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Guard Play Northwestern's Only Hope to Close the Season Strong

by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)

The primary focus in Northwestern’s postgame press conference after Wednesday’s 69-41 loss to Wisconsin was the frontcourt.

“They just dominated inside on us,” coach Bill Carmody said.

“I’m not sure the answer. I don’t know if we see if we can maybe go with a bigger team, maybe put (Nikola Cerina) in there. Mike Turner started tonight, maybe played half the game, and I don’t remember a rebound.”

Here’s the problem: there isn’t really an answer. Don’t take that as, “there will never be an answer” — some #FireCarmody backer certainly will — but rather, take it as, “there won’t be an answer this year.” Alex Olah has shown flashes at times, and all the centers and forwards will improve with time. However, with just four games left in the regular season, there isn’t time for a big enough change to occur this year.

We already knew the frontcourt was going to be bad. Maybe not this bad, but there hasn’t been a game this year when the frontcourt has been good.

The focus has to be on the backcourt, because that’s the area of the team that can make or break the attitude heading into the offseason. The backcourt can keep this team in games. Heck, the backcourt can even pull some upsets.

After the last two blowouts, the common narrative has been that NU basically is never capable of winning again. — that may be hyperbolic, but some of the commentary about this team has been pretty ridiculous.

However, it’s not like this team can’t stick with its Big Ten brethren. In fact, just a week ago, NU nearly took down Ohio State in Columbus. That was with a lineup even worse than this one, which is still without Jared Swopshire, but now has Alex Olah.

People will point to rebounds as a reason NU can’t win again this season, and while rebounding is certainly an issue — nobody is disputing that — they aren’t a determining factor. OSU out-rebounded NU by 20. Wisconsin did it by 25. Illinois did it by just 6. Yes, better rebounding would help NU substantially, but we know that’s not going to happen with this team, so why harp on it? After all, it’s not that NU will only keep games close if it keeps rebounding numbers close — case in point, compare the OSU and Illinois scores.

For NU to win games, it’s going to have to have to get more production from its backcourt. That starts with improving its shooting. Against OSU, NU shot 46 percent and 42.3 percent from three. Those marks against Illinois and Wisconsin were 25 percent and 18.3 percent, and 29.4 percent and 33.3 percent, respectively. When you can’t get rebound and you can’t get second chance points, you have to find a way to produce elsewhere. NU’s way to keep up is to shoot well, so that’s what it needs from its guards.

It’s tough to achieve such high expectations every time out, but dire circumstances can change expectations.

Nobody will blame NU’s guards if they can’t meet those lofty expectations — it’s well above and beyond the call of duty. However, those are the new expectations if the Wildcats want to come away with a win the rest of the season.

The guards nearly did enough against Ohio State, in a hostile environment. Now they have four more chances to prove they can do it again, or at least do better than they have in the past two games.