NU was one win away from changing the narrative, and even sparking tournament hopes. The Wildcats traveled to Iowa City after the weeklong break – and football Signing Day enthusiasm – hoping to complicate the Big Ten picture.
Five games and five losses later, they stumble into West Lafayette for the rematch with Purdue. And even when considering the Boilermakers' recent struggles, only the optimistic few predict that NU can repeat the outcome.
Led by talented center A.J. Hammons, Purdue expects to provide additional difficulties against the shallow frontcourt. Without Jared Swopshire, NU has been dominated on the interior. Senior guard Alex Marcotullio said the focus is on improved rebounding.
"We're undersized," he said. "We have to be more physical, and really make a concerted effort to block people out and not just jump for the rebound. Because of our size, we're not going to get those."
They shot a miserable 29 percent for the game and were held to just 41 points for the second straight game. Coach Bill Carmody stressed the importance of basics.
"We don't have real inside scoring yet," he said. "If they're off you a lot, you don't get a lot of layups and back door cuts. You have to make shots."
Carmody noted that Hammons followed a similar strategy in the teams' most recent matchup. Hammons scored 19 points and added 13 rebounds, but the Purdue defense struggled to slow down NU.
In that matchup, the Cats did what was necessary: punish the opponent with perimeter shooting. Reggie Hearn had the best game of his career against the Boilermakers. The senior connected on his first eight attempts, and unlike most of their victories, the Cats never gave the opponent a pulse in the 75-60 win.
On Sunday, it will have been 22 days since NU last reached the win column. In a season scarred by devastating injuries, the young core forgets what it feels like to celebrate. This Big Ten can ruin confidence, and Kale Abrahamson wants to get the next one over with and move forward.
"Winning helps everybody's confidence and morale," he said. "It helps everyone get better individually."
The win will not come easily this time. The Boilermakers and coach Matt Painter look for a bright spot in this disappointing season. After the NU loss, they beat bottom-dweller Penn State, but failed to carry that momentum to later contests. They have lost their last three games by an average of more than 20 points.
Without an inside presence, though, NU may struggle to contain Hammons. And Terone Johnson – Purdue's leading scorer at 12.9 points per game – recently recovered from an early-February slump. The junior averaged 16.3 points per game and shot 49 percent in his last three games.
There's a sense of desperation – and often depression – that enters the locker room late in every season. Teams hope to honor their seniors. Reggie Hearn and Alex Marcotullio have each provided some memorable moments for the program. Now, with what they have left, NU needs to make shots and eke out some victories. It begins at Purdue, where the Cats can make a statement by keeping their composure.
"I'm going to cherish every moment I have left," Marcotullio said. "I want to go out on top and leave here with no regrets."
They hope for a repeat effort against Purdue, and to return home with some late-season confidence. Every win means something, but these are only getting harder to come by.
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