EVANSTON, Ill. -- It wasn’t pretty. Well, for 36 minutes it wasn’t.
But with the game on the line, as coach Chris Collins said postgame, "Tre [Demps] did what he does." Demps came through in the clutch, and Northwestern held off a pesky North Florida to move to 3-0 on the young season.
After freshman and birthday boy Bryant McIntosh, who following the game Collins compared to former Duke star Jon Scheyer, led a furious NU comeback late in the second half, the outcome of the game depended on one play. And of course, it depended on one player: Demps.
With possession of the ball and 35 seconds on the clock, Northwestern was deadlocked with the lowly Ospreys. The ball was in Demps’ hands, and Chris Collins had a decision to make. Would he call a timeout? Or would let his closer do his thing?
"There was no need to call a timeout," Collins said. "Whatever I would’ve drawn up in the timeout would’ve been to get Tre the ball at the top of the floor with a live dribble to go one on one."
With six seconds to go, Demps made his move. A few hard dribbles to his left, a slight extension of his right arm at the elbow, a step back, and a dagger. Northwestern survived.
"He’s fearless," Collins said of his game-winning guard. "I can just imagine him counting the clock down in his backyard, and taking the final shot."
"I knew the shot I wanted to shoot," Demps said. "My dad and I, we worked on that for years and years and years. After every workout, he’d always give me the ball and say, ’10 seconds on the clock…’ and we’d work on it. I was doing that since I was nine years old."
It’s a cool story about a player who truly does seem to have that clutch gene, if such a thing exists. But Demps’ game was representative of the night for Northwestern. His shot and the late comeback will be the focus of postgame coverage, and it will lead all stories, but Northwestern’s overall performance was, just as Demps’ was, less than stellar.
"You learn good lessons and you learn bad lessons," Collins said following the win. But the worrying signs are there. This campaign is beginning to take shape just as last year’s did. NU is playing down to its competition. The requisite intensity and focus aren’t present.
For much of the game, NU actually trailed the Ospreys, who Ken Pomeroy rates as the 255th best team in Division 1. Vic Law looked aggressive but erratic and out of sync; Alex Olah couldn’t deal with his quicker North Florida counterpart, and couldn’t find an offensive rhythm; and JerShon Cobb once again didn’t provide a spark.
Perhaps most troubling though were Northwestern’s defensive struggles, to which a few things contributed. As Collins rightly pointed out, Olah was stuck in a mismatch. He was drawn out to the perimeter, and couldn’t cope with North Florida forward Chris Davenport.
But NU’s shortcomings went beyond Olah. This year’s team doesn’t seem to have the individual ability or collective ability that last year’s team did on the defensive end. On the individual side, Bryant McIntosh, for all his prolific offense, hasn’t stood out, and neither has Vic Law, whom Collins anointed one of the team’s best defenders before the season. Even JerShon Cobb looks a step slow.
Collins believes the collective aspect is correctable though. He points to youth as the issue.
"We were not a good defensive team early [last year]," he clarifies. "We became a good defensive team. We really learned how to lock in on game preparation. Our guys were unbelievable in taking away tendencies. And [this year], we’ve got to get better at that."
All early season games are learning experiences for such a young team. But with a cake non-conference schedule, Northwestern has a significant opportunity to enter conference play on a roll. But if they’re to take advantage of that opportunity, efforts like the one put forth Thursday evening aren’t going to cut it.
Through three games, the Wildcats are trying to play a new game. They’re trying to run, and thus aren’t lending as much attention and energy to the defensive end. Before the season, many would’ve thought this trend was a positive one – after all, it produces more exciting basketball – but right now it isn’t. And if Northwestern’s identity is going to evolve in 2014-15, the Wildcats must learn how to employ the new style effectively sooner rather than later.