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Northwestern Falls At Iowa, 71-57: Three Quick Thoughts

by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn

A back-and-forth game at Carver Hawkeye Arena broke loose midway through the second half when Iowa reeled off a 10-0 run to pull away from Northwestern. The Wildcats were never competitive after that, and the end result was their seventh Big Ten loss (71-57) and third in the last four games. Some quick analysis on the game:

Offense Fizzles

The long layoff after last week’s 15-point win over Purdue didn’t sap Northwestern’s offensive momentum. Iowa did. Northwestern’s offense played to its capabilities in a tough road environment against one of the Big Ten’s most stingiest defenses, and when you take the nation’s 27th-ranked defense, and the Wildcats’ 6-of-25 long-distance shooting performance, a 13-point loss is about what you’d expect. Northwestern never settled into its sets, labored to pick holes in Iowa’s defense and couldn’t find the same easy backcuts and uncontested threes it used to bury Purdue one week ago. The Hawkeyes are a solid defensive team. They extend pressure out to the three-point line, deny post position on the low block and disrupt passing lanes. This is nothing new; Iowa forced Northwestern into a 50-point effort in Evanston earlier this season. This time around -- shots were missed and opportunities were missed, sure, but the Wildcats clearly had a better idea of how to attack the Hawkeyes' defense.

Last week, the Wildcats put together their most efficient offensive performance of the season against the Boilermakers; their 1.25 points per trip was the highest they’d scored in any conference game this season. On Saturday, Northwestern took on an opponent who – much like the last time these two teams met in Evanston – played like a team well-schooled in every action, cut and nuance of Bill Carmody’s Princeton offense. And when the Hawkeyes locked Northwestern down Saturday, and a booming Carver-Hawkeye crowd thundered throughout that breakway 10-0 run, the Wildcats watched another tough conference road game slip away.

Injury Problems

As of this writing, information on the long-term statuses of Olah and Swopshire is limited. What we do know, or at least what our eyes told us when Jared Swopshire limped off the floor, is not good. If Swopshire’s injury is as bad as it looked, we might not see him suit up the rest of the season. I can’t speculate at this point without knowing more, but let’s go under the assumption Swopshire is at the very least going to miss Thursday’s game at Ohio State. Injuries are never fun, but for Swopshire – who transferred to Northwestern seeking a larger role in his final year of eligibility, along with the chance to help the program score its first NCAA Tournament appearance – this is downright brutal. All you can hope is that our worst suspicions are incorrect, and Swopshire can finish his final season in good standing.

The other injury of note, to freshman center Alex Olah, sounds like a concussion. Again: without getting a clearer picture on the severity of the injuries, there isn’t much to say beyond simple words of encouragement. When a fire alarm went off in the arena after the game, Olah was reportedly uneased by the loud noise. Concussions are a fuzzy thing to diagnose, and I'm not going to sit here and feign medical expertise on head injuries, but that reaction makes pretty clear Olah isn't in the best state of health right now. For as much as Olah and Swopshire have checked in and out of games this season, and for as maddening as Olah’s hesitant post play can be, the bottomline is that Northwestern is a better and more entertaining team with them on the floor. Let’s hope these guys aren’t forced to miss too many games.

You Win Some, You Lose Some

There will be a strong inclination to caught up in a 14-point road loss against a 4-7 Big Ten team, primarily because last week’s win against Purdue was arguably the best game Northwestern has played all season. And that’s understandable: Iowa is hardly world-beater in this year’s Big Ten. But when you look at the Hawkeyes season holistically, and dig up their per-possession figures, you quickly realize Fran McCaffery’s team is a lot better than its record, or the Big Ten media, gives it credit for. Iowa needed this game; Northwestern didn’t shoot it nearly well enough, lost two key players in the second half and was fighting not only a desperate team in NCAA Tournament survival mode, but a hostile crowd that – with the exception of a four-point loss to Indiana and a three-point loss to Michigan State – has gotten the best of visiting teams this season.

Losing at Iowa was tough. Not losing at Ohio State Thursday, where the Buckeyes are unbeaten in Big Ten play, will be a huge uphill climb – and could feature one of the more undermanned lineups in recent NU hoops memory, depending on whether Olah and/or Swopshire are good to go. Disappointment following a convincing loss is common fan behavior (No one likes to lose!). But turning this into anything more than another road loss against an underrated team in the fiercest league in college basketball is missing the point. Iowa demolished Northwestern in its own building earlier this season. The Wildcats rebounded with a more effective game plan, even if the final score didn't show major improvements. Even after such an impressive offensive effort last week, Northwestern isn't at the point yet where it can go on the road, deflate crowd pressures and other natural advantages and beat teams of similar (in this case, slightly better) stature. Iowa is an absolute chore to beat in its own gym; just because Northwestern couldn't pull it off, doesn't mean it should be viewed in a more negative light. If nothing else, this season has shown us the Big Ten road is a scary place. Iowa is no exception.