WASHINGTON — It seems like Northwestern has recorded its "biggest win of the season" several times this season.
There was the win at Ohio State, something the program hadn't done in decades. More recently there was "The Play" to beat Michigan. And then the Big Ten Tournament win over Maryland on Friday night to advance the Wildcats to Saturday's semifinals.
But the win at Wisconsin still might qualify as the biggest. The Badgers are probably the best team the Cats have beat this season, a campaign that's already featured a school-record 23 wins and is sure to end with the program's first-ever NCAA tournament berth. And for Northwestern to win that game when it did, in the midst of Scottie Lindsey's four-game absence, was huge.
Well, the Cats and the Badgers will tangle again Saturday in the Big Ten Tournament semis. And though that win might've been the first time we thought Northwestern was going to be an NCAA tournament team, there's a lot more on the line this time than there was back in mid February.
"Wisconsin is obviously a great team. We beat them on their home court. We know on this stage, they want to win a championship, too," Lindsey said after Friday's win. "They're going to play hard. We had their number. I think that's going to make them play even harder."
These two teams aren't anywhere near where they were back then, though, which makes that matchup feel like a millennium ago.
That loss was just Wisconsin's second since Thanksgiving, but it was the start of a nightmarish stretch that featured five losses in six games. Northwestern, meanwhile, scored that aberration of a win in the midst of a 2-5 stretch. Four of those games came with Lindsey on the bench, including the win at Wisconsin, and Northwestern couldn't figure out what to do on offense.
Fast forward and both teams have seemed to hit their strides in the last couple games. The Cats are obviously riding high in D.C., winning back-to-back games over Rutgers and Maryland in impressive fashion. The Badgers won their first Big Ten Tournament game Friday night by shutting down Indiana. This after the regular-season finale, a 17-point win for Wisconsin over a red-hot Minnesota team.
But the reason Northwestern won up in Madison was what it was able to do to Ethan Happ. The All-Big Ten center was putting together a challenge to Caleb Swanigan for player of the year honors before the Cats came to town and showed the league a playbook for how to defend him. Happ scored just nine points that night and played only 26 minutes, sitting on the bench for much of the second half after Northwestern's constant double teams rendered him ineffective. The Wisconsin offense as a whole struggled that night against the Northwestern defense, shooting under 40 percent and turning the ball over 12 times.
Will that be the plan again Saturday? It would figure to be. Happ hasn't been the same since that meeting. After scoring in double figures in every game but two between Nov. 21 and Feb. 5, Happ has scored in double figures in just four of his last nine games. After picking up four fouls in only four of his first 10 Big Ten games, he's picked up four or five fouls in nine of his last 10.
"We've really got to try to execute our game plan," Bryant McIntosh said of Saturday's matchup. "I think it'll be somewhat similar (to the one) that we did the last game. But we've got to come fast tomorrow."
Wisconsin will have an edge due to the fact that it's playing just its second game in two days compared to Northwestern playing its third game in three days.
But the Cats have something going for them they didn't the first time these two teams got together. Since arriving in Washington, Northwestern is playing as good as it's played all season at the offensive end. The last two games have featured a resurgence from Lindsey and Vic Law, two guys who were struggling to find their shot at the end of the regular season. They've scored a combined 66 points in two wins over Rutgers and Maryland, completely transforming the Northwestern offense into a force.
The Cats shot 44.8 percent from the field against the Badgers up in Madison and still won. They shot 60 percent and 55.3 percent against Rutgers and Maryland, respectively, in their first two Big Ten Tournament games. Wisconsin is the best defensive team in the league, so you can expect that number to go down, but this is a totally different offense.
"We're really sharing the ball really well, not forcing shots and working it side to side. Our wings are playing tremendous because of it," McIntosh said, happy to be getting some help in the scoring department after shouldering the load down the stretch of the regular season. "I'm being patient and trying not to put too much pressure on myself. If teams are going to double me, then we're going to make them pay. So I give myself up, and we make a play."
So can Northwestern make it two in a row over Wisconsin and reach its first-ever Big Ten Tournament championship game?
You shouldn't put anything past the Cats in this dream season.