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Column: A Loss in November, and Nothing More

by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)

Skip Myslenski has seen a lot of college basketball games over the years. He spent over three decades covering the sport for the Chicago Tribune and has seen some of the greatest games in college basketball history. Tonight’s game — a 75-55 Northwestern loss at the hands of Maryland — wasn’t one of them.

But there’s a message “the old guy who doesn’t use Twitter” asked me to relay to “all those bloggers” and fans: “Chill.”

The narrative surrounding Northwestern basketball will always be the NCAA Tournament until… well… the Wildcats make the NCAA Tournament. So, naturally, NU fans started discussing the Cats’ NCAA Tournament chances following Tuesday night’s blowout loss, and the conclusions weren’t kind to NU’s chances.

In his postgame press conference, NU point guard Dave Sobolewski was pressed about the big picture and whether this was a statement game. In his answer, Sobolewski was adamant.

“No,” he said. “It wasn’t. It was a November game against an ACC team. It’s not the end of the season.

“It was nothing more than a loss in November.”

He’s absolutely right. This game didn’t mean much for Northwestern’s NCAA Tournament hopes one way or the other. A win would have meant a nice resume-building win, but it wouldn’t have punched a ticket to March. A loss? All it means is a missed opportunity for a resume-builder, and lucky for NU, there are plenty of those left on the schedule before conference season even starts, with a trip to Baylor and visits from Butler and Stanford coming up. Lose all of those, and then fans can start to worry. But one loss? It doesn’t matter — not a one-point loss or a 20-point loss.

There are concerns to take from this game — most importantly, can NU defend when the other team goes on a run — but none that signal this team is destined for another NIT berth. With that in mind, here are some things to consider:

First: Northwestern shot 6-for-25 from beyond the arc. This team won’t be as good at three-point shooting as last year’s, but it won’t shoot as badly as it showed today. Off nights happen in basketball; this one was poorly-timed.

Second: Maryland is a really good team. In fact, it’s probably an NCAA Tournament team. Alex Len is one of the most underrated players in college basketball and possibly an NBA lottery pick, and the center-forward combination of Len and Dez Wells was a terrible matchup for a young NU frontcourt.

Third: The rebounding issue needs to be addressed, as the Wildcats were out-rebounded 47-to-19. That stat was inflated a bit because of how many shots NU missed — again, that won’t happen most games — but still an issue. The effort on the defensive glass in the second half was completely unacceptable. However, the NU frontcourt is still being pieced together, and young centers Alex Olah and Mike Turner will improve as the year goes on. This was by far their toughest test yet, and while there were a lot of problems, they also showed bright spots with great passing and a strong effort for rebounds in the first half. This team won’t out-rebound a lot of teams, but it won’t usually be this bad, and if the Wildcats take care of the ball like they normally do, that will help equalize things. After all, NU is in a much better situation at center this year than it was last year, and it will only get better as Olah and Turner gain experience.

Fourth: We know a lot of these issues are fixable — much more fixable than a lot of last year’s problems were. That’s a good thing for NU, especially since there is so much of the season left.

Bill Carmody still has a very young team on his hands, so it will take time to piece things together. While it’s young, this team is much more talented than last year's and it has the upside to compete with the best — a rarity during Carmody’s tenure. NU will look completely different in March than it does right now, and that has to be encouraging for Wildcats fans. After all, wins in March matter a lot more than wins in November.

So take this game for what it is: a loss in November. This wasn’t going to make or break NU’s chances of finally breaking the NCAA Tournament curse, and neither will the next game against Baylor. The Wildcats will need to get a big win in the non-conference season eventually, but it didn’t have to be tonight. This was one missed opportunity, but there are still plenty of opportunities left.

There will be a lot more games in this basketball season and a lot more games that are more meaningful than this one. So do yourselves a favor, NU fans, and chill. A loss in November doesn’t impact much of what happens in March.