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Northwestern's 50-44 Loss to UIC Raises Major Concerns

by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn

EVANSTON, Ill. -- November sluggishness in college basketball can be explained away with platitudes and appeals to patience. The nonconference season is a time when teams come together and figure out their identity. It’s when the maturation and collective growth process begins. Peak performance level is a distant concept at this early stage, so it’s not at all uncommon to urge calmness and equanimity. After all, with much of the season left to be played, what’s there to worry about?

That was the trope most commonly invoked to assuage the post-game alarmism of Northwestern’s 77-57 defeat to Maryland Tuesday night. The Terrapins were the better team, trotted out a future lottery pick at center, and could very well compete for an ACC title this season. It was no secret why they overwhelmed Northwestern Tuesday night.

That wait-and-see approach reached its expiration point Saturday, when Northwestern gave every reason to believe the Maryland loss was just as much about themselves as it was the Terrapins. The Wildcats played flat from the tip against UIC, never able to shake the plucky Flames, and as the game wore on, and the Wildcats missed open shot after open shot – they finished 15-of-42 from the field – and clanked free throw after free throw (10-of-20), any lingering hope that Tuesday night’s blowout loss was merely a byproduct of Maryland’s immense potential slipped away in frustration.

Pinning this defeat entirely on Northwestern’s shortcomings would be a disservice to UIC. Howard Moore’s team deserves a great deal of credit for playing disciplined and composed basketball. They obstructed Northwestern’s Princeton offense by shutting down passing lanes, contested every jump shot and crashed the glass with purpose. UIC came to play – on that there is no debate.

Nor was Northwestern's loss an iredeemable performance -- positivity came in spurts. The Wildcats defended very well (UIC finished 17-of-55 from the floor). Freshman center Alex Olah was, in the words of coach Bill Carmody, "more aggressive." And if this was just about Northwestern beating itself , if the  Wildcats' letdown could be attributed to petty mental mistakes or poorly timed scheduling, the loss would be far less concerning than it is.

Here’s the problem: good teams overcome bad performances. They find ways to get buckets when jump shots aren’t falling. They use collective strength and mental focus to get by missed free throws and errant passes. Northwestern couldn’t do any of that. When it needed a spark, no one stepped up. When trailing by two points, less than one-minute to go and in dire need of a quick score, the Wildcats shrunk from the moment. That has nothing to do with textbook early-season struggles or lack of chemistry. Northwestern couldn’t get the offense it needed because the offense, for the second straight game, looked out of sync. There was no cohesion, no fluidity, no sense of urgency. Two games is a small sample size, but the talent differential between Northwestern’s two opponents implies the offensive downturn is less blip than trend.

There’s no doubt that Northwestern played one of its worst games of the season. That’s not the issue. Bad games are going to happen as a natural strain of a grueling 30-game schedule. By that same token, the Wildcats are more than capable of rebounding from a two-game swoon. In the next week alone, Northwestern has two excellent opportunities for massive nonconference wins: at Baylor and home against Butler.

What happened Saturday merits greater concern. The Princeton offense was rendered ineffective, and Northwestern was forced to settle for end-of-the-shot clock jumpers and isolation looks. The normal backdoor cuts and confusing hand offs didn't phase UIC, and Northwestern was left to settle for low-percentage shots. The game was played on UIC's terms, at their pace. Against teams like Maryland, establishing offensive rhythm is always a challenge. Developing any kind of consistency on the low-post with a player like Alex Len guarding the rim is a huge ask for most teams. The Flames don't have any first-round picks on their roster, nor are they of the caliber of most of the teams Northwestern will face this season. UIC was projected to finish 8th in the Horizon League's preseason media poll.

Despite its poor shooting, and its inefficiency from the line, Northwestern should have been able to run its sets, spread the floor and create quality scoring opportunities. Instead, the Wildcats carried over the same ineffective offense we saw Tuesday night. The main difference: UIC is not Maryland. The Flames had no business shutting down the Wildcats. That they did, and made it look relatively easy while doing so, raises serious questions about Northwestern's offensive ability going forward.

The ineffectiveness of Northwestern’s offense was alarming not only because of how many shots it missed, but because it couldn’t get the shots it wanted. Unlike Tuesday night’s loss, where Maryland’s athletic and skill advantages were reason enough to explain the Wildcats struggles, UIC doesn’t come close to the kind of week-in-week-out battles Northwestern will face in the throes of Big Ten play. The Wildcats couldn’t get anything going against a mediocre opponent.

When you lay an egg like this, on the heels of a 20-point beatdown on your home floor, it’s time to retire the jaded clichés about gradual improvement and maturation – no matter what time of year. Northwestern needed a strong bounceback after Tuesday’s disappointment, but when it tried to impose itself on weaker opposition, on a team most believed the Wildcats would handle deftly, the struggles persisted. In case you needed a sign that Northwestern’s hiccups against Maryland were more than an anomaly, Saturday was a real eye-opener.

It doesn’t get any easier from here, either. Northwestern travels to Baylor Tuesday night to try and end the skid. Winning in Waco, after the last two games, feels like a stretch. Northwestern should aim for more modest goals. Establishing an offensive identity, and channeling that into a respectable – but not necessarily winning – performance against the Bears is a realistic goal. The Wildcats need a reason to believe the last two games are not the long-term product. They need encouragement any way they can get it.