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January 18, 2012

Spirits high, depth low

Northwestern goes into tonight's game against Wisconsin (8 p.m. CT, BTN) with spirits high but depth low.

Lost amid the euphoria of the Wildcats' 81-74 upset of then-No. 6 Michigan State on Saturday was the fact that shooting guard Alex Marcotullio went down with an apparent concussion and is now questionable for the game against the Badgers.

Marcotullio's injury leaves Northwestern (12-5, 2-3 Big Ten) as thin as its postseason resume at the 2-guard position. Coach Bill Carmody doubts that JerShon Cobb, who is cleared to play, will be able to help the team. He has missed six games this season with hip soreness stemming from offseason surgery, including the last two. So Carmody will have to dispense minutes between starter Reggie Hearn and suddently much more active senior reserve Nick Fruendt.

The point guard situation won't be much better. Starter David Sobolewski, who is averaging exactly 40 minutes per game in Big Ten play, may have to go the distance again, as fellow true freshman Tre Demps is already out for the year and Marcotullio was often relied on to play the point when Sobolewski went to the bench.

That's not exactly ideal for a Northwestern team going into the Kohl Center, a place where the Wildcats are 0-12 all-time.

Wisconsin's home floor hasn't been quite as intimidating to foes this season, however. Badger coach Bo Ryan is a sparkling 161-14 all-time in Madison, but the Badgers have already dropped three games there this year, including a stunning 72-65 loss to Iowa in the conference home opener.

The culprit for the Badgers is an offense that is finding points as tough to come by as Bears fans in Green Bay. They are coming off a desultory 50-45 home win over Nebraska in which they shot just 31.3 percent from the floor, including an ugly 11.1 percent from beyond the arc.

The Badgers (14-5, 3-3) currently rank 10th in the Big Ten in both scoring (64.9 ppg) and field-goal percentage (43.2), and their star playmaker, senior point guard Jordan Taylor, seems to have regressed offensively, going from 18.1 points per game last year to just 13.8 this season.

However, the Badgers are still playing their customary suffocating defense. They lead the country in both scoring (48.5 ppg) and field-goal (43.2 percent) defense, so Northwestern's offense figures to have a rough time in what may be a low-scoring affair.

The Wildcats' bread-and-butter, the three-pointer, also happens to be a Badger defensive strength. Northwestern leads the Big Ten in triples, making 8.8 per game, but Wisconsin is the stingiest in the league against them, holding opponents to just 26 percent shooting from beyond the arc. Ryan's fundamentally sound man-to-man defense is also one that doesn't typically fall prey to the back-door cut, another Wildcat offensive weapon.

It remains to be seen who becomes the all-important third scorer for Northwestern against Wisconsin, to join John Shurna (19.3 ppg, first in Big Ten) and Drew Crawford (17.6, third). Davide Curletti filled the role in spectacular fashion against Michigan State, coming up with 17 points and 6 rebounds and getting Michigan State coach Tom Izzo's vote for most valuable player.

Will Curletti be able to reprise his Dwight Howard impersonation, or will his game last Saturday be a one-time, career performance? And if Curletti is not able to step up offensively, will the always solid Hearn be able to fill the void, or will it be the struggling Luka Mirkovic's turn to play the hero?

Not even Carmody knows the answer to those questions. They won't be answered until after tipoff.



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