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Despite 26-Point Margin, Iowa Loss a Sign of Progress for Northwestern

Iowa and Northwestern aren’t in the same class – that much is clear. They weren’t coming into Saturday’s game at Welsh-Ryan Arena, and they certainly weren’t at the final buzzer.

But Saturday’s contest was a game of two halves. And for over twenty minutes, it truly was a battle. It was proper Big Ten basketball. It was a statement from the Wildcats that they could hang with one of the best teams in this conference.

“They fought us hard,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said postgame. “Chris [Collins] really has them playing with a mindset that has really been impressive. You look at the first half, and they’re right there with us.”

Collins’ attitude was almost identical. “I thought we played really hard, and for 23 minutes, we were right there,” he said. “Some of that [final margin of victory] is a little misleading.”

Oh, how things have changed since these two teams met just over two weeks ago. After Northwestern endured a 93-67 Hawkeye pounding on that day, Jan. 9, the mere thought that the Wildcats could even retain any semblance of their dignity against upper-echelon Big Ten teams would’ve been met with skepticism. But after wins over Illinois, Indiana and Purdue, competitiveness has become the expectation.

Frustration was evident throughout Saturday’s second half, but that in itself is telling. Frustration implies unmet expectations – expectations that Northwestern has generated for itself by raising its level of play.

Realistically, it wasn’t fair to expect Northwestern to hang with Iowa for 40 minutes. The Hawkeyes play 10 players, and Northwestern really only plays 7, one of which is Dave Sobolewski who clearly wasn’t in game shape after a long injury layoff. To show how big a difference that really makes, consider this: Northwestern had 5 players who logged more minutes Saturday than any Iowa player.

“I thought their experience, their depth, their athleticism just wore us down,” Collins said. And that surely was a big part of the reason for the second half collapse. But not every team can do what Iowa can. McCaffery actually had an insightful quote after the game:

“They [Northwestern] are physical. They’re going to body you, they’re not going to back down, they’re not going to give you space. You’ve got to finish with contact, you’ve got to drive the ball with contact, you’ve got to cut with contact, and sometimes that either softens you up, or it gets you to stop. Our thing was, if they’re going to do it, we’ve got to keep moving, we’ve got to keep screening, we’ve got to keep cutting, we’ve got to keep moving the ball. Make them guard, make them work defensively, and over the course of the game, with the lack of depth they have, they’re going to wear down.”

And that’s just what Iowa did. It’s also just what Northwestern’s four previous opponents (including, to some extent, Michigan State) couldn’t do. And it’s what a number of teams remaining on the schedule won’t be able to do.

Even on Saturday, in the first half, when the effects of Iowa’s depth hadn’t yet kicked in, Northwestern’s defense was effective. Offensive rebounds killed Collins’ team, but they kept the Hawkeyes out of transition, and, as has become the norm, contested nearly every shot.

As McCaffery explicated, Northwestern’s physicality often forces other teams to tire of having to overwork to get the ball to the rim, and in turn, they start settling for jump shots. Iowa, a top-five offensive team in the country, was able to battle through that – most teams, on the other hand, won’t.

Outsiders will look at the final score and say, “oh well, Northwestern came back down to earth.” But that couldn’t be further from the truth. If anything, Saturday’s game at the very least solidified the Wildcats as a team that can give anybody in this conference some trouble. “If you don’t match the intensity level, you’re going to get beat,” McCaffery said.

“They turned it up a notch that we just can’t get to right now,” Collins said matter-of-factly. But for 20 minutes, Northwestern came pretty darn close to that notch.

The first three games of the conference season were one-sided. Northwestern fell flat. They got bullied. On Saturday however, for roughly 30 of 40 minutes, there was something in the air redolent of Big Ten basketball. There was an intensity about the game, and a certain importance about it. There was a sense that war was being waged down on the court.

Collins and the Wildcats may only finish with five or six Big Ten wins this year. But even in 26-point losses, they’re gaining respect. It took some time, but within a year of his appointment as head coach, Collins is showing that he might just have what it takes to take this program to a new level.