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Another drought, another poor start doom Northwestern

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Northwestern has been on the wrong end of a few extended runs already this year, and it's becoming the story of the non-conference season.

Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Welsh-Ryan Arena got loud. Louder than it's been all season. Northwestern was going on another late run.

As it did in wins over Houston Baptist, North Florida and Elon in November, Chris Collins' team looked as if it might just be able to erase all the frightening thoughts of first-half failure. After hanging around at arms length for much of the second half, Alex Olah was propelling NU's late comeback, and his 3-pointer with 1:17 remaining brought NU within 1 of Georgia Tech.

But it wasn't to be. The Wildcats came up just short. Bryant McIntosh -- who played his worst game yet at Northwestern -- and Tre Demps rushed ill-advised shots in the game's final minute, and NU slumped to a 66-58 defeat.

But the final minute wasn't the problem. The first seven were. Georgia Tech jumped out to a 20-2 lead that, in the end, proved to be insurmountable.

"We can analyze it any way we want," Collins said after the game. "But when you're down 20-2, you're climbing uphill the rest of the way. That was the story of the game tonight."

In fact, it's becoming the story of Northwestern's non-conference season. The Wildcats can't seem to avoid prolonged offensive droughts. Even last year, when NU's offense was historically inept, these droughts weren't a prominent feature of the season. But this year, the Wildcats have now gone on three of them in seven games. Against Miami (Ohio), they went 10 minutes without scoring in the second half. Against Northern Iowa, they did it again late in the first half. Wednesday at Welsh-Ryan, it happened again.

In the past though, it was solely an offensive issue. Tonight, it wasn't. Of course, it is embarrassing to be held to 2 points for the first seven minutes of a game. But to give up 20 in those seven minutes is nearly as bad.

Wednesday, it looked like a general intensity or focus issue. It also kicked in right from the jump. Despite the best crowd since opening night and the best opponent that will visit Evanston until January, Northwestern was, plain and simple, not ready to play.

"They hit us in the mouth," said Sanjay Lumpkin.

"I was really surprised the way we started the game," a "dumbfounded" Collins said. "For whatever reason, we just came out really flat. You cannot spot a good team 20 points and expect to win."

Collins was despondent after the game. He looked drained. He was less animated than usual.

"It’s just disappointing," he said, "because coming into the game, I really felt good about how we were going to play to start this game. For whatever reason, it just wasn’t there. We’ve got to figure that out.

"Maybe we have to start a different group. I'm not saying we will do that, but we've now started a number of games poorly. That's something that's been a recurring thing. So everything is on the table as we head into our next game."

Alex Olah's performance embodied Northwestern's play as a whole. Olah admitted that he played soft in the first half. He was affected by contact, and shot 2-6 from the floor, including at least two air balls.

But the second half was a different story. Olah didn't miss a shot, and finished with 19 points and 10 boards. He was NU's go-to guy down the stretch.

"Alex's play in the second half was tremendous." Collins said. "And hopefully that will be a springboard for what's to come. He was aggressive, he demanded the ball, he went into his moves strong, and played with passion."

But even Olah recognized that his start, and the team's start, were unacceptable. And it will continue to be unacceptable as long as this trend persists.

"We have to come together as a team and figure out why we’re doing that," Olah said. "We have to fix it. We have to throw the first punch."

Collins was also left searching for answers. "That's on me," he said of the lack of intensity early. "That's on the staff. I mean, you can't start a game like that. We have to evaluate what we're doing pregame, who we're starting, and we've got to play better early because the level of competition is only going to keep getting better."

So will Collins make a few changes in the starting lineup? Possibly. Both Vic Law and JerShon Cobb were again non-factors, and could be sacrificed. But this isn't a personnel problem. It's a mindset problem. It's one that is shocking given how intense Northwestern played for all 40 minutes for much of last year. And it's one that has to be addressed.