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'Hero ball' puts damper on improved offensive display for Northwestern

For almost 40 minutes, Northwestern screened, cut and passed very well. NU also made shots. But in the end, the Wildcats went away from what had been so successful.

Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Northwestern is growing up. The Wildcats just need to "learn how to win." Or something like that, anyway.

That's the narrative that coaches and some media members were pushing after Northwestern very nearly pulled off a shocking upset in East Lansing over Michigan State on Sunday.

NU played what was almost undoubtedly its best game of the season. Coach Chris Collins refused to accept moral victories, but did say, "I felt we deserved to win the game." Even MSU coach Tom Izzo concurred, saying "today we won one that [Northwestern] deserved to win." There were plenty of positives.

The Wildcats, however, didn't win.

Collins will say his team just needs to "learn how to." But that's just an indirect and ambiguous way to say that his team needs to learn how to sustain the offense it played for 39 minutes on Sunday for a full 40 (or 45) minutes.

Maybe a part of that is conditioning. Sunday's game was played at a pretty high pace by Northwestern standards, and Bryant McIntosh admitted that down the stretch, he and his teammates were tired. That can lessen the effectiveness of screens and cuts.

More likely though, it's a mental thing. Rather than "learn how to win," Northwestern needs to learn how to maintain its aggressiveness and not fall victim to "hero ball." Tre Demps hit some huge shots down the stretch, and sometimes, in the moment, that leads players, or even coaches, to believe giving Demps the ball and ‘letting him go' is the best option. But it simply isn't.

This is nothing new for Collins' team. It's a tendency to which they've reverted far too often this season and last. Sunday, they repressed that urge for longer than they normally do. But in the end, it appeared.

Collins was in denial, saying his team didn't regress in overtime. But McIntosh did concede that "we might've went too much one-on-one late in the game. Maybe we should've went to more movement. It's something we can learn from."

That doesn't mean there weren't telling signs of progress though. The reason the offense in overtime was so frustrating was that for much of the game, it had been so thoroughly impressive. Collins was adamant that it was just a case of "the ball going in the basket," and so was McIntosh, but Northwestern's screens and cuts were sharper. Yes, the Wildcats shot well, but they also supplemented the shot-making with better shot-creating.

Izzo said after the game that, frankly, Michigan State struggled with almost all of Northwestern's sets and screening actions. The Spartans looked lost defensively, and Izzo made it clear that his own team's defense had a lot to do with NU's success.

But it was also about what NU did. We'll have more analysis of this in the coming days, but the Wildcats had particular success with the "UCLA cut," a ball-side cut to the basket by a guard after a pass to the wing out of a 1-4 high motion set. They also ran a lot of nice variations off of a double-high ball screen. And in general, Collins seemed to have drawn up more set plays and devised more wrinkles to spice up Northwestern's base motion offense.

On an individual level, several players showed they're ready to contribute more than they have been. Nate Taphorn played more and played well. JerShon Cobb looked like healthy JerShon Cobb before picking up yet another injury in the second half. McIntosh played his best game in a while, showing fearlessness getting to the rim. Even Vic Law hit two big shots and showed flashes.

All in all, this was a really good performance. The overwhelming takeaways should be positive. But as Collins pointed out after the game, it's also still a part of a process. It's not that the Wildcats haven't "learned to win." It's that it's unreasonable to expect them to go from playing well for, say, 15 or 20 minutes out of 40 to, all of a sudden, doing it for all 40. But if Sunday is any indication, they're getting there.