by Jonah Rosenblum (@jonahlrosenblum)
I think we all knew this was going to happen at some point. Northwestern, playing with such limited depth, was bound to slip up. Some team was bound to come in hot and foil the Wildcats' attempts to keep the game at a gritty stalemate. Give Illinois credit in the sense that D.J. Richardson was absolutely spectacular, driving to the hoop with a real flair, and frequently bouncing off defenders to hit fade away bank shots. He finished with 18 points on 8-of-15 shooting. More telling, he was 6-for-8 from inside the arc, showing his success near the basket. That whole Illinois team drove so well. For Northwestern, hey, you live by the three-pointer, you die by the three-pointer. The only legitimate gripe I think you can have with the Wildcats is that Alex Olah needs to get the ball more and Tre Demps needs to drive more.
Offense (D) — With four minutes remaining, Northwestern stood out on the arc, starting from the center, slickly dishing it to the right, and then again to the right, a sleek pass to the corner, where Kale Abrahamson nailed an easy three-pointer. It's the defining play of Wildcats basketball, but I don't think that swiveling around the court happened nearly enough against Illinois. Too many times, the Wildcats were distracted from their stall the clock strategy and forced up early three-pointers. I suppose when it comes to offensive effectiveness, 41 points speak for themselves.
Defense (C) — Northwestern got beat off the dribble all night long. There was the one obvious, memorable moment when Kale Abrahamson was absolutely frozen by a step back. One second, he's right up there with the shooter. The next second, he's three feet back. Good offense or bad defense? Probably a little of both.
Ball-handling (D) — If there's one thing the Wildcats usually don't do, it's shoot themselves in the foot. There was plenty of that against the Fighting Illini, with six turnovers in the first part of the second half. Whether it was Tre Demps driving to the hoop, and rather than finishing the drive with a scoop, flinging it wildly to Kale Abrahamson in the corner, or Alex Marcotullio's lazy pass leading to an Illinois fast break, it wasn't pretty on Sunday night. Perhaps the worst turnover was just a sloppy, lazy inbounds pass by Dave Sobolewski, which never stood any chance of making it out to its intended target on the three-point line.
Defensive Pressure (F) — In the past, Northwestern has been able to use frenetic pressure at the top of the court to force turnovers and keep opposing attacks from getting too comfortable. Illinois was incredibly comfortable on Sunday night. It can be shown through the numbers: just two turnovers in the first half. It can also be shown through the eyes. Illinois was really comfortable driving to the hoop without worrying about anyone batting the ball away or stepping up with a double team. The Fighting Illini could basically do what they wanted all night long.
Bench (B) — James Montgomery III brought some nice energy off the bench, breaking Illinois' 26-0 run while exerting good hustle on the glass. Alex Olah also was fairly significant on the defensive end. Finally, Nikola Cerina, though he dabbled around the perimeter far too much for my taste early, did post up strong as he got warmed up, and although he was called for a travel trying to back his way toward the hoop, the idea was refreshing.
Shot Selection (C) — Most of the three-pointers Northwestern took were not that bad. A lot of them rolled off of the rim, and on another night, we might be talking about how the Wildcats stayed in the game with three-pointers. For the most part, they took their usual outside shots, bouncing off of screens to hoist up threes. That's fine, but when 27 of 48 shots come from behind the arc, I think that is a problem. More drives need to be mixed in. Additionally, Reggie Hearn was forcing up far too many jumpers. And on a separate note, it's probably not a good idea to hang in the air when you have Nnanna Egwu lurking in the post.
Offensive Diversity (F) — Yes, the expression is when it ain't broke, don't fix it. But when it is broke, then you should fix it. Obviously, three-pointers are a pivotal part of Northwestern's game, but you can't give up on driving to the hoop. To virtually abandon the post, to no longer drive to the hole would seem to be a mistake. Someone other than Reggie Hearn also needs to drive to the net. Tre Demps and Dave Sobolewski would seem to be the best options, in terms of players who actually have the handle to get to the hoop. The fact that five of Sobolewski's six shots and five of Demps' 11 shots came from behind the arc, well, it's concerning.
Fans (D) — Can you really blame the fans for leaving? Sure, you can. If we can excoriate players after their threes rattle off of the rim, then we can certainly excoriate fans for going home early. Listen, this game was undoubtedly hard for a Wildcats fan to watch. A 26-0 run sucked all of the energy out of the Northwestern fan base and clearly is demoralizing, but I'm not sure fans should ever start streaming out with 16 minutes remaining. More to the point, Illinois fans were louder from the opening whistle. They drowned out the Northwestern fight song. Despite fan turnout being roughly 50-50, Illinois dominated when it came to volume. That being said, it was nice to see the student section a couple of rows deep in the final minutes of the game. That was the saving grace Sunday night.