The Wildcats from the Big Ten make their first-ever Tournament appearance against the Commodores from the SEC
After 77 long, agonizing seasons, Northwestern fans finally heard their name called on Selection Sunday. The Wildcats may still need to pinch themselves that it’s real, but the basketball team did indeed make it into the 2017 NCAA Tournament and will take on the Vanderbilt Commodores in one of the most anticipated games in school history.
Though the focus has not surprisingly been on the fact that Northwestern has finally made it into the dance after decades of waiting, there is a game to play on Thursday and this 8/9 tilt in Salt Lake City figures to be one of the more fascinating matchups of the opening round. Northwestern enters fresh off a school-record 23 wins and is about as balanced as teams come on both ends of the floor. Vanderbilt had a bit of a roller-coaster ride to March but the Commodores have been extremely hot as of late and are very well tested for all sorts of styles coming into this one.
Who will emerge victorious in a meeting between this matchup of academic powerhouses? Both head coaches are no stranger to the pressure that the Tournament brings and will no doubt be hoping their team rises to the occasion with plenty of eyeballs on this one.
West Region: No. 9 Vanderbilt (19-15) vs. No. 8. Northwestern (23-11)
When: 4:30 p.m. ET (Thursday)
Where: Vivint Smart Home Arena (Salt Lake City)
Line: Vanderbilt -1
Keys for Vanderbilt
Give plenty of credit to head coach Bryce Drew for getting the ‘Dores to the Dance in his first year in Nashville, especially when you consider how up and down this group has been at times this season. Vandy has closed strong and made an impressive run in the SEC Tournament to sneak into the field but these Commodores have a boom-or-bust element to them with their style of play. Three-point shooting is key and if they’re hitting their outside shots, it’s going to be tough to find a way to slow them down. Center Luke Kornet is an especially problematic matchup and could be the difference-maker if he gets going early from the field.
Keys for Northwestern
The NBA influence on the Wildcats is not surprising given head coach Chris Collins is the son of one pro coach and spent years around that highest level as part of Mike Krzyzewski’s staff at Duke and USA Basketball. As a result, Northwestern is one of the best teams in March when it comes to ball movement and getting different players to step up each night. Junior guard Bryant McIntosh is typically the guy who gets the team going and will need to continue to lead the way in points and assists if NU wants to extend their stay out West.
Let’s face it, this is not going to be a slow-paced game that features plenty of physical play in the paint. Both teams do have some size and athleticism near the basket but really thrive out on the perimeter. While Northwestern may be patient enough to wait for the right shot, Vanderbilt should have no qualms about throwing the ball in the net if there’s a little bit of daylight from behind the arc. If the Commodores’ jumpers are falling, they’ll be tough to beat in a Tournament setting like this that rewards hot shooting. The Wildcats aren’t at a huge disadvantage when it comes to personnel so unless they get overwhelmed by the moment, Northwestern’s reliable team-oriented approach should still be able to win out in a fun, close game.
Prediction: Northwestern 73, Vanderbilt 67
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.
(Top photo courtesy of @NUMensBball)