Jan. 27, 2004
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EVANSTON, Ill. -
When asked if Wednesday night's game between Northwestern and Penn State is a big game, Wildcats head coach Bill Carmody does not hesitate to say yes.
The Wildcats and Nittany Lions enter this contest with matching 2-3 records in the conference, and their paths have been parallel toward that end. Penn State, of course, opened the campaign with a pair of wins, but has lost three in a row since then. Meanwhile, NU rebounded from an opening loss to Michigan with wins at Iowa and vs. Illinois. The excitement of those victories has been tempered in the last week and a half, though, with losses at Indiana and to Michigan State.
With the Big Ten campaign nearly a third over, Carmody understands that the next few weeks will do a lot to determine the fate of this year's championship race.
"Now is the time when you start to see separation between the haves and the have-nots," he said. "There are certain teams you expect to see at the top-Wisconsin and Michigan State come to mind-but it seems like this year there are a lot of teams that could go up or down. Both Penn State and Northwestern are in that group, so Wednesday's game could set the tone."
If Northwestern has an advantage, it is that they have had a week to gear up for this next stretch. In fact, the Wildcats may have the most well-place byes in the conference this season -- the first one came Saturday, after five games; the next one will come the week of Feb. 16, after six more games; and then the 'Cats will finish with five in a row.
This break may have come at a fortuitous time. Beyond the fact that Northwestern had lost two in a row, the 'Cats needed time for Vedran Vukusic to heal from a knee injury he suffered against Illinois. Vukusic-who is NU's second-leading scorer and rebounder, and is listed among the Big Ten leaders in 14 categories-missed the Indiana game three days later, but came back to play 38 minutes against Michigan State; now he has had another week to heal. Beyond Vukusic, there is the usual litany of bumps and bruises that all players suffer during the course of the season; those have also had a little more time to get well.
The break also allowed Carmody to break his normal practice routine -- with some cajoling.
"We actually did some rebounding drills in the last week because we have been getting pounded on the boards," he acknowledged. "The other coaches convinced me to do it, just to get our focus on it."
Carmody admits the timing of his team's byes might be ideal this season, especially as he looks at the six-game stretch the 'Cats had to start the Big Ten ledger (four of them came on the road, and the two home games came against preseason favorites Illinois and Michigan State).
"We had a tough stretch, but if we can get another road win tonight and end this run at .500, that is a pretty good start for us," he said.
Due to the bad weather, both in Chicago and State College, the 'Cats will actually fly to Penn State Wednesday morning and then play that night.
Northwestern (7-9, 2-3 Big Ten) at Penn State (8-8, 2-3 Big Ten)
Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2004 * 7 p.m. EST
Bryce Jordan Center (15,261) * University Park, Pa.
Northwestern: Bill Carmody, 4th season at NU (46-58); 8th season overall (138-83)
Penn State: Ed DeChellis, 1st season at PSU (8-8); 8th season overall (113-101)
RADIO: WGN Radio 720 AM (Dave Eanet, play-by-play; Bob Hildebrand, analyst)
The Fun Fact
Northwestern is attempting to win its fourth straight game over Penn State tonight. The last time the Wildcats had a four-game winning streak against another Big Ten team came when they defeated Wisconsin five times in a row from 1967-70.
Northwestern vs. Penn State
* The Wildcats and the Nittany Lions are meeting for the 23rd time, with Penn State leading the series 14-8. NU has won three in a row in the series and six of the last nine contests.
* These teams have met just once each of the past two seasons; last year, Northwestern defeated PSU in double overtime in Evanston, 85-79. That is the only overtime game the Wildcats have played during the Carmody era.
* The last time these teams met in University Park, the Wildcats emerged from Bryce Jordan with a 55-49 victory.
* NU head coach Bill Carmody is 3-1 vs. Penn State, his best mark against any Big Ten opponent; Carmody also lost to the Nittany Lions in the first round of the 2000 NIT as head coach at Princeton.