by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
As Northwestern University president Morton Schapiro strolled toward the Welsh-Ryan Arena exit doors, decked in a Wildcats purple v-neck sweater, his wife wearing a bemused grin, Schapiro tried to downplay the 77-57 bludgeoning he watched unfold on his homecourt.
“They’ve got a lottery pick,” Schapiro remarked to one of the many dejected Northwestern fans left disappointed by the Terrapins’ beatdown. “We’ll be ok.”
The player Schapiro was referring to is Alex Len, who scored 13 points, snared 13 rebounds blocked two shots and altered countless more in Maryland’s romp. Schapiro is right in pegging Len as a likely lottery pick in next year’s draft. But his comment missed a larger point. Northwestern didn’t lose because they were facing a lottery pick. In fact, that lottery pick didn’t play anywhere near his best basketball of the season. He didn’t need to, either. Maryland was the better team on all fronts. Neither improved shooting – the Wildcats finished 18-of-53 from the floor and 6-of-25 from three – nor better defense could have deterred Tuesday night’s ultimate outcome. Lessen the margin of defeat? Sure – but not reverse the final score. Northwestern was soundly overmatched.
Asked about his impressions from tonight’s ACC-Big Ten challenge contest, Maryland coach Mark Turgeon uncorked a subtle shot to Northwestern’s basketball confidence. “I didn’t think it was going to be like this,” he said.
Truth is, Turgeon couldn’t have summed it up any better. We knew Northwestern entered this game with severe size and athleticism disadvantages. We knew Maryland had more NBA talent. We knew – after the Terrapins’ three-point loss on opening night to Kentucky – Maryland was well capable of hanging with some of the best teams in the country, that its postseason destiny probably includes a top-eight NCAA Tournament seed. What we didn’t know was that Maryland would find ways to expose Northwestern in such devastating fashion.
An optimist would look at Northwestern’s loss as one of many equivalent November nonconference games. Sure, this was a huge opportunity for the Wildcats. Maryland is a quality ACC team with a Tournament birth well in its sights. A win would have given the Wildcats an optimal start to the tough portion of its nonconference slate, but the schedule offers chance for redemption: there’s next week’s Baylor game. Or a home date with Butler four days later, and one with Stanford on December 21. So yeah, taking one on the chin here hurts, but if we look at all college basketball games as equal entities in a resume-building continuum, then Tuesday night’s loss is but a mere minor setback in the grander portrait of the Northwestern’s entire season.
Judging by his words, point guard Dave Sobolewski is very much on board with that kind forecast. “It was a November game against an ACC team,” he said. “It’s not the end of the season.”
There’s one problem with that rosy outlook. The problems that felled these Wildcats down the stretch last season – rebounding woes, size disadvantages in the frontcourt, half-court defense – resurfaced in dangerously large quantities. Maryland didn’t just break Northwestern’s ineffectual 1-3-1 defense. It didn’t just shut down the Princeton offense. It sapped the optimism out of the Wildcats 6-0 start. Leading up to this game, Northwestern had made easy work of most of its opponents. Save for Saturday night’s overtime win over Illinois State, Northwestern had yet to be pushed to the brink. Maryland – the first true quality opponent on the Wildcats’ schedule – toppled that confidence and erased the lingering optimism of the undefeated start.
The Wildcats are more than capable of rebounding from a loss like this. The jitters of a big non-conference game seemed to throw Northwestern out of sync, and Maryland – who excised their early-season angst against Kentucky – pounced on the opportunity. There’s good reason to expect the product you witnessed Tuesday night to evolve into something more palatable by the start of the conference season. The Wildcats could be a much-improved team, having corrected the flaws you witnessed Tuesday night, once Michigan rolls into Evanston on January 3 for the Big Ten opener.
But if you were looking for a hint of optimism as the Wildcats get into the teeth of their nonleague schedule, Tuesday night provided exactly the opposite. This wasn’t “just another nonconference game” because it was the first time this season Northwestern faced the type of opponent they’ll need to beat in order to prove themselves before the selection committee come March.
And that’s what this all really boils down to. The Wildcats have more than three months to clean up their profile and prove Tuesday night’s drubbing was an anomaly. If the Maryland loss was a catalyst, then perhaps it’s exactly the jolt Northwestern needed to spark a strong nonconference season.
Or it could be a sign of things to come, in which case Northwestern – and the defeated Wildcats fans who showed up Tuesday night – will remember Tuesday night for all the wrong reasons.