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Column: Northwestern's Loss to Illinois was Embarrassing, but There is No Need to Panic

by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)

You might think the play on the court was the extent of the embarrassment for Northwestern in the Wildcats’ 62-41 loss to Illinois on Sunday night, but you would be mistaken.

During a TV timeout, three fans in purple shirts came onto the court for a promotion. After they finished, they ripped off their purple shirts to reveal orange shirts underneath, then ran back to the Orange Krush — the Illinois student section — to celebrate their conquest.

It was that kind of night for NU, from a half-orange stadium, to an opposing student section that was louder than the home student section, to the play on the court — an embarrassment in every sense of the word.

It’s amazing how well this game can be juxtaposed against the loss at Ohio State less than a week ago. NU lost that game by 10 points, but the Wildcats, with just seven scholarship players and nine players overall, held their own against the Buckeyes, pushing them to the limit.

People called that one a moral victory. They called it gutsy. Hard-fought. Inspiring.

Sunday’s performance? Senior guard Alex Marcotullio called it “lackadaisical.” That’s one way to put it. NU had 14 turnovers to just 9 assists. The Wildcats shot 25 percent from the field and 18.5 percent from beyond the arc. Sure, sometimes shots don’t fall, but a lot of these shots shouldn’t have even been taken in the first play. Guard play was particularly poor, as well. Marcotullio was sloppy with his passes early on, Dave Sobolewski had zero points on six shot attempts (five from three) in his worst game of the season and Tre Demps missed a lot early — he ended up with eight points thanks to some buckets in garbage time — after a 16-point effort against OSU.

An embarrassment, no doubt.

But here’s the thing about college basketball: embarrassments happen. So do big wins. Minnesota got a big win against Wisconsin this week and turned around to blow a 16-point lead and eventually lose by 21 to Iowa. No. 3 Miami owns wins against Duke, North Carolina and NC State, along with a loss to Florida-Gulf Coast. There are countless more examples.

There is a lot of volatility in college basketball. Over a large sample size, we can tell which teams are better than others, and that’s shown us that Northwestern is quite average this season. The Wildcats aren’t as bad as they played Sunday night, nor was the lineup NU had on the floor in Columbus nearly as good as it played against the Buckeyes.

College basketball fans tend to draw conclusions from games far too often, when it’s impossible to draw a conclusion from a single game.

Fans were calling Bill Carmody a genius for his gameplan against Ohio State, while others use Sunday night’s game as an example for why he should be fired. Neither of those suggestions are really fair.

Over the course of the season, we’ve come to learn what Northwestern is: a team that’s usually less talented than its opponent, but typically still puts itself in position to win the game — on a side note, that should tell you a little something about the coach.

On Sunday, NU was less talented once again, but it was also less-disciplined, more sloppy and not as well-coached. Ironically, that’s a 180-degree flip of what happened in the Wildcats’ 14-point victory in Champaign.

Sunday’s game was an embarrassment for Northwestern — there’s no way around it. But embarrassments happen in college basketball. Unless games like this one become habit, there is no need to jump for the panic button.

Yes, Sunday was an embarrassment, but on Wednesday, Wisconsin comes to Evanston. And Wednesday is a new day.