Northwestern men’s basketball (12-12, 5-10 B1G) continues to be an incredibly confusing team. They have one of the more potent offenses in the league, but can’t seem to get out of their own way. They can hold their own against some of the top teams in the country, but can’t finish the job down late. They’ve pulled off incredibly impressive wins, and suffered through some slogging, awful losses. So when they rattled off an impressive three-game win streak in the middle of conference play, people hoped the ’Cats may have finally gotten over their struggles and could be making a push for postseason play.
Despite this, the ’Cats couldn’t keep their momentum going, and dropped two tough games to some of the best teams in the nation this week as they lost 73-66 at No. 13 Illinois (18-7, 11-4 B1G) on Sunday afternoon and 70-64 against No. 5 Purdue (23-4, 12-4 B1G) at home Wednesday night. In both games, the ’Cats struggled to lock down defensively and push the offense to keep pace, with poor shooting following the team throughout the stretch.
“I think we've had a pretty good balance this year, to be quite honest, in who's attacking that basket,” Collins said after one of the games. “We’ve got to be a function of our movement or cutting. When we're going well, we get a lot of cuts, we play out of the five out and we get back cuts and get guys to the basket and try to exploit areas there, but we’ve got to do a better job. I wasn't pleased tonight with the offensive output and, and certainly I'll watch the film and try to put a little bit better game plan together.”
The losses were hard to swallow for Wildcat fans, as the team showed significant potential in both games but failed to close the gap on their top-ranked opponents.
For example, the loss to Illinois could have been a lot worse, as the ’Cats suffered a significant deficit early on; after just 12 minutes of play, the Illini led Northwestern 32-17, and led by as many as 17 with two minutes to play. The problem was evident for anyone watching at home: the team was putting so much attention on junior center Kofi Cockburn – whose seven-foot frame places a real problem in the paint for any team – that they were failing to lock down the perimeter, as guards like senior Alfonso Plummer sank plenty of shots from downtown.
That didn’t mean they completely locked down Cockburn, however, as he managed to knock down some shots himself.
Northwestern wasn’t completely dead in the water, however. The ’Cats tried to claw back in the second half with some excellent play by junior forward Ryan Berry and sophomore guard Ty Berry, opening up the floodgates from downtown. The ’Cats also found a way to pick up some key steals defensively, leading to a change in momentum – and a 19-2 run – to push the deficit to just one point.
But it was too little, too late. Despite 12 steals from the ’Cats and a chance to pull off the impossible, Illinois played their size to their advantage once again, picking up some key free throws down the line. It was a simple problem for Northwestern: they had the flash and the grit, but not the ability to finish the job, whether that's thanks to being picked apart defensively at the three-point line – like they have been all season – or just a size advantage in the paint, as both Cockburn and Plummer finished with 19 points.
The game against Purdue was largely the same as the ’Cats faced a new problem: Purdue's even larger sophomore center Zach Edey, standing at 7-foot-4. Edey quietly picked up 14 points for the Boilermakers, but his impact was felt in the interior, as it once again opened up some fantastic opportunities for downtown shooting from sophomore forward Mason Gillis, who went three-for-four from beyond the arc.
While the ’Cats only ended up losing by six, this game was all but decided halfway through the second half. Purdue led by as much as 15 points with just under seven minutes to play, thanks to the efforts of players like Edey and Gillis down the stretch. The bigger story, however, was Northwestern’s inability to shoot well in crucial moments, as they went just 21-for-60 – roughly 35% – from the floor.
“We’ve got to shoot the ball better, we’ve got to put it in the hole, we’ve got to make some shots,” Collins said after the game. “We’re not going to get it done like I said shoot 35% against these guys, because you’ve got to score. That’s such a prolific offensive team, so you’ve got to put the ball in the basket. We’ve got to iron that out and get that fixed for Saturday afternoon.”
Despite matching their higher-ranked opponent in almost every other statistic (including assists and rebounds) and having double the amount of steals, Northwestern couldn’t get the job done offensively, and struggled to hold back their opponent in their defensive zone. It’s puzzling: the ’Cats can compete with some of the top teams in the country once they're on a roll, but they just can’t play a full forty minutes.
“I thought our defense was pretty good,” Collins said. “I thought we did some good things on that, and I felt we played really hard, we pretty much played head up on the glass, you know, they only had seven offensive rebounds. So a lot of the areas we tried to focus on if we did some good things on that.”
While there may be little hope left for the postseason, the ’Cats still have a chance to figure it out and make a key run later, with games against teams like Nebraska (7-18, 1-13 B1G) – who they beat 87-63 earlier this season – and Penn State (11-12, 6-9 B1G), who they lost to earlier this year. There’s plenty to get done, so hopefully the ’Cats can play a complete game soon.