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Northwestern wins, but offensive improvement a necessity

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Playing "Northwestern basketball" was barely enough against Rutgers, but moving forward, it won't be.

Jim O'Connor-USA TODAY Sports

PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- Northwestern's offense looked futile. As the Wildcats scratched and clawed to cling to a slender lead late on in Tuesday’s 51-47 win over Rutgers, they just simply couldn’t find a route to the bucket.

Beginning with around 11 minutes left to play, Northwestern endured one of the more astounding droughts you’ll see this season. It stretched to five minutes; to six minutes; to seven, to eight, to nine. With Rutgers threatening to make the Wildcats pay for their offensive troubles, it hit 10 minutes. Ten minutes without a single basket.

So what the heck was going on?

"To me, this was Northwestern basketball," Collins said postgame of the overall performance. And he was being completely serious.

Around this time last year, a transformation occurred. Collins realized that his team’s sputtering offensive wasn’t going to win him any games, so he shifted the focus and built an identity around toughness, intensity and defense. If Tuesday was any indication, the same thing is happening this season.

But defensive solidity can only carry a team so far. It carried Northwestern through 10-plus minutes of offensive ineptitude and it carried NU past a Rutgers team that is undoubtedly the worst in the Big Ten. But those 10-plus minutes were startling. And if droughts like that become a regular occurrence, it’ll be a long time until the Wildcats leave another Big Ten arena victorious.

Following the game, Tre Demps didn’t even seem too upset about the drought. "I didn’t even know that we didn’t have a field goal for 11 minutes," he said. "I don’t think anybody did.

"When we missed, we knew that we could stop them."

But while that might have been true Tuesday, it won’t be this Sunday, nor the next. Against the rest of the Big Ten, Northwestern’s offense needs to start producing, and it’s got a long way to go.

Of the many ugly offensive stats, the most mind-boggling showed just how much of a non-factor Alex Olah was. The 7-foot center attempted a grand total of zero two-point field goals. Zero. Rutgers coach Eddie Jordan said "tak[ing] away Olah and his roads to the basket" was the staple of his gameplan, but nonetheless, Olah’s underuse is unacceptable.

"It’s a couple games in a row now that we couldn’t get him going," Collins said of his big man. "To Rutgers’ credit, they really swarmed him the first couple times he got it. It got Alex a little out of whack."

"We have to do a better job of setting stuff up to get him [Olah] the ball where the doubles can’t just attack him," Collins continued. "He struggled with those doubles. We have to work with him on getting better when they do double team; being able to make better decisions. If teams are going to sell out to take him out, he’s got to be able to make them pay with his passing."

This is more than just a schematic or strategic flaw though. Over the latter half of last season, Olah’s confidence ballooned. With confidence came aggressiveness, and he became an integral part of NU’s offense. But some of that aggressiveness and confidence has now waned, and that’s worrying.

Collins wouldn’t hide from that trend. "I do [think Olah has lost confidence], especially in the post," he said. "I thought he was a little more timid the last couple games. It’s not only on him, it’s on his teammates, it’s on me and my staff to build him back up. We need him."

Bryant McIntosh, like Collins, said that he and his teammates need to do a better job of getting Olah the ball in the right spots. But he also asserted that it’s on Olah as well. Olah’s aggressiveness opens up everything for Northwestern on the offensive end. For McIntosh therefore, as the point guard, Olah’s presence is vital. Without it, more drought’s like Tuesday’s might occur.

When the end result is a win, it’s all fine and dandy, and this can be described as "Northwestern basketball" in a positive manner. But if this continues to be "Northwestern basketball," it will become a phrase of ridicule. The Wildcats – and their big Romanian center in particular – have a lot of work to do.