I'll preface the most critical thing I'll write about the Northwestern basketball team in some time with a story from the Blomquist gym.
My fraternity has two white league intramural teams: the a-squad, the Fighting Chabraja's, named after alumnus and former CEO of General Dynamics, Nicholas Chabraja, and the b-squad, named Sigma Nu, after the abandoned fraternity next door. (Apologies to any former members of Sigma Nu for taking your name - also, any of you want your composites?) For two years, I have been the star and leading scorer of Sig Nu and have led us to a blistering 1-7 record. But this year came with hope; some of our freshmen can really play, and for the first time, we had a group of about ten guys who actually routinely play basketball.
Last week, we had our first game, against a bunch of kids from Plex whose roster was about half-female. We figured it would be an easy victory. However, on gameday, conflicts began springing up. About half our team had some sort of conflict or other, and with about an hour before tip-off, I found myself running up and down the stairs looking for available bodies, which turned into seven guys, one of whom was a chain-smoker hadn't shot a basketball in 11 months, one of whom hadn't eaten all day, and the last of which was, in his words, "too high to be good at basketball, but not high enough to think I'm playing well". The other four of us aren't great at basketball, but we figured we had a shot against a weak team.
We showed up, and instead of the bunch of girls and nerdy Plex residents, there were like 15 guys doing organized layup lines. They came out in a full-court press. It was clear that they only had one dude who could shoot and we stayed with them for five or six minutes. I felt good, putting in a layup of an offensive board and swatting some guy who tried putting a layup over me, leading me to to mutter at him not to drive against me again as he went to retrieve the ball from out of bounds. But as they subbed in new lines of players, we got tired and started turning the ball over repeatedly before crossing half-court. About a minute before halftime, the dude who hadn't eaten all day sprinted off the floor in the middle of a defensive possession to go throw up in the bathroom (they scored, we called timeout) and at halftime, the dude who was high followed suit. We switched into a 2-3 zone because it was clear their strategy was just to run around and they had a designed set with a center in the middle of the zone and guys flashing on the base line. In the second half, the dude who hadn't eaten all day started cramping up, they stopped pressing and brought in their worse players, we basically stopped running and just jacked up threes, and we ended up losing by about 20.
We wouldn't have won that game if we had 10 dudes: the other team was probably more talented and practiced together which we foolishly hadn't (and still haven't, but we have time to fix that). But without the majority of our team, we didn't have a shot.
Northwestern does not have a full Big Ten basketball team at its disposal right now. For two halves of their past two games, they were competitive, trailing by two at the half to Wisconsin and staying more or less in the same hole at the end of the blowout loss to Minnesota as they were at the beginning of the second half. For the other two, they were absolutely eviscerated on the road, looking stagnant and out of sorts offensively and lackadaisical on defense.
Right now, Northwester is mired in the middle of Big Ten play without a roster with the depth to win games. With JerShon Cobb and Tre Demps out with injuries, Nikola Cerina sitting out a mandatory year due to transfer rules, Michael Turner apparently not ready for college basketball, Northwestern has shown up to play quality Big Ten road venues with two all-conference scorers in John Shurna and Drew Crawford, a true freshman at point guard in Dave Sobolewski, a three-point specialist in Alex Marcotullio, a former walk-on in Reggie Hearn, two centers in Davide Curletti and Luka Mirkovic, one who has been passable and the other who has transformed into a defensive liability, and a scorer who hasn't cracked the rotation in four years in Nick Fruendt. A few injuries have turned what looked like a tourney team into one playing sophomore walk-on James Montgomery III in actual significant minutes as the team's eighth man in the first half against Wisconsin, and saw Fruendt - whose scoring ability has been touted, but who is apparently poor enough defensively to merit him not seeing any significant playing time through three years - used as the defense end of an offense-defense sub when Reggie Hearn saw foul trouble against Michigan State. This is not the best way to use the scholarship slots allotted. Northwestern is extraordinarily thin, and it's starting to kill them.
Some of you will certainly blame Bill Carmody for having a hodgepodge roster 12 years into his career. I'll posit that with the team at full strength, it can be quite good, and even with the team he has, NU has turned in some good performances, just not in the past two games with 7.5 guys. Some of you will say he's devoid of blame because of injuries. I'd say there's no reason your team should be thin enough that a couple of injuries - one of which, Demps' problem, was known before the year - should be this toxic.
It's unfortunate that there's been a spate of injuries; those are out of everybody's control. But a) those injuries were to two unproven entities in the first place and b) you shouldn't be in a scenario, like my IM team was, where the loss of a few role players sees your team fall into an abyss of exhaustion and - unlike my IM team - entirely dependent on the day-to-day whims of two players who both have to be clicking for your team to have a shot.
I have hope for Northwestern. This has been a murderous stretch of games, and before these two losses, things were pretty good - one expected win, one upset win, two heartbreaking losses against quality opponents that seemed indicative of an ability to perform at a high level - but things seem to be tumbling apart. Northwestern is blessed with a week-long break heading into its next game, a home date against a good Purdue squad. It's seven days to heal the bumps and bruises JerShon Cobb and Alex Marcotullio have been ailing from and get a little less tired, which, unlike my IM team, will leave them with a solid roster and hopes of competing. Some wins will wax off some of the scratches NU's chances of making the tournament have accumulated. The goal of dancing is still a thing, with well over half of the conference schedule, as well as the conference tourney, still on the horizon. People who are saying otherwise because of two bad outings are just as stupid as people calling it a done deal after beating, oh, I don't know, Mississippi Valley State. But it's going to take some herculean efforts from an unfortunately short-handed roster that won't get significantly deeper, even if everybody heals their wounds without suffering any more through the season's final third.