Big Ten

We're not so different, you and I: Northwestern, Vanderbilt see similarities ahead of NCAA tournament meeting

We're not so different, you and I: Northwestern, Vanderbilt see similarities ahead of NCAA tournament meeting

SALT LAKE CITY — We're not so different, you and I.

Northwestern and Vanderbilt might not be the warring forces Austin Powers and Dr. Evil were, but the two schools do clash Thursday in the first round of the NCAA tournament. And as the head coaches for both sides pointed out, they're not so different.

"To me there's a lot of similarities in the two teams," Northwestern's Chris Collins said Wednesday afternoon. "You've got good kids who play hard, play together. And if you look at their body of work, especially over the last month of the season, they've played some outstanding basketball with some big-time wins. We know what's going to be ahead of us."

"I definitely think there are some similarities," Vanderbilt's Bryce Drew said. "There's a lot of very skilled players that can shoot the ball. Both teams run a lot of offensive actions. Both teams try to play a lot of help side defense. So there's definitely some similarities as you go. I guess we'll see just how similar when the game starts. But they definitely — watching film, we try to do some things that are similar."

For most, the immediate similarity that comes to mind when thinking of these two schools is their academic traditions, making Thursday's game a sort of "nerd bowl," or at least that's what it would be called if this were a football game.

The academic credentials of both schools were a talking point Wednesday, one that couldn't be avoided when during lock-room media availability, Northwestern big man Barret Benson was poring over notes while studying for a final exam.

"I think that's one of the things that makes Vanderbilt, Northwestern, unique places. The student-athlete has to really perform at a high level on both areas to make it at our schools," Drew said. "And even on this trip we have study hall. We have players that are working on homework and different things. When we took the job we were excited to go recruit that type of student-athlete that knew that they were going to have to put a lot of work in the classroom, also."

"We have guys right now that are working on getting extensions to their finals or typing papers, because we're on the quarter system, so our finals are during this week. And I would say that's a challenge that not everyone has to face," Northwestern forward Sanjay Lumpkin said. "We try to do the best in both categories. It's definitely something that is a little different at Northwestern, but it doesn't affect how we play."

But when 40 minutes run out Thursday, there will be no quiz-bowl bonus round where one of the teams can steal a win with knowledge of physics and world history. Thursday will be about basketball.

There are similarities there, too. Northwestern point guard Bryant McIntosh said it will be like the Wildcats are playing a version of themselves.

"They execute their defenses similar to the way we defend. So it will be a lot like playing ourselves or a very good team," McIntosh said. "They could give us a lot of problems with the way they shoot the ball. They're a very skilled 3-point shooting team, one through five. So we've compared it to guarding a team like a Michigan, in our league, just looking for similarities. But we have a tough task on our hands."

"They're very disciplined, they spread you out. They can really shoot the ball. And they feast on teams that make mistakes against them, especially defensively. If you don't communicate well, if you're not locked in, they're going to find the open guy, especially at the 3-point line they can be devastating when they get it going from there," Collins said. "It's going to be a tough challenge, but our guys, we've had a couple of days to really lock in on preparation, kind of get through the hoopla and the excitement of all the selection show and things like that and get back to work on the practice floor, and we're here to try to win the game."

When it comes to what Northwestern can specifically expect Thursday, Vanderbilt shoots a lot of 3s. The Commodores are seventh in the country in made 3-pointers, with 337 of them in their 34 games. The Cats would figure to have a defensive edge, though, ranking 34th in the country in scoring defense. Vandy has some size, which could come into play should Northwestern big man Dererk Pardon find himself in foul trouble. Pardon compared some of Vandy's bigs to Michigan's Moe Wagner on Wednesday.

"Our communication is going to be very important and vital if we're going to be able to win this game just because they can give us a lot of difficulties with their five man that can stretch the floor and knock down open 3s, and also their guards," McIntosh said. "We have to do a great job on the ball, keeping them out of the paint. And it's going to be a tough task. But defense wins championships, right? So that's the one thing we've talked about in the locker room is our defense has to be really good in order for us to move on in this tournament."

Comparing Vandy to Michigan might end up being a good strategy for Northwestern. The Cats beat the Wolverines in epic fashion near the end of the regular season with that court-length pass and buzzer-beating bucket.

Of course, Vandy coach Bryce Drew has his own big-shot reputation. He made one of the biggest shots in NCAA tournament history when he played at Valparaiso back in 1998.

Northwestern, obviously, is short on NCAA tournament experience. This is the program's first-ever trip to the Big Dance in nearly eight decades of waiting. So the hype will be there when the Cats take the March Madness court for the first time. Vanderbilt played and lost in the First Four a season ago, ending its own three-year tournament drought. So there's a little more experience there, but not much.

The secret weapon in the experience game might actually be Collins, who spent a combined 17 seasons at Duke as a player and assistant. When you spent more than a decade and a half with Coach K, you tend to know what the NCAA tournament is all about.

If that can give Northwestern an edge in this matchup of similar teams, maybe the Cats will also be able to pick up their first-ever NCAA tournament win on Thursday.

"We know what's at stake," Collins said. "You've got to be at your best this time of year because everyone is really good."

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Weeks will separate a perfect 10-year anniversary where Northwestern will play at Wrigley Field for one of its regular season games in the upcoming years.

Back on Nov. 20, 2010, the Wildcats battled it out with Illinois, known as the “Wrigleyville Classic,” which saw the Illini take a 48-27 win.

Even though it’s still two years out, Northwestern still planned ahead and announced its opponent for its game at Wrigley Field on Nov. 7, 2020, against Big Ten rival Wisconsin.

“Obviously an exciting opportunity for our football program to come back to Wrigley Field, one of the Cathedrals of sporting venues in the world,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “When I announced it to our team, they were absolutely ecstatic.”

“The opportunity to play at Wrigley field is unique to us, being Chicago’s Big Ten team, and to have the chance to come down and play in an atmosphere like we did a few years back was a bowl game type atmosphere, and I look forward to this special opportunity.”

This game though will be a little different than it was back in 2010. Both the Wildcats and Illini played toward the west end zone due to a tight squeeze near the right field wall due to box seats that were added down the third base line.

Now, Northwestern and Wisconsin do not have to worry about that problem because the bullpens have since moved to the outfield.

Cubs president of business operations Crane Kenney spoke at a news conference earlier on Tuesday at Wrigley.

“So excited to welcome back Northwestern to Wrigley Field to talk about football again,” Kenney said. “We had an incredible experience with them back in 2010."

Kenney also mentioned new seating is on a temporary platform that can all be removed and the dugout tops can be removed as well, and the field will expand west, to allow for a longer field.

With a sellout crowd in the last go around for the Wildcats, don’t be surprised for another sellout at the Friendly Confines.

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

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USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 12 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (10-1)

Still the team with the best resume in the country, no one can compete with OU’s wins over TCU, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, the latter two coming away from Norman. Baker Mayfield might not be a choir boy, but he’s the best player in the nation.

2. Miami (10-0)

You might think that being down 28-14 to Virginia in the second half was cringe-worthy, but the Canes made up for things by storming back with 30 unanswered points. Now they finally have to go away from South Florida for the first time since almost losing to North Carolina last month.

3. Alabama (11-0)

Tide gonna roll. But this Cupcake Weekend in the SEC has got to stop. While teams in other conferences are slugging it out against rivals, Bama gets to take a day off against Mercer? It’s just not fair. Also, Bama’s schedule is so soft, there’s no way it deserves to be the No. 1 team in the country.

4. Georgia (10-1)

The Dawgs should wrap an 11-1 regular season this weekend against Georgia Tech. But the SEC title game presents a kind of no-win scenario: undefeated Alabama or Auburn, who throttled Georgia earlier this month.

5. Wisconsin (11-0)

You didn’t need Wisconsin to do what it did to Iowa and Michigan to prove it had one of the best defenses in the country — but that sure didn’t help. Stockpiling national love with those two wins, a win in the Big Ten title game figures to make the Badgers a Playoff lock.

6. Clemson (10-1)

Why’d Kelly Bryant have to go and get hurt for that Syracuse game? The Tigers would be No. 1 and the undisputed best team in the country. Still, though, a win over Miami in the ACC title game ought to get the champs back into the Playoff.

7. Auburn (9-2)

Great job pounding Louisiana-Monroe, Tigers. You shall not escape the wrath over Cupcake Weekend in the SEC. That dumb game aside, Auburn and Alabama will meet in a titanic Iron Bowl this weekend with a trip to the SEC title game on the line — and perhaps a Playoff spot, as well.

8. Ohio State (9-2)

Not that pummeling Illinois is any big deal, but the Buckeyes are still alive in this thing and look like a team capable of making some Playoff noise. First, Ohio State has to win The Game and then the Big Ten title game to knock out undefeated Wisconsin.

9. Notre Dame (9-2)

Out of the Playoff chase thanks to that loss at Miami, Notre Dame squeaked by Navy this past weekend. Hope a New Year’s Six bowl game is enough for the Irish. We know it’s not enough for those ND fans. So maybe join a conference? Just saying.

10. TCU (9-2)

The Frogs can still make their mark on the Playoff race, even if they can’t get in themselves. The Big 12 title game will almost surely be TCU’s attempt at revenge on Oklahoma. Unfortunately, if revenge does come, it will probably cannibalize the conference’s Playoff hopes, too.

11. Penn State (9-2)

Why Penn State gave up 44 points to Nebraska, I do not know. What I do know is that probably no one cared because Penn State is going to go down as the most inconsequential 10-2 team of all-time. Such a bummer considering the preseason expectations for both the team and Saquon Barkley.

12. USC (10-2)

Yeah, I guess there’s still a way for USC to make the Playoff, but it’s hard to imagine that madness unfolding, even in the oft-mad college football. The Trojans get the winner of the Apple Cup in the Pac-12 title game.

13. UCF (10-0)

Finally we get our much-anticipated UCF-USF showdown this weekend. Make it count, Knights. This is probably gonna be Scott Frost’s last regular-season game in Orlando.

14. Washington (9-2)

It’s hard to say who has the edge in the Apple Cup, but certainly the stakes are high, with the winner going off to play USC in the Pac-12 title game. Can either team make the Playoff? Well, probably not, no.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Is this it for Mike Leach on The Palouse? He could be a hot candidate this offseason and leave for perceived greener pastures. Winning the Apple Cup would go a long way toward making that happen.

16. Mississippi State (8-3)

A win in the Egg Bowl means a 9-3 regular season for the Bulldogs with their three losses coming against three top-10 teams.

17. Oklahoma State (8-3)

Poor Okie State has been so good all year and had two losses to the two best teams in its conference, and then it went and lost to K-State for some ridiculous reason. The Mullet deserved better in 2017.

18. Northwestern (8-3)

The Cats are the fourth-best team in the Big Ten, simple as that, with wins over Michigan State and Iowa and conference losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. As commendable an effort as you’ll find in a highly competitive league. Plus, Fitz’s team is on a six-game win streak that could end up extending to eight.

19. Stanford (8-3)

Already with a win over Washington, Stanford could close the regular season with two wins over top-10 teams in its final three games. Also Bryce Love is back in the groove after back-to-back 100-yard games.

20. Memphis (9-1)

The Tigers have lost just one game all season, to the best Group of Five team out there. Heck of a season by Memphis.

21. Michigan State (8-3)

A 17-7 win over Maryland couldn't have been the most exciting way for anyone to spend their weekend. Sparty's had a mighty fine season, though, considering how badly things went in 2016.

22. LSU (8-3)

The SEC has seemingly gotten increasingly better as the year has progressed, with LSU and Mississippi State making for a solid-enough middle tier. But remember when LSU lost to Troy? That wasn’t good.

23. South Florida (9-1)

If not for that loss to Houston, USF’s showdown with UCF this weekend would be for Group of Five supremacy. Even without that, though, this should be a highly entertaining affair.

24. Virginia Tech (8-3)

The Hokies have a chance to salvage their tumble at the close of the season with a win at Virginia. But given how well the Cavs played at Miami this past weekend, a VT win is no sure thing.

25. Iowa State (7-4)

I understand the math and all, but can't the Big 12 just suspend its rules and send Iowa State to the title game? We all want to see the OU-ISU rematch. Why are you preventing us from being happy, Big 12?