EVANSTON, Ill. -- If you thought Northwestern’s offense was bad in the second half against Stanford, it was worse Sunday night against Illinois State.
The Redbirds stifled Northwestern for 40 minutes in dealing the Wildcats their second loss of the season, 68-64. The Wildcats shot 37 percent from the field and 28 percent from three, both season-lows.
There was plenty of optimism entering the season about how new coach Chris Collins would scrap Bill Carmody’s Princeton Offense, which fans viewed as slow, antiquated and ineffective, in favor of a new, up-tempo system. Collins’ motion-based offense would make Northwestern a better team, it was believed.
It’s too early to tell whether the offensive overhaul will yield positive changes – three games is too small a sample size. For one half Sunday, though, it seemed obvious the Wildcats still have a lot of work to do before they get acclimated to Collins’ system.
After the game, Collins said "You have to be able to find ways to get some easy baskets." In the first half, Northwestern couldn't. Northwestern didn’t reach double digits in scoring – against an ISU team that entered Sunday ranked 304th in effective field goal percentage defense, according to Kenpom.com – until the 9:30 mark. Missed shots was part of the blame, but more telling was Northwestern’s utter inability to create quality looks. Redbirds defenders obstructed the Wildcats’ path to the basket at every turn. They anticipated Northwestern’s passes, and acted accordingly. They blocked shots, closed off passing lanes and forced Northwestern into desperation mode on far more possessions than the Wildcats would have liked.
"I just don't think we had enough fight," senior forward Drew Crawford said of the first half.
At times, it seemed the only way Northwestern -- who trailed by as much as 18 in the first 20 minutes -- could score was if JerShon Cobb or Drew Crawford drove to the basket. That tactic wasn’t without its faults, either. Illinois State blocked four shots in the first half, including at least one on a Cobb drive. In another sequence, Dave Sobolewski was called for a charging foul while getting his shot blocked at the rim.
"They pretty much outplayed us in every facet in the first half," Collins said afterward. "Offensively, I thought we were on our heels a little bit."
There was one positive moment in the first half, courtesy of Crawford.
To the Redbirds credit, they played good, sound defense most of the night – guarding Northwestern’s ball handlers tightly, closing out on shooters, contesting shots at the rim -- even as the Wildcats battled back to narrow ISU's deficit in the second half.
But that doesn’t completely explain why the Wildcats – a team some optimists expect to compete for an NCAA Tournament berth – looked at best rusty, and at worst disjointed, in a game most believed they would use to erase the bad taste from a blowout loss at Stanford. The offense was the most glaring problem, but Northwestern – who entered having given up less than a point per possession on average through the first two games of the season – failed to make up for it with good defense on the other end.
The Stanford loss was no surprise. And maybe this one can be chalked up as a bad hangover, a game the Wildcats weren’t quite ready for after the Cardinal dominated them in the second half on Thursday.
Northwestern should get back to .500 when it plays at Illinois Chicago Wednesday, but if this offensive funk continues, no matchup on its nonconference schedule can be viewed as a “guarantee” game. "While we're figuring it out, while we're getting better, we have to find a way to win," Collins said. And the conference season, where the Wildcats will face a number of likely top-25 teams, could be even more disconcerting if the Wildcats can’t start scoring more efficiently. The Wildcats' improved shooting in the second half (45.2 percent to 27 in the first) is a silver lining if you want it to be; after losing to Kenpom's 187th ranked team, there are few positive takeaways.
Perhaps it will carry over into Wednesday. Perhaps it won't."It's a game we gotta have," Collins said of the Wildcats' upcoming game against UIC. “Get to the rim, Drew and JerShon” wasn’t a viable offensive strategy against Illinois State, same as it won’t be against any Big Ten team the Wildcats play this season.
Northwestern needs to put this uneven offensive performance behind it and move forward.