 rpg), Hayes (12.6 ppg, 7.4 rpg) and Dekker (12.4 ppg, 4.4 rpg), with Traevon Jackson (9.4 ppg, 2.9 apg) close to joining them. The team is outshooting the opposition (.493 to .392), is converting 75 percent of its free throws, and owns positive differentials in both rebounding (+7.8) and turnovers (+3.6).
The Wildcats went into their conference opener at Rutgers having held their previous three opponents to 33.9 percent shooting from the field, and that trend continued as the Scarlet Knights were successful on only 30.2 percent of their total shots. Northwestern didn't exactly light it up, hitting 39 percent of its total shots, which included a 7-of-20 showing from beyond the arc. Bryant McIntosh led all scorers with 17 points and he dished out four assists, and Tre Demps added 16 points to go with seven rebounds for the winning side.
Northwestern is netting a lackluster 64.8 ppg, doing so behind typical shooting efforts of .429 overall and .336 from 3-point land, but where the team has really excelled is at the defensive end, as foes are scoring only 58.9 ppg in hitting their field goals just 39.7 percent of the time. Demps paces the unit with 11.8 ppg, McIntosh is right there with 11.7 ppg, and Alex Olah rounds out the Wildcats' double-digit scorers with 10.4 ppg to go with his team-best 7.1 rpg. Demps does his best to keep his teammates involved in the action, as he hands out 4.9 apg.