Northridge boys basketball coach Ronnie Thomas stayed for just the first half when he scouted NorthWood earlier this week at New Prairie.
That was plenty long enough to confirm some of his chief concerns, and it was far more than how long it was a game.
The Class 3A No. 9-ranked Panthers (9-0), off to the deepest undefeated start in NorthWood history by three games, welcome Thomas’ Raiders (9-1) to The Pit on Friday, Jan. 17, as the Northern Lakes Conferences two preseason favorites collide to see which will improve to 3-0 in the league.
“They’re for real,” Thomas said after watching the Panthers bolt to a 41-18 halftime lead Tuesday over a New Prairie club that went in at 5-2 with wins over the likes of Valparaiso (7-4) and Culver (7-1). “They can put up points in a hurry, can score them inside or outside, and they get after you defensively. Their guys have really bought in defensively.”
The Panthers are allowing just 43.1 points per game while averaging 56.9.
NorthWood’s led by the 1-2 punch of senior forwards Zach Zurcher (18.8 points per game) and Jonathan Wilkinson (16.1), a pair of third-year starters whom Thomas referred to as “ those two cannons.”
“No. 1 will be getting back and stopping the ball the way they can fly up the floor,” Thomas said of what might be pivotal against the Panthers. “I think that will be most important with those two cannons they’ve got. Those are two very talented guys who can score from a multitude of positions, and then their other players really complement them. (Braxton) Linville is really looking to distribute, but can attack at the same time. They’ve got some shooters, and Will Stueve is a threat in the post offensively and defensively. We’re going to have to bring our best game.”
Panther coach Aaron Wolfe says his team will need to do likewise.
“Northridge is very efficient on offense,” Wolfe said. “They have multiple players who can hurt you, they have both an interior and perimeter presence, and then you throw in such a dynamic, versatile scorer in Nate Ritchie and it puts a lot of pressure on your defense. Their defense is very sound and they’re a very good rebounding team. It’s pretty difficult to beat them, and to do so, you’re going to have to play very good basketball in all three phases.”
Ritchie, a 6-foot-6 senior and already a two-time All-Area first-teamer, is averaging an area-leading 24.5 points per game. Junior guard Pete Smith is at 11.0 and coming off a game-winning shot at the buzzer against Warsaw.
The Raiders’ only loss was a 68-65 decision at Penn. The Kingsmen (9-0) have since ascended to No. 4 in the coaches’ all-classes poll, and Northridge is one of just two opponents they haven’t beaten by at least 11 points.
“We’re a bucket or two from possibly being 10-and-0,” Thomas said, “so we have to be happy with that, but we can’t worry about that. We just worry about improving. We have to improve our defense and rebounding. So far, we’ve made shots and really backed our defense.”
Improvement remains a main objective for NorthWood as well.
“I think I’m most proud that our players are continuing to improve,” Wolfe said. “It’s starting to be the middle of the season, and I feel like we still have a team that wants to get better, which is exciting.”
Few area series have been better or more topsy-turvy over the years than the Panthers vs. the Raiders.
NorthWood ruled 61-46 last season, but the three meetings prior to that one each went into overtime. Further, the road team has won the last three and five of the last seven matchups.
Among other games Friday:
Elkhart Memorial (4-5, 2-0) tries to keep surprising pace with the Northridge/NorthWood winner when it visits Wawasee (1-8, 0-2). Mark Barnhizer will be seeking his 100th victory as Charger coach.
The final two Northern Indiana Conference unbeatens face off when Penn (9-0, 3-0) heads to South Bend Washington (7-2, 2-0). The Kingsmen are 12-1 in their last 13 road or neutral-site games dating back to early last season.
Jimtown (5-4, 1-1) looks to stay in the thick of the Northern State Conference race when it hosts New Prairie (5-3, 2-0). The Cougars have beaten the Jimmies three straight times.
Marian pays its first-ever visit to parochial rival South Bend St. Joseph’s second-year gym. The Knights are 4-5 overall and 2-1 in the NIC, the Indians 5-4 and 1-2.
Friday, Jan. 17
Mishawaka (3-6) vs. Elkhart Central (3-6) at North Side Gym
Elkhart Memorial (4-6) at Wawasee (1-8)
Concord (6-3) at Plymouth (4-5)
New Prairie (5-3) at Jimtown (5-4)
Northridge (9-1) at NorthWood (9-0)
Goshen (4-6) at Warsaw (8-3)
Penn (9-0) at SB Washington (7-2)
Marian (4-5) at SB St. Joseph (5-4)
Prairie Heights (8-2) at Westview (5-2) and West Noble (9-0) at Eastside (6-5) in NECC Tournament semifinals
SB Trinity (8-5) at Clinton Christian (7-6)
Edwardsburg at Dowagiac
Saturday, Jan. 18
Wawasee vs. Elkhart Central at North Side Gym
Hobart (3-7) at Elkhart Memorial (on Memorial campus)
Elkhart Christian (7-2) at Oregon-Davis (2-7 before Argos Friday)
Friday’s semifinal winners in NECC Tournament final at West Noble