by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)
After another valiant road effort against a ranked opponent, Northwestern fell to Michigan State 71-61 in the Breslin Center Sunday night to close the regular season. The Wildcats finished No. 11 in the Big Ten and will face 6-seed Iowa in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament at 8 p.m. Thursday. Check out our three thoughts on the state of the team and Sunday's game.
1. Olah and Abrahamson impress
Kale Abrahamson has struggled with inconsistency this year, but he's improved toward the end of the season and has had his best games against elite opponents. Sunday's game was one of his best of the year, as he finished with 16 points and 4 rebounds. But beyond the stats, he showed tremendous improvement, as well. He's undersized for a forward, but was active down low and pulled down a couple offensive rebounds in traffic. He also saved some possessions early on, which helped NU keep it close.
Then there's Alex Olah, who had a couple turnovers, but still had 10 points and 4 rebounds. He was starting to show progress midway through the Big Ten season, before a concussion took away a little bit of his momentum. Recently, he's shown that progression again, particularly on offense. Against Ohio State, Olah outplayed Amir Williams and put some nice post moves on Deshaun Thomas. He showcased more of those moves against Michigan State, and went up stronger to the basket than he did earlier in the season. He was also more active on defense, even though he still has a lot of room for improvement.
It's no stretch to say that Olah and Abrahamson were NU's two best players at the Breslin Center, which is a big positive heading into next year. Both have potential, and with the growth they shown in the past few games, the Wildcats have to be excited about what that means for next year. If the upward trajectory continues through the offseason, the NU front court will be in young, but good hands.
2. About the Big Ten Tournament
There was a lot of talk that by being the No. 6 seed, rather than the No. 5 seed, Iowa got lucky, since it will play No. 11 Northwestern instead of No. 12 Penn State. Yes, the Nittany Lions just beat NU and almost took down Wisconsin, but the Wildcats clearly aren't a slouch, either, as Michigan State can attest. However, this is just a really bad matchup for NU.
The Wildcats typically succeed when they're able to play in the halfcourt, and that's the opposite of what the Hawkeyes like to do. Iowa ranks second in the Big Ten in adjusted tempo, according to KenPom.com. Fran McCaffery's team has also done a good job of keeping NU out of the paint and asserting themselves down low on the offensive end. Last year, this was a good matchup for the Wildcats because Iowa couldn't figure out the 1-3-1. However, this year, Iowa has done a very good job of breaking the zone, using terrific passing. No, Iowa isn't as good as Michigan State or some of the other teams NU has kept it close with, but this matchup will be a very difficult one for NU.
3. Carmody's Job Status
I don't want to talk a lot about Bill Carmody's job status, because there has been no official announcement, and I also don't want to talk about potential replacements when Carmody is still the coach. He might be fired or he might not be, but we'll discuss that when the an announcement is made. If you've read my past work on here, you know I support keeping Carmody on for next season.
After seeing what Carmody did at the Breslin Center on Sunday, I reaffirmed my view. No, you shouldn't judge Carmody off of one game, but it's indicative of what he's done throughout his career. NU had no business being in that game, but the Wildcats were, and that's a testament to their coach. Some will say that the lack of talent is Carmody's fault, but there are major flaws to that argument.
1. NU doesn't put Carmody in a position to win. Until the administration invests in the basketball program and lowers its academic standards, getting talent on the floor is going to be an issue, no matter who the coach is.
2. NU has talent, but those players were either hurt or suspended.
It's pretty incredible that the Wildcats could keep things that close without three of their four best players (Drew Crawford, JerShon Cobb and Jared Swopshire). Take those players away from any team and they'll struggle. Would Michigan be an NCAA Tournament team without Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Nik Stauskas? Would Illinois be a tournament team without Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and Nnanna Egwu? Would Ohio State be a tournament team without Deshaun Thomas, Aaron Craft and Sam Thompson? No, no and no. Do that with almost any team in the country and you'll get the same result.
The fact that Carmody has kept NU in so many games without his best players is a testament to how good of a coach he has been this season. Call for his firing at your own risk, but know that means next year is basically a wash, and that throws away a year with enough talent to actually pull out wins in games like this.