Northwestern's loss to St. John's last week won't do much damage to the Wildcats chances of making the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history, says Big Ten Network analyst Tim Doyle. The former Northwestern star thinks that the Wildcats are primed for a strong start in the Big Ten season that starts today and will, indeed, be dancing in March.
WildcatReport's basketball expert takes a look back at Northwestern's loss and ahead to its first two games in conference play in this first of his weekly features.
Doyle says that the Wildcats shouldn't be ashamed of their 85-69 loss to St. John's in the Holiday Festival Tournament at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 21. The Wildcats were "out-toughed" by the Red Storm, but Doyle says that there were several factors working against them that night.
"St. John's is just not a good matchup for Northwestern," says Doyle. "They're a veteran team and they're very athletic. The Cats are not going to see another team like that in conference play. St. John's was well prepared and well coached, and they moved the ball well against the zone."
He also thought that Northwestern, and particularly John Shurna, tired out in the second half in the second of back-to-back games (Northwestern defeated St. Francis [N.Y.] the night before). The Wildcats won't play games on consecutive nights the rest of the year.
Plus, Doyle simply thinks that St. John's is a good team, one that probably deserves to be ranked. For proof, he offered up the Johnnies' 81-71 win at West Virginia on Wednesday, as well as the fact that their three losses to date have come by a combined nine points.
Add all of that to St. John's playing on its home floor, and Doyle says that the Wildcats' first L of the season won't mean very much when the tournament committee reviews Northwestern's resume in March.
"It's not going to be that bad of a loss," he said.
Doyle, of course, played at St. John's for one year, in 2003-04, before making "the best decision I'll ever make in my life" and transferring to Northwestern. He says that his loyalties were not split in the slightest in watching his two former teams battle.
"There were no mixed feelings," he said with a laugh. "I was pulling life-and-death for Northwestern."
When asked about his career at St. John's, Doyle says he was a "30-30-30" guy for the Red Storm.
Is that points, rebounds and assists? Not exactly.
"When were up by 30 or down by 30, I played for 30 seconds," he says.
Doyle says it's imperative for Northwestern to get off to a strong start in Big Ten play, and he thinks that they will, even though the schedule makers didn't do them any favors. The Wildcats play at No. 12 Purdue today at 11 a.m., and then host No. 20 Michigan State on Monday.
"They can beat anyone on any given night, in my mind," said Doyle. "I think they could easily win both games."
Purdue: Just as St. John's was not a good matchup for Northwestern, Purdue is.
"The way Purdue defends is ideal for the way Northwestern plays offense," he said. "They like to get aggressive and in-your-face, and Northwestern can run their cuts against that man-to-man defense."
The Wildcats usually give Purdue fits and have won two of the last three meetings. Doyle says that even his outmanned squads felt confident against Purdue because of the way they matched up against the Boilers.
He thinks that Purdue has two of the best players in college basketball in JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore, but after that, there is a precipitous drop-off.
The Boilermakers are coming off of their best game of the season in a 80-57 road dismantling of Michigan on Tuesday.
Michigan State: The Spartans have struggled early, and Doyle, for one, isn't surprised. He isn't afraid to say that expectations for MSU were a little too high this year, even if "Michigan State people want to ring my neck."
Michigan State's preseason No. 2 ranking was due, in large part, on its run to the Final Four last year. But Doyle points out that the Spartans nearly lost in the first round and had everything fall into place for them in terms of opponents. The Spartans beat New Mexico State, Maryland, Northern Iowa and Tennessee -- not exactly a Murderer's Row -- by a combined 13 points to get to Indianapolis. More importantly, they managed to avoid Kansas and Ohio State, the two top seeds in their region.
This year, he sees a Spartan squad that is loaded with athletes but short on scorers.
"They don't have a lot of guys that can score," says Doyle. "One thing about Northwestern is that they usually put five guys out there that can put the ball in the basket. Michigan State sometimes has three guys on the floor who can't score.
"I think Northwestern wins that game."
Looking WAY ahead
Northwestern is 9-1 going into Big Ten play, with one more non-conference game, against Southern Illinois-Edwardsville, left on the schedule. Assuming the Wildcats win that game to finish with 10 non-conference wins, how many Big Ten wins will it take to make the tournament?
Doyle thinks that a 9-9 conference record will get the Wildcats a ticket to the big show, provided that three of those wins are against tournament teams.
Northwestern will be favored in all its games against Indiana, Iowa, Penn State and Michigan. Doyle thinks that the Wildcats will be a tough out at home, and then that "any given night" adage will allow them to steal a couple on the road.
For the record, Doyle has Northwestern going 11-7 in the conference and finally getting that 72-year-old gorilla off its back.
Tim Doyle is an analyst for the Big Ten Network and played basketball for Northwestern from 2005 through 2007. In 2007, he became the first player in Northwestern history to record at least 350 points, 150 assists, 100 rebounds and 50 steals in the same season. He still holds the NU single-season assist record, with 157 in 2007.
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