After five straight wins, upsetting then-No. 1 Purdue (24-5, 13-5 B1G) and Indiana (20-9, 11-7 B1G), and being ranked No. 21 in last week’s AP poll, Northwestern men’s basketball (20-9, 11-7 B1G) lost to Illinois (19-10, 10-8 B1G) and Maryland (20-9, 11-7 B1G) last week, both games on the road.
As a result, the Wildcats lost their national ranking. (Ironically, Maryland replaced them at No. 21.) Now, they find themselves at risk of losing the valuable double-bye in the B1G tournament with just two regular season games remaining. But before head coach Chris Collins and the team can worry about the tournament, they’ll need to fix what went wrong over the weekend.
Thursday, February 23 – Illinois 66, Northwestern 62
This game could’ve been remembered as a Boo Buie masterclass. The fourth-year guard scored a career-high 35 points, dropping 22 of those in the first half to propel the ’Cats to a 37-19 lead. To add to the iconography, Buie’s jersey was ripped in the first half, and he had to wear a replacement No. 4 jersey for the rest of the game.
In the second half, the game turned. Illinois’ shooting percentage skyrocketed from 34% in the first to 54% in the second, while Northwestern’s luck shooting the three-pointer (8-16 in the first half) withered away (1-5 in the second). The Fighting Illini were able to claw back into the game, and with 1:16 left in the game, fourth-year guard Terrence Shannon Jr. – who came off the bench to score 26 points of his own – hit a layup to give Illinois a lead it would not relinquish.
While Buie dominated on offense, the rest of the team left much to be desired. Brooks Barnhizer was the only other player to score a double-digit total with 11, and the team outside of Buie shot 25.6% from the field.
The game also shone a light on one of the biggest flaws of this Northwestern team: blowing leads. The Wildcats also held a 19-point lead at halftime against Indiana at home before the Hoosiers clawed back, and while they were fortunately able to win that game, they only won by two. When leading at halftime, Northwestern has been outscored in the second half six times this year.
Sunday, February 26 – Maryland 75, Northwestern 59
While the Illinois loss was due to NU blowing a lead in the second half, this game was a close battle that saw the ’Cats run out of steam.
Northwestern went back and forth with the Terrapins for the entirety of the first half, entering the second only down two. From there, NU’s offense couldn’t keep up, and lost in a blowout.
Part of the issues with the offense came from Buie. In an inverse of the previous game, Buie was held to 1-9 shooting against Maryland, and finished the game with just four points. While he did get 8 assists, Buie’s scoring is paramount to Northwestern’s offensive success.
Northwestern joined all of Maryland’s other Big Ten opponents in not being able to win at the XFINITY Center, Maryland’s home arena, but the loss makes NU’s final two games that much more important.
They’ll play Penn State (17-12, 8-10 B1G) at home on Wednesday in a senior day matchup, and Rutgers (18-11, 10-8 B1G) in New Jersey the following Sunday. The Wildcats currently rank at fourth in the conference, and will need to keep that top-four standing if they are to secure a double bye in the Big Ten tournament. Being able to get some rest and immediate entry into the quarterfinals of the tournament would provide a huge boon for the team, but they’ve gotta handle business down the stretch to earn it.