EVANSTON -- Despite another pretty good offensive display, Northwestern came up just short against Illinois on Wednesday at Welsh-Ryan Arena. The Wildcats fall to 10-7 overall and 1-3 in Big Ten play. Here are five takeaways:
1. Offensive rebounds and steals
By major conference standards, Northwestern doesn't have a good offense. The Wildcats don't have players that can overwhelm opponents with their individual talent, and they don't have a system that makes up for that lack of talent. You would think, then, that NU and Collins would try to do something to gain an advantage on the offensive end. There are two very common ways to do this:
- Play aggressive defense. Steals and blocks can get a team out in transition and help it find easier shots at the rim.
- Hit the offensive boards. Offensive rebounds get you shots at the rim.
And more importantly, in addition to getting easier shots, those two things get you more shots -- extra shots, if you will. That can enable a subpar shooting team (which is exactly what Northwestern is) to win games even when it shoots a lower percentage than its opponent. But NU doesn't do either of those things. The Wildcats rank very near the bottom in the country in steal percentage, and rarely send guys to the offensive boards. NU only forced 3 Illini turnovers Wednesday, none of which were live-ball turnovers. That's astounding. It's also why Illinois got 10 more field goal attempts than NU and was able to win the game despite shooting a lower percentage.
2. Northwestern's defense has regressed significantly
Northwestern ranked 14th in the entire country last year in adjusted defensive efficiency. But if you watch this team play, you'd have no idea. As mentioned above, NU's defense was never disruptive from a steals standpoint, but it was disruptive from a "throw opponents out of sync" perspective. This year it isn't though. Illinois looked comfortable all game on Wednesday.
One big problem has been going under screens and not closing out on shooters well enough. Northwestern's defense under Collins has always been designed to cut off lanes to the basket and allow three-pointers. But last year, many of those three-pointers were contested. This year, not as many are. Opponents are also just shooting better, part of which isn't NU's fault.
Another big difference between this year and last year is that last year, Northwestern's best offensive players (Drew Crawford, JerShon Cobb, Alex Olah) were also its best defensive players. But this year, Crawford is gone and Cobb is hampered by injuries, making him a much less effective defender. So when choosing the five on the floor, Collins almost has to decide between offense and defense.
3. Give some credit to Illinois
The Illini were really good on offense. Kendrick Nunn and Aaron Cosby came out on fire, and together shot 8-15 from beyond the arc. Northwestern had no answer for the duo. And down the stretch, when Northwestern tried to come storming back, Illinois remained composed and saw out the game. Nunn hit four extremely clutch free throws in the game's final 7 seconds. Also, credit John Groce for having his players foul up 3 points with 4 seconds remaining. It worked.
4. Olah isn't perfect -- far from it -- but he's this team's best and most important player
Getting frustrated with Alex Olah's play is perfectly understandable. But at the end of the day, Northwestern is so much better when he is a factor. He's also so much better when NU force-feeds him, even if he's not having his best game. He missed some simple shots around the basket Wednesday, but was still NU's most effective offensive option by far. And when he does offer that option, NU's offense is markedly better.
Oh, and he had a three-pointer that rimmed around and out with about a minute left that would've brought the house down.
5. This game was fun...
As it should be. Northwestern vs. Illinois in basketball hasn't really developed into a rivalry because NU frankly hasn't been good enough. But if the games continue to be back-and-forth affairs like Wednesday's game, and if both teams can establish themselves at least in the middle of the conference, this could become somewhat of a rivalry.