Before Saturday's loss to Purdue, Northwestern had lost its last three games--to Michigan, Ohio State and Maryland--by a total of five points. In each of those games, the Wildcats controlled play for a significant portion of the time, and were right there at the end.
Saturday was a different story. It was a an entirely different and far more concerning story. Against Purdue, Northwestern barely led and never really had a legitimate chance to win. NU took a one-point, 29-28 lead into the halftime break but let it slip away quickly in the second half, allowing Purdue to score 21 of the first 25 points after the intermission. The Wildcats would eventually fall 68-60.
It was that stretch of the game, just about six minutes in length to open the second half, that Chris Collins said was the most frustrating during his postgame press conference.
"I actually thought we got off to a good start, got to the locker room with the lead," Collins said. "I think the game was lost in the first six minutes of the second half. We were well prepared but we still had that stretch in which the game got away from us."
Northwestern played pretty well in the first half, as Collins mentioned. However, the Wildcats let up once they hit the second half. In their other close conference games, the second half was where NU shined.
Against Michigan, the Wildcats went down by as much as 14 points in the first half only to fight back for the halftime lead. Then they found themselves down a few buckets as regulation came to a close and were just a Bryant McIntosh layup from overtime.
Against Ohio State, NU almost came back from an 11-point second half deficit. In College Park, Collins' team was resilient, and repeatedly responded to Maryland runs, only to fade away late.
In all of these games, Northwestern was the more physical team, the team pushing the action the most. That's what this team--with its host of freshman and lack of talent--has to do in order to beat Big Ten foes. It did not do that tonight.
"They played really aggressively tonight," guard Tre Demps (18 points on 6-18 shooting) said about Purdue's suffocating defense. "Everything was hard to catch. A lot of teams we’ve played in the past kind of lay back on defense. They were playing us really physical which disrupted our offensive flow."
The sentiment was shared by Purdue coach Matt Painter, who partly attributed his team's win to its ability to feed big man A.J. Hammons (16 points and 9 rebounds). Hammons dominated Alex Olah (4 points, 1 rebound) down low and used his size and physicality to overpower NU's center.
"We try to get the ball inside no matter who we go against," Painter said, referring to how Olah was a key reason NU was 2-0 against Purdue last season. "We’ve had a tough time against Olah in the past but tonight we were able to get the best of him."
Olah fouled out with 3:15 left in the second half and was a major non-factor in this game. Even when he was on the court--outside of a few nice defensive plays in the first half--Olah didn't really do much. As one of NU's best players, he needs to step up when other guys can't get much going on offense.
Northwestern only had two scorers in double digits (McIntosh and Demps) with no other player scoring more than six. On the other hand, the Boilermakers had four players in double figures. Since McIntosh and Demps were the only ones scoring for NU, Purdue was able to lock them down late in the game and speed away with the win.
Collins praised Purdue and big men Hammons and Isaac Haas for their play, and credited them with changing the scope of this game. Haas, a freshman, played just 11 minutes but was able to get to the line with ease (10 points on 6-8 FTs).
"They’ve done a great job [with Hammonds and Hass]," Collins said. "They create a lot of foul opportunities with their physicality. Those two guys are really a load to play against."
In that statement, you can sense why Collins must be so upset after a loss like this. His main big man, Olah, was dominated by a pair of centers that arguably aren't as talented as the junior but seem to play with more aggressiveness.
For that matter, no one on Northwestern played as physically as Hammons and Haas. Physicality was ever-important when NU almost beat Michigan and Maryland on the road and Ohio State at home. On those days, Northwestern was arguably the better team and possibly deserved to win.
But Saturday, you couldn't make a similar argument. Saturday, that physicality and that aggressiveness were absent. And without it, this team isn't good enough, at least right now, to beat teams with superior talent. That's as clear as day.