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Missouri 78, Northwestern 67: Three Takeaways

Northwestern fell to Missouri on Thursday night in their first game at the Las Vegas Invitational by a score of 78-67. The Wildcats led by 5 at halftime, but allowed Missouri to take control at the outset of the second half. The Tigers went on a 14-0 run and never looked back. Here are some reactions to the loss:

40 minutes

If you watched this game, you know the narrative. If you didn’t? Well, if you watched the Stanford game, you still pretty much know the narrative. Just like Northwestern did 14 days ago, they played a very solid first half and put themselves in sound position to beat a decent team.

But just like 14 days ago, everything good that the Wildcats did in the first half deserted them after the break. Northwestern missed a few shots, Missouri made a few, and suddenly the game got out of control. All the composure that NU had played with before the break flew out the window. It wasn’t just one player, it was everybody. Turnovers started to come in bunches, Missouri seemingly got offensive rebounds at will, and in transition, the Tigers players rolled down the court in waves.

Every time the window for a comeback was cracked open, one of two things happened: either Northwestern shut it on themselves, or Missouri shut it for them. Every time the Wildcats pulled to within 7 or 8, they took an ill-advised shot or committed an inexplicable turnover. Give Missouri credit too – Jabari Brown and Jordan Clarkson threw in some really tough shots in the second half, which contributed to Northwestern’s demise. However, the sense that NU let those two players take over the game just amplifies the fact that the Wildcats themselves lost control of it.

Once again, Northwestern was unable to put together a full 40 minutes. The Wildcats were unable to sustain a high level of play for more than 20 minutes. Only once this season have they played a complete game, and that was against an incredibly inferior UIC team. This inconsistency is concerning. There were a couple of major factors that contributed to it on Thursday night, which we’re about to discuss, but with every performance like this one, Northwestern is proving that tonight’s first half is the exception, and tonight’s second half is the rule. Missouri wouldn’t finish in the top half of the Big Ten, so this doesn’t bode well for conference play.

Foul Trouble, Depth Issues

Northwestern’s foul trouble on Thursday night was borderline laughable. In the 2nd half, Missouri got themselves into the bonus before the first official timeout. The pace at which the Wildcats picked up fouls was curtailed late in the 2nd half, so the final count wasn’t astounding, but foul trouble seriously hindered coach Chris Collins and his team. Sanjay Lumpkin eventually fouled out, Alex Olah picked up his 4th early in the 2nd half, JerShon Cobb had 4, and Drew Crawford picked up 2 early fouls before exiting with what Collins has said were back spasms.

Crawford’s early exit and the foul trouble exposed Northwestern’s lack of depth. Cobb was Northwestern’s only truly effective player on the night. Lumpkin and Olah were, for the most part, non-factors, and that was in part due to their fouls. With Crawford out, and the big men nearly incompetent, Collins was forced to go with his small lineup. This meant major minutes for Tre Demps and Kale Abrahamson, which tonight was not a good thing (despite Demps’ 11 points). Likewise, it also put more of an onus on Dave Sobolewski. The junior point guard wasn’t awful, but he struggled mightily to facilitate offense, and had some crucial turnovers at pivotal points in the game.

What this loss emphasized was that with its top 6 or 7 players healthy and out of foul trouble, Northwestern is a respectable team. But any damaging factors that cut into that core make the Wildcats a considerably below-average one.

Losing Control, Literally and Psychologically

The first half was played at a great pace for Northwestern. The Wildcats made shots, only committed two first half turnovers, and limited transition opportunities for the Tigers. The second half was an entirely different story. And it’s not because of anything Northwestern tried to do differently. It’s all based on execution.

The major takeaway is that whatever pace Northwestern tries to play at is irrelevant. It’s not about Collins urging Sobolewski to push the tempo, or the coach insisting that his team walk the ball up the court. Northwestern can do the former, yet still play under control, and they can also do the latter yet still lose control of a game entirely.

This was the case on Thursday. What determines the pace is Northwestern’s ability to get quality shots on offense, and to take care of the ball. Coach Collins probably couldn’t care less how fast Northwestern goes with the ball, as long as NU’s opponent isn’t allowed to go fast when they have it. Against Missouri, the first half was played under control because the Wildcats didn’t turn the ball over; the second half got out of control because they did. The first half was played under control because Northwestern got quality shots, and made a good amount of them; the second half got out of control because the Wildcats started settling for jump shots, which in turn led to long rebounds, which in turn led to run-outs for the Tigers.

So, other than making shots, how can Northwestern learn to retain control of games like this? It’s primarily up to Sobolewski and Collins. It’s up to Collins to call set plays and teach an offense that discourages stretches like this in which the Wildcats take a lot of jump shots and don’t make many of them. And it’s up to Sobolewski to show his leadership, trigger this offense, and be a calming influence – one that inspires confidence and composure – when shots aren’t falling.

Outside of his one big night against UIC, Sobolewski’s play has been disappointing through seven games of his junior season. He’ll show flashes – an off-balance layup through contact or a high-arcing three that ripples the net – but what is supposedly the strength of his game, his leadership, has been absent. Thursday’s second half collapse is more on Sobolewski than any other player, and as a captain and point guard, he should feel that way. Nonetheless, the blame is shared for losing control of what was a winnable game.

This isn’t the first time I’ve said it, nor will it be the last: if Northwestern wants to compete in the Big Ten this year, they’ll have to learn to take a game that they have a firm grasp on and, rather than loosen their grip, tighten it. They must start to believe that a strong 20 minutes isn’t a fluke – that they can go toe to toe with whomever they're playing – and replicate that performance throughout the second 20 minutes. But until they prove otherwise, the strong halves are flukes, and the blown leads will be something to get used to.