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Warning Signs Evident for Northwestern Basketball

by Jonah Rosenblum (@jonahlrosenblum)

In the famed Supreme Court case, Schenck v. United States, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously declared that the First Amendment would not protect a person “falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.” Thank goodness Justice Holmes never got to see the contemporary sports world, where every loss is turned into the fatal narrative of a season gone wrong and every win makes for a national championship contender.

Certainly Northwestern’s 77-57 loss to Maryland on Tuesday night shouldn’t be taken too far. Every program has its off nights. It’s not as if the Wildcats are going to shoot 34 percent every night. In some ways, it’s as simple as this. Northwestern is still dependent on its three-point shooting. It still relies on Reggie Hearn, Drew Crawford, Dave Sobolewski and Jared Swopshire to establish a perimeter threat. And again, it’s fairly certain that Northwestern will not go 6-for-25 from long range on too many nights.

But there are many causes for concern. First of all, it’s not like Northwestern was sloppy on offense Tuesday night. The Wildcats turned it over just four times, and actually held a +10 advantage in turnover margin against the Terrapins. To lose by 20 despite such a strong advantage is a little frightening.

Furthermore, Northwestern’s vaunted new-look interior game fell flat against real talent on Tuesday night. Alex Olah quickly racked up four fouls in 16 minutes of play. He exited with just three points on 1-of-4 shooting. Mike Turner wasn’t any better, making 1-of-6, with his only points coming from behind the three-point line. Neither could do anything about Alex Len, who made 6-of-11 to finish with 13 points and 13 rebounds. Is Len good? Absolutely, but Tuesday’s result doesn’t speak very well as to how Northwestern will handle Trevor Mbakwe and Cody Zeller. The fact that Maryland out-rebounded Northwestern, 42-15, is of vital concern. Obviously, Olah and Turner are both green and presumably will improve tremendously as the year goes on – at least, they’d better. But at the very least, Tuesday night proves that an old problem hasn’t quite gone away.

Of greater concern to me is the defense and notions that cannot be broken down into simple statistics. Northwestern is going to need production out of its 1-3-1 defense this year, particularly if Alex Olah, Jared Swopshire and Mike Turner prove incapable of handling Big Ten-level post players. That’s actually another area in which the Wildcats may miss John Shurna, since the forward did a valuable service in providing respectable interior defense for a team that lacked a true post player. Nevertheless, Shurna or no Shurna, Northwestern has always relied on a powerful 1-3-1 defense. Last night, that 1-3-1 defense was nowhere to be seen.

There’s no denying that Maryland shot the heck out of the ball on Tuesday night. That’s not going to happen against Northwestern every night. There were plenty of cases where the Terrapins were whizzing passes all around the court and the Wildcats were on them. Even without much of an opening, Maryland was hitting every shot on Tuesday. That happens. Sometimes, an opponent simply gets hot. The bigger concern emerging from Tuesday’s blowout defeat was how often the 1-3-1 defense fell apart before the ball had even crossed the timeline. On numerous plays, Maryland’s guards were able to get around a pressing Dave Sobolewski, Tre Demps or Reggie Hearn. With Sobolewski, Demps or Hearn desperately trying to catch up to his man, Maryland essentially had power play after power play, with a chance to attack the rim with a five-on-four advantage. Let’s put it this way. Northwestern’s opponents now have perfect instructional viewing on how to break down the Wildcats’ 1-3-1 defense. All they need to do is pop in tape from Tuesday’s game. The Terrapins provided a clinic at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

So, don’t get me wrong, Northwestern’s season is far from over. But with a schedule that includes stretches such as at Illinois, vs. Indiana, vs. Minnesota and at Ohio State, vs. Illinois and vs. Wisconsin, you’d be crazy not to be concerned – especially with a sloppy 1-3-1 defense, lingering issues on the boards and a slumping Drew Crawford (14 for his last 47 from the field).

Put it this way, I’m not shouting fire, but I think I might smell smoke.