by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)
Hardly anybody outside the Illinois-Chicago program could have expected the Flames to beat Northwestern on Saturday, but in a Wildcats season where little has gone as expected, UIC’s 50-44 win at Welsh-Ryan Arena is a fitting part of NU’s early-season narrative.
Before the season, the biggest question seemed to be whether coach Bill Carmody would be able to find enough playing time for his supposedly deep bench. Now he’s begging for someone — anyone — to step up.
“We haven’t gotten the production I’d expected off our bench,” Carmody said.
Who can step up? That’s not clear right now. Carmody hoped freshman forward Kale Abrahamson would be the answer on Saturday, but he didn’t see much time on the floor and has been over-anxious a lot of the time this year. Then there is Sanjay Lumpkin, who Carmody was excited about before the year, but is still recovering from mononucleosis. Guard Alex Marcotullio is struggling with back pain, while forward Nikola Cerina is out for “awhile” with an ankle injury.
Center Mike Turner has been NU’s “sixth man” for most of this year, replacing Alex Olah off the bench, and while he has been impressive on defense, his offensive has struggled. That was true again against UIC.
“I didn’t think Mike did a very good job,” Carmody said. “Defensively, he was okay in the first half, but he’s been turning the ball over, and it’s not good. I don’t know what’s going to happen there. He’s not shooting the ball well, he’s getting pretty good shots and those 17-foot jump shots which I thought would be going in by now, but they’re not.”
So who else? Guard Tre Demps has struggled when given time this year and center Chier Ajou clearly isn’t ready to play very many minutes, despite burning his redshirt. Unless someone steps up — “Maybe Kale can do that, maybe Sanjay,” Carmody said — depth looks like a major concern just eight games into the season.
But Saturday afternoon, it wasn’t just the bench that struggled. Starting forward Jared Swopshire turned in his worst performance of the season by far, finishing with zero points. Olah was more aggressive than he was against Maryland, but was out-played by UIC big man Josh Crittle. Drew Crawford semi-broke out of a scoring funk finishing with 18 points, but the shots didn’t start falling until late in the game.
It was an off night for most of the Wildcats players, so it’s fitting that this loss was so atypical of NU teams. Most of the times, NU loses because it is out-muscled down low and struggles to play defense, but the Cats keep things close by playing smart offensively.
NU out-rebounded UIC 39-to-34 and held the Flames to 31 percent shooting, but the Wildcats shot poorly themselves and had an uncharacteristic 16 turnovers to UIC’s 10.
“You have 16 turnovers, and it’s just too many,” Carmody said. “That’s 16 times you probably don’t get a shot.”
Aside from the turnovers, NU potentially kept 10 points on the floor with poor foul shooting. After impressive numbers from the charity stripe in the South Padre Island Invitational, the Cats went 10-for-20 against UIC, just four days after struggling against Maryland.
“We’re going to have to bust out of that,” Carmody said. “You work on that, but most of it is a mental thing.”
The road only gets tougher, with a trip to Baylor — the Bears just beat Kentucky on the road — coming up this week. With the bench struggling, NU needs to find someone to step up and it needs to play much cleaner than it did on Saturday.
“I think we definitely need an injection of offense,” Carmody said.
Who will that injection be? Abrahamson? Lumpkin? Whoever it is, they better arrive soon, because the margin for error is getting a lot slimmer.