by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
For those hoping to draw any definitive conclusions about Northwestern basketball after Tuesday night's win at Baylor, let me be the first to strongly recommend you hold back whatever sweeping judgments you may or may not have conjured up. Eight days ago, facing its first true nonconference test (if you believe Illinois State merits that label, that’s your prerogative, but I’m not going there) Northwestern was dumptrucked on its home floor by Maryland. Four days later, it started out slow against UIC, turned it over 16 times, shot 25 percent from three and 50 percent from the free throw line, and eventually lost to the Horizon League also-ran. To be fair, UIC looks vastly improved over last season. That said, if you’re Northwestern, a team with legitimate NCAA Tournament aspirations, and legitimate aims of erasing the 20-point demolishment that took place on your home floor four days prior, you don’t lose that game. It’s really that simple.
The UIC loss not only obliterated any positive momentum built up over the first six games of the season. It prompted many – including yours truly – to question the Wildcats’ toughness, leadership and viability as a tourney-level squad going forward. I, like many other Wildcats fans, was consumed by knee-jerk emotional musings. Guilty as charged. Though I wasn’t the only one who harbored doubts about Northwestern’s revamped roster. The Twitterverse – a proxy for teenage-to-mid-20s general fan reaction – erupted with calls for coach Bill Carmody’s pinkslip. Fatalistic projections of another NIT-bound season were invoked in droves.
The Wildcats hadn’t even entered Big Ten play, but the previous two games made it feel like the conference season would amount to nothing more than a drawn-out death march to another lost postseason. And with the way “that team down south” has raced out to a booming 9-0 start, including a win at the Maui Invitational (albeit mostly rooted in a soft schedule and uncharacteristically watered-down competition), and with Minnesota looking like a near-lock to reach the NCAAs, you couldn’t fault the doom-and-gloom sentiments.
What’s more, a daunting trip at Baylor, a team that stomped Northwestern with NBA-caliber athleticism and highlight-reel dunks and humiliating rejections last year at Welsh-Ryan, loomed. Surely, complete and utter embarrassment was in store; surely, the Wildcats stood no chance against the five-star recruits and future first-rounders in Waco. The Bears held advantages all over the floor and were coming off perhaps the biggest win in program history, a road triumph at Kentucky that snapped the Wildcats’ 55-game home win streak and delivered John Calipari his first loss at Rupp Arena. All signs pointed to a rout of embarrassing proportions.
College basketball is a game determined as much by the insubstantial and intangible as it is the physical and athletic. It’s why, almost without fail, you see the minnows of the mid-major ranks take Power Six heavyweights to the brink (and often beat) in any given NCAA Tournament. It’s why vastly undermanned and undertalented teams can knock off vastly superior opposition in home environments. It’s why talent – exhibit A being this year’s Kentucky – doesn’t always trump togetherness and team cohesion.
If you were to cross-analyze these two rosters, Baylor is bigger, faster and stronger at almost every position. Aside from NBA-hopeful Drew Crawford, Northwestern doesn’t belong in the same stratosphere as Baylor in those regards. Scott Drew recruits future pros with one-and-done intentions. Northwestern recruits high-effort, high-IQ guys who fit Carmody’s Princeton offense. We’re not talking about the same type of athlete, let alone equalized skill or talent levels.
Realistically, competing for 40 minutes, and keeping the margin of defeat at a respectable level, was an optimistic scenario. By now, you know the Wildcats went well beyond that moderate goal. Northwestern beat Baylor by four Tuesday night, but the score doesn’t do justice to the completeness of the Wildcats’ victory. They dominated Baylor on the glass (36-23). They had all five starters in double figures. They guarded in the half court, ran their sets and jumped all over Baylor’s uber-talented roster. Despite what the final score line may suggest, the victory was never in any real doubt.
As much as this seems like a huge turning point for the Wildcats, a massive momentum boost to power them through the nonconference season and fuel a strong start in conference play, I’m not ready to take that step – at least Not yet. What Northwestern proved Tuesday night is that it’s not as bad as what it showed against Maryland and UIC. It generated offense against an athletically-advantaged opponent. It guarded in the halfcourt. It crashed the glass with purpose and intent. And most importantly, it played with a fire unseen through the first five weeks, a visible desire to reverse its recent misfortune – which stood in stark contrast to the Bears’ utter nonchalance following their resounding win in Lexington.
All of it is very encouraging. Only it’s not entirely unthinkable Northwestern will regress into the listless group you watched snooze through consecutive home defeats to Maryland and UIC. The Wildcats made a huge statement in Waco, getting a foundational nonconference win on which to ground the rest of their nonconference portfolio, but it’s difficult to know whether what we saw Tuesday night was an errant stroke of luck, a byproduct of favorable circumstance – Alex Olah, Drew Crawford and Reggie Hearn all played arguably their best games of the season, while Baylor shot 25 percent from beyond the arc and looked to be lulling through the final stages of its post-UK celebration parade – or a sustainable winning formula.
My best guess is that it’s a mixture of all three. Northwestern probably isn’t ready to beat top-25 caliber opponents on the road on a regular basis. Few teams have the type of leadership and resilience, not to mention the talent and depth, to brave rowdy home gyms and other natural road pitfalls. What it did prove is that the damaged product you witnessed over the past two weeks at Welsh-Ryan is not remotely close to this team’s maximum potential. Northwestern showed it can challenge a top-tier opponent on its home floor. It showed that when things break right, and the vagaries of college basketball tip the balance in their favor, the Wildcats can play above themselves and seize prime opportunities.
What that means in the larger context of Northwestern’s season, I’m not quite sure. Over the next three weeks, the Wildcats have two chances to prove Tuesday night’s win was more than a random green shoot. Butler and Stanford aren’t as talented or athletic as Baylor, but they are good, solid, Tournament-vying outfits, both having played and beaten quality opponents (Butler beat North Carolina, while Stanford beat Northern Iowa and lost to Minnesota by three) this season. The Bulldogs and Cardinal will give Northwestern everything it wants and more – mark it down. Just because the Wildcats handled Baylor on the road doesn’t mean Stanford and Butler won’t challenge them in every conceivable way.
Until I see Northwestern sustain a consistent performance level over an extended context, its long-term NCAA Tournament prospects will remain up for debate. As it stands, Tuesday night’s win could turn the page on a new chapter of Northwestern’s season; or it could go down as the one positive data point in the Wildcats’ nonconference ledger. It’s hard to know what to make of this fortnight’s mercurial course of events. What I do know is that Northwestern is in far better shape than I once believed. Let’s see how that bears out over the next three weeks.