DePaul versus Northwestern preview: Will we get another thriller?


Pantelis Xidias has gained notoriety for his unique antics on DePaul’s bench. Richard Bodee I The DePaulia

A longstanding Chicago hoops rivalry enters its 34th chapter when the DePaul Blue Demons battle the Northwestern Wildcats Saturday at 11 a.m. at the recently renovated Welsh-Ryan Arena in Evanston, Ill.

The matchup between the two teams last season was an instant classic. DePaul star Max Strus poured in a tied-for-a-season-high 33 points, but a potentially game-tying Eli Cain running floater caromed away harmlessly on the Blue Demons last possession of the game as Northwestern escaped 62-60 in front of an energized Wintrust Arena crowd.

It was the third installment in a five-year series between the two teams as the programs continue to gain traction as legitimate rivals within the scope of Chicago’s college basketball scene. The rivalry dates back to 1970 with DePaul holding a 20-13 advantage, although the Wildcats have won four of the last five matchups.

After beating the Penn State Nittany Lions earlier in the season in dramatic fashion (72-70 in overtime), the Blue Demons now have a chance to beat their second Big Ten opponent this season. If they do it, it’d be the first time since the 1995-1996 season that they’ve beaten two Big Ten teams in the same season (caveat: they don’t play multiple Big Ten teams every season). DePaul has an all-time record of 85-81 against current members of the Big Ten Conference.

Per its No. 47 Ken Pomeroy ranking, Northwestern is a lot better than what its record shows. The senior trio of Vic Law (17.8 points per game; 45.7 percent from the 3-point line), Dererk Pardon (14.4 points per game on 67.1 percent from the field; 9.1 rebounds), and Ryan Taylor (12.9 points per game) handle much of the scoring. If you thought that the Blue Demons had a thin rotation (they’ve ran about seven deep all season), the Wildcats also have a seven-man rotation but only four of the seven average more than five points per game. Law, Pardon, and Taylor have combined for 63 percent of the Wildcats points, 52 percent of the rebounds, and 45 percent of the assists this season.

The Wildcats are 0-2 in the Big Ten, but again the record doesn’t tell the whole story. They gave No. 5 Michigan all it could handle in a 62-60 loss at Welsh-Ryan Arena and recently lost another heartbreaker against a solid Indiana team as well. The Wildcats only bad loss this season was a 78-59 thumping against Fresno State on Nov. 22, but they have otherwise taken care of business against the opponents they should beat.

After offseason lung surgery, Pardon has averaged career highs (per 40 minutes) in points, rebounds, assists, and field goal percentage. He’s 235 pounds, has good length making him a good defender, and has some ability to step out and knock down 3-point field goals (2-for-5 this season). He averaged 22 points on 80 percent from the field in his first two Big Ten games against quality opponents in Indiana and Michigan. The Blue Demons may choose to stop him by committee, throwing Jaylen Butz, Paul Reed, and Femi Olujobi at him at various points during the game.

As rangy, athletic wings, the matchup between Strus (depending if he plays after sitting out against Florida A&M with an ankle tweak), and Law will probably be the premiere one to watch.

Northwestern will test a Blue Demon offense that has struggled with their outside shooting and has been susceptible to slow starts. The Wildcats have the 26th-best defense in the nation by adjusted defensive efficiency, giving up a stingy 61.9 points per game to opponents on 42.7 percent from the field. They also turn teams over at a decent rate so taking care of the ball is going to be important for the Blue Demon ball handlers.

This game is another early season barometer that should give us a better idea whether DePaul is closer to the team that beat Penn State or the one that got blown out by Notre Dame.