There’s perhaps no worse feeling being right on the cusp of a major breakthrough, yet coming up just short; years of hard work being rendered useless in the end; the inability to finish the job.
Northwestern men's basketball (9-8, 2-6 B1G) perhaps know frustration better than anyone else. They have had some spectacular highs – including a 64-62 win over No. 10 Michigan State (15-3, 8-1 B1G) on Jan. 15 without their best player – but are more known by the disheartening lows they’ve endured, including their two most recent games. They dropped an 82-76 home loss to No. 11 Wisconsin (15-3, 6-2 B1G) and an 80-60 drubbing against No. 6 Purdue (16-3, 5-3 B1G) this past Sunday.
Playing three top-25 teams back-to-back-to-back is certainly far from the easiest thing to pull off, but there are a lot of good things happening for the ’Cats. The first two games against the Spartans and Badgers, in particular, had lots to get excited about.
For example, Northwestern’s win against Michigan State highlighted some of their best “role” players, due to an injury to senior forward Pete Nance. In his first start of the season, junior center Ryan Young worked his magic in the post, scoring 18 points and nabbing eight rebounds, including perhaps the biggest play of the game: a clutch and-1 layup to keep the ’Cats on top.
Other players also stepped up for the ’Cats – junior guard Chase Audige notched 14 points and seven rebounds, while junior guard Boo Buie swished 12 points – but the story of the game was Northwestern’s ability to clamp down defensively. After allowing more than 90 points each of their previous two games, they allowed just 62 points to be scored and held Michigan State to just 43% field goal shooting, including a low 6-for-21 three-point shooting. After struggling to defend the perimeter all season, it seemed the ’Cats had finally found their footing, despite going just 10-for-17 from the free throw line.
“Needless to say, this was a really important win for us after what we’ve been through here the last few games,” Northwestern head coach Chris Collins said after the game. “[We felt] like we were on the doorstep in three of the last four games.”
That is, it seemed. Northwestern came into their game against the mighty Badgers with everything going for them: their highest home attendance this season, the return of Nance from injury, and their high-scoring offense returning to form, with Audige and Buie scoring 23 and 19 points respectively.
But once again, Northwestern couldn’t finish the job, losing 82-76. Wisconsin won in a game that saw all five of their starters score double-digit point totals, including a 27-point effort from sophomore guard Johnny Davis, who was said after the game to be making his case for best player in the conference.
The problem for Northwestern in this kind of game was their inability to just dot all their i’s and cross their t’s. The ’Cats went 3-for-8 at the free throw line – five points they certainly could have used in the six-point loss – but more importantly, they allowed themselves to be completely spread out defensively, watching as Wisconsin went 9-for-17 from the three-point line, and 28-for-54 from the floor. While Northwestern ended up taking 71 shots of their own – sinking 33 of them – they just could not complete the job down the stretch.
What to take away from this? Simply put: Northwestern’s floor defense and fundamentals are holding them back. As we’ve previously explained, the ’Cats have one of the better shooting offenses in the Big Ten, and one of the best offensive schemes in the country; their assist-to-turnover ratio is still first in the nation, and their assists-per-game remains in the top 10. When it comes to the little things, however, they fall short: they foul frequently, they miss the few foul shots they get, and they can’t seem to defend the three-point shot well enough. The team’s offense keeps them in these games.
And yet, sometimes even the offense falls short, like it did in Sunday morning’s 80-60 loss to Purdue. In the loss, Buie was the only Wildcat to breach a double-digit point total – scoring 17 points – but it seemed like Purdue knew about their defensive weakness, taking a whopping 29 downtown shots and making 12 of them. The Boilermakers’ senior guard Sasha Stefanovich especially benefited, making six of 10 from behind the arc.
“Coming into the game you kind of feel like if you can hold their two big guys to 24 combined you should have a chance,” Collins said after the Purdue game. “But they were still able to get to 80 points because of what the other guys did.”
Here’s the most frustrating part: Northwestern knows they have the potential to pull off these kinds of wins. They beat Michigan State by holding the line defensively, they find a way to get in deep and find themselves in the clutch, and they have been able to pull off some incredible moments throughout the season. They just can’t seem to execute. While the common press conference quote post-game is that they’ll “fix it in the next practice,” time is running out. Only 12 regular season games remain.
In short, the ’Cats have a to-do list: work on their defensive scheme, find a way to push the perimeter and make their free throws.
Can they manage to get it done tomorrow at Michigan? Here’s hoping. I can’t take anymore of this.