WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Northwestern quickly is becoming the Big Ten Conference basketball darling.
The No. 25 Wildcats will attempt to enhance their feel-good story on Wednesday when they play No. 23 Purdue in Mackey Arena.
Fourth-year Northwestern coach Chris Collins’ team is building an impressive resume that very well could lead to the school’s first-ever NCAA tournament berth. Beating Purdue (17-5, 6-3) would provide yet another chapter.
Northwestern is 18-4, 7-2 and has won six consecutive Big Ten games since losing on Jan. 5 to Minnesota. The 7-2 Big Ten start is the school’s best since the 1937-38 team also started 7-2.
Led by junior Scottie Lindsey (15.4 points a game), redshirt sophomore Vic Law (14.0) and junior point guard Bryant McIntosh (12.8), the Wildcats lead the Big Ten in field goal percentage defense (38.3), 3-point field goal percentage defense (30.7) and are second in scoring defense (63.7).
“I just think we are a tough-minded team,” Collins said. “My first year, we couldn’t score at all, so we had to play great defense. Then the last two years, with all of our youth, we got beat up a little bit. We had to figure it out playing a lot of young guys.
“This year, our guys kind of understand our principles. We are a function of each other on both ends of the floor. We are not a one-man band.”
McIntosh, a Greensburg, Ind., native who leads the Big Ten in assists at 5.7 per game, had 21 points on Sunday in Northwestern’s 68-55 victory against Indiana.
“We feel we are really good, but we can be even better,” McIntosh said. “The fun part is going in each and every day knowing what everyone thinks of this program. That gives us a little extra fire in our bellies. This isn’t the same Northwestern.”
Purdue guard Dakota Mathias knows this isn’t the old Northwestern, which regularly finished at or near the bottom of the Big Ten.
“I think you could see this coming a few years ago,” Mathias said. “They have a good group of juniors. McIntosh, Law and Lindsey all are very versatile. They can dribble, pass and shoot, and even at this level, not a lot of guys can do that.
“I think the challenge for us in this game is defending their ball screens. They are good at pick and roll, and the high ball screens spread you out. They are a very good, well-coached team. They play well together and are a very unselfish team.”
Purdue coach Matt Painter likes this Northwestern team.
“Vic Law has really developed, Lindsey has really improved and McIntosh was an all-conference guy last year,” Painter said. “Those guys can make shots and make plays. They all do a lot of little things.
“More than anything, overall, it’s their team defense. They are a good defensive team. You watch film and you think that, and you look at the numbers and you think that. They have established themselves in conference play as one of the better defensive teams in our league.”
Purdue junior forward Vince Edwards said the Boilermakers are eager to get back on track after being upset 83-80 at Nebraska on Sunday.
“We don’t want to repeat the same thing,” Edwards said. “Guys come out with more of an edge after a loss. Every game has to be a big game for us, because we are trying to build an NCAA resume and win a Big Ten championship.”