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Northwestern delivering on defense — everywhere but the boards

Updated: January 23, 2013 12:01AM

Because the focus has been on establishing an offensive identity, what Northwestern is doing defensively has drawn less attention.

The Wildcats (11-8, 2-4 Big Ten) are limiting opponents to 62.1 points per game compared to 68.2 last season. Heading into Wednesday night’s game against No.  12 Minnesota (15-3, 3-2) at Welsh-Ryan Arena, NU opponents are making 41.5 percent of their field goals after converting 45.2 percent in 2011-12.

‘‘We’ve been playing pretty good defense all season,’’ sophomore guard Dave Sobolewski said. ‘‘We’ve had some rebounding trouble that hurt us against Indiana, but as a whole, our half-court defense has been really good.’’

The No. 2 Hoosiers outrebounded the Wildcats 36-24 on Sunday. The ratio was even more lopsided when Minnesota defeated visiting Northwestern 69-51 on Jan.  6. The Gophers had a whopping 47-20 rebounding edge in that game.

Finishing the job defensively means rebounding, where the Wildcats have struggled this season. They are ranked last in the Big Ten with 26.5 per game. Nebraska is 11th with 31.8.

‘‘As far as offense and defense, against Indiana, we did pretty well,’’ senior guard Reggie Hearn said. ‘‘The rebounding is what really killed us. They beat us by 12 on the boards. That was the biggest difference in the game, and we know that’s going to be the case against Minnesota.’’

Gophers forward Rodney Williams Jr. and guard Joe Coleman are recovering from injuries but are expected to play as coach Tubby Smith’s team tries to right itself after back-to-back losses.

Minnesota is ranked first in the Big Ten in offensive rebounds and rebounding margin.

‘‘Intensity and toughness have been a problem this year and for a couple years now,’’ Smith said. ‘‘We have to figure out a way to address that.’’

Transition defense will be important for NU after Austin Hollins hit several three-pointers in the last meeting. The Cats also have had success with their 1-3-1 defense, which helped them rally in the second half against Indiana.

‘‘They do such a good job of taking away of passing lanes from one side of the court to the other,’’ Smith said. ‘‘You try to swing it, but they force you to throw lobs and bounce passes. You have to be patient and very poised. It’s more to slow you down, as well as force turnovers and take away angles.’’

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